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Sir Tom Jones goes Gospel

Tom Jones performing

Back in the late 1970’s, Bob Dylan shocked his fans when he began to take a serious interest in Christianity, which led to the 1979 release of his first gospel album, “Slow Train Coming.” He followed it up with “Saved, in which Dylan was awarded a Grammy for Best Male Vocalist for “Gotta Serve Somebody.” His third and last Gospel album came out in 1981 as “Shot of Love.”

Now another icon of the music world, Sir Tom Jones, the lad from Welsh town of Pontypridd, who is best known for his wild stage performances that sends the ladies wild, promises to shock his millions of fans around the world.

For weeks after his 70th birthday, the legendary singer is adding another page to his resume with his gospel-flavored album “Praise & Blame.”

“Interpreting songs by the likes of John Lee Hooker, the Staple Singers and Mahalia Jackson, he adopts a rootsy style that’s clearly close to his heart as well as his R&B roots,” writes By Paul Sexton for Billboard (www.billboard.com).

Sexton added, “The new album, whose tracks include Bob Dylan’s ‘What Good Am I?,’ the Hooker cover ‘Burning Hell’ and ‘You Don’t Knock,’ previously recorded by country star Don Gibson, is set for release July 27 in North America on Lost Highway, and a day earlier internationally on Island. The record launches Jones’ new worldwide deal with Universal Music.”

Sexton then talked about Jones’ friendship with Elvis Presley in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when both frequently headlined in rival “Sin City” (Las Vegas) casino ballrooms.

He said that the two singers would often get together after their respective shows, not to carouse, but to sing. And what they sang may come as a surprise to fans of both performers.

“Elvis was more into gospel music than anything else,” Jones said. “We used to hang in his suite at the Hilton and sing songs like ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’ Elvis loved it.”

Sexton added that gospel vocal legend Mahalia Jackson, who I once interviewed in London, as an early inspiration.

“I remember singing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ in school, and the teacher said: ‘Why are you singing this like a Negro spiritual?’ Jones recalled. “And I said: ‘I don’t even know what that is.’

“I was very young, but they got the whole school together and I sang ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’”

In another story, Laura Barton of The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk) spoke of her recent interview with Jones in London.

“Jones has made a career out of the unexpected,” she said. “In the 1960s, when the charts were filled with group singers, pop bands and Beatles wannabes with bright, sweet voices, he sang solo, belting out hits such as ‘Delilah’ and ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ He conquered America and recast himself as a country singer before he succeeded in reviving his chart career in the late 1980s with a cover of the Prince song ‘Kiss.’ Later came duets with Cerys Matthews, Mousse T and Robbie Williams, albums recorded with Wyclef Jean and Jools Holland, Brit awards and charity singles with Rob Brydon.

“This year, he performs another volte-face, returning with what may well prove the finest recording of his career. ‘Praise & Blame’ is a collection of blues numbers and spirituals, Bob Dylan and John Lee Hooker songs, material that showcase Jones’s remarkable voice; pared back and unadorned, it carries the weight and the ruminative quality of late Johnny Cash’s final recordings.”

Laura Barton said that it began as a Christmas album. Island Records asked Jones to record “some carols, or something religious for Christmas.”

Jones told her that he was not “averse to the idea,” but was in “no rush to hurry it through in time to be placed under the tree.”

The singer told her, “We said, ‘If we’re going to do this, why don’t we take a bit of time and get it done right?’” he explained. “And it was suggested, thank God, that we approach the producer Ethan Johns.”

Barton said that Johns is famed for his “raw, organic approach to recording,” and for being the son of an even more famous producer, Glyn Johns.

“I’d heard of him,” Jones says. “I knew who his father was. And he said, ‘I like it to be real, we pick the songs, get in the studio, get in there with a rhythm section and try them out.’ And I said, ‘Well, that sounds good to me.’”

Barton went on to say that they started with two songs, “Did Trouble Me” and the gospel number “Run On.” It was, she added, while recording the latter that the direction revealed itself.

“Suddenly it happened,” Jones says, “it caught fire.” After that, the path seemed obvious. “We thought, ‘Let’s look for some spiritual things, uplifting things, things that mean something.’ He says it almost tenderly.

“And they have to be strong when you’ve only got a rhythm section, they have to speak for themselves, really. And so we got to the recording studio and said, “Well, how do we treat this?’ Song by song.”

For Jones, Baron continued, it was in many ways a return to the beginning. He grew up the son of a miner in Pontypridd, in south Wales, “where music was a very big thing, especially singing. I don’t know whether it was because you didn’t have to have an instrument – because you’ve already got it, it’s built in. And it’s expressive – I think the voice is more expressive than anything else. So coming from that area, I was encouraged to sing as a child.”

They sang everywhere, Sir Tom said, at birthday parties, at weddings and at funerals.

“There’s one in Wales that we do called ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’” he says a little mistily. “It’s sung at all funerals. And I wanted to get it on here, on this album, an a cappella version, but it didn’t fit.” At school, they tried to make him sing in the choir. “But I used to shy away from it,” he says.

“I didn’t like to be restricted, because when you’re in a choir, you have a part to sing and you sing it. I always liked singing on my own. Even when I was carol singing door-to-door, I would go by myself. If I went with the boys, they would always mess it up because we’re all loud; in Wales, we do sing loud, even if they’re out of tune.”

Barton said that by his own estimation, he “didn’t shine much” in music class. “Because they wanted you to sing in a certain way,” he explains. “But then on a Friday afternoon in the junior school, we had little concerts. So I’d get up and sing – just songs of the day … ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ was a big song when I was a kid, Vaughn Monroe did it, and Frankie Laine, a bunch of people did it. But again it was one of those songs – cowboy, country, gospelly.”

He sang in church, too, of course, a Presbyterian chapel where he was always late for the service and the heavy sound of the organ put the fear of God into him.

“So these spiritual songs, the gospel songs on this album, that’s very natural to me,” he said. “It’s not like stepping into an area that I haven’t tried yet. I know what these songs are; it’s my cup of tea if you like. This is stuff that I listen to, that I’ve always liked.”

Even in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Barton said, when Jones began his music career in earnest, singing in the clubs and pubs with a cover band, he sang with just a rhythm section and drew on the old songs, the songs that stirred him.

“It was a cover band, you know?” he says. “And they were doing pop songs when I met them, they wanted to do more sort of Beatles songs and things that were happening then. But what I did was get them to do more 1950s rock’n’roll, which I loved. And I was reverting to gospelly stuff. I used to do ballads like ‘I Believe,’ which is a religious song.”

Barton said that on “Praise & Blame” his voice has “never sounded so sultry or so rich – but the themes are more autumnal, issues of choice and responsibility.”

She said that even the title, he’s quick to explain, is a reference to the life he has lived. “I’ve been praised throughout my career, and I’ve been blamed for things, too,” he says neatly.

She concluded by saying that “you sense that Jones himself is more than ready to move on: he’s more contemplative than one might expect, and there is a faint sadness to him too.

He talks of his wife’s emphysema, of realizing he himself is not invincible, of how singing a particular line in ‘Did Trouble Me’ catches him: “If I let things stand that shouldn’t be,” he sings it softly.

“I suppose the older I’ve got, the more I’ve thought it, about the fact that if you do an album, you’ve got to think, ‘Now, what is this album?’ Not just do a mish-mash of songs, like I used to do,” he said.

Sir Tom concluded the interview by referring to the hymns of his childhood, saying, “When I heard it, I thought, ‘This is me,’” he says softly, “‘This is my meat, this is where I come from.’”

Dan Wooding, Assist News Service

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