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Tom Jones At 68: Still Doing His Thing And Singing His Song

12/23/2008 06:27 pm 18:27:37 | Updated May 25, 2011

I love Tom Jones, probably more than any heterosexual male has a right to. Sure, I love his overblown '60s hits, his too-tight pants, his unbuttoned shirts and medallions and the impish grin that's caused countless panties and hotel room keys to be flung onstage wherever he's appeared for the last four decades and change.

But what I really love about Tom Jones is his ability, and his willingness, to sing just about any song in any genre. In his '60s and early '70s heyday, he'd do everything from "Cabaret" to "Soul Man" to "Ring Of Fire," often on the same album. In recent years, his repertoire has included Yaz's "Situation," the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life," and Leadbelly's "Black Betty," to name just a few.

And he doesn't just sing these songs, he beats them to a bloody pulp. You see, Tom Jones' voice is not a subtle thing. You want delicate crooning, go elsewhere. But when you're dealing with a set of pipes as powerful as Mr. Jones', why go for subtlety? He barrels over any song in his path with that huge, colossal instrument of his, using his trademark mixture of soulful fervor, showbizzy schmaltz, sexual bravado and operatic hysteria.

Because Tom Jones' tastes are so eclectic and wide-ranging, his records are wildly divergent, hit-and-miss affairs. In this decade, he's recorded a godawful hip-hop-ish album with Wyclef Jean and a nifty swingin' rock and jump blues album with pianist/bandleader Jools Holland. Neither record saw release in the States, even though Jones plays regularly to packed houses in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and remains a huge star in Europe.

In fact, 24 Hours, released last month, is the first Tom Jones album to make it into stores Stateside in almost 15 years. This time around, he's decided to recreate, for the most part, the style of his classic '60s hits, with retro-modern production reminiscent of Mark Ronson's work on Amy Winehouse's records. As usual, the results are inconsistent. But the high points are some of the best music he's made in years, and at age 68, his voice is still, shockingly, the force of nature it was 40 years ago.

The opener, "I'm Alive," is a dynamic, declarative track that shows TJ can still outsing any S.O.B. on the charts, and quite possibly the entire planet. "I'm a man!" he bellows. "And I'm red and yellow and black and tan, I'm a man!" I'm not really sure what that means, but the next line -- "I'm alive! And I'm doin' my thing and singin' my song, I'm alive!" -- I can get behind a hundred percent. While there's nothing else quite as exciting on the album, there are plenty of other killer tunes that wouldn't sound out of place on a late '60s Tom Jones LP.

Entries in the "Really? Tom Jones did that?!" sweepstakes this album include "Sugar Daddy," a song he co-wrote with Bono; the funereal title track, a death row ballad worthy of Johnny Cash; and a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "The Hitter," a first-person tale of a boxer that Jones turns into a 6-minute-and-change soul epic. I think it's pretty hip not only that he's covering a songwriter of Springsteen's caliber, but that he's doing an obscure song from an obscure album (2004's Devils & Dust) -- it's not like he's doing "Born To Run" or "Dancing In The Dark" at the behest of his management for demographics' sake. The man's an artist, dammit.

Sadly, though, the words "Tom Jones" and "artist" are rarely mentioned in the same sentence. Tom's act has long overtaken his artistry in the public consciousness, and a career's worth of great music has been reduced to a few '60s pop hits with the visual accompaniment of swiveling hips and airborne women's underwear. And that's a shame. Do yourself a service by checking out this mighty titan of pop while he still walks the earth. Pick up a copy of 24 Hours and show Tom Jones the respect he so richly deserves.