The snake hips have gone, but the charm is all intact. ‘Just call me Tom,’ he laughs down the phone as I fumble with his title. This, after all, is the original Mr Jones: celebrated lothario, knight of the realm, Hollywood Walk of Famer… He’s clocked up more Vegas appearances than Sinatra, talked fitness tips with Elvis and been the target of untold items of flying underwear. Why, then, does it feel like I’m chatting with some jovial old timer in a pub at the back end of Cardiff?
A friend’s father, also from Pontypridd, remembers you as a bit of a rocker. Any truth in that?
Oh, yeah! In the ’50s – teddy boys and all that, you know. We were listening to rock’n’roll music. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard: that was the kind of music I was doing in the pubs and the clubs. As far as the ballads were concerned, they were rock ballads of the day, you know: Roy Orbison, that kind of thing.
Did you have a favourite torch song?
‘I Believe’, the Frankie Laine song. That was big in Wales, so I used to sing that. When I first took the band into the clubs, the people had never seen a rock band before. When they first saw the guitars coming, they said, ‘We don’t want this.’ So I’d do big ballads and then sling ‘Great Balls of Fire’ in there when they weren’t looking. That’s the way I was getting it across then.
Did you see that the BBC published your old employment records recently? One entry reads, ‘He has been talking about “going professional” since April but he is still signing the UR [unemployment register] and not autograph books.’
Yeah! (Laughs) I didn’t know they were writing all that s**t down! It was a strange thing, but there’s truth in it. They were offering me shift work and I said I’d rather not have it because I was singing in the clubs and trying to get a record contract. They were very good, though. They were paying me. I was signing on twice a week and doing gigs at night.
You were a father already, weren’t you?
Yeah. I was a father at not quite 17. I got married at 16. My son was born in April and I got married in June. That was 1957.
So there must have been unbelievable pressure on you to make it.
I didn’t know any other way. I think it gave me more drive. I wanted to become successful for not only myself, but for my wife and my son. I wanted to be successful so that they would have a better life, so I think that drove me on rather than held me back.
Did ‘It’s Not Unusual’ suggest itself to you as an immediate hit?
Oh, right away. My manager, Gordon Mills, was writing songs for Leeds Music, and I would record a lot of the demos to make some extra cash. I think I was getting five pounds a demo (laughs). One day he came to me and said, ‘I’ve got this song that I’m writing, and if we get a good demo we can present it to Sandie Shaw.’ Well [Sandie] had had two or three number ones at the time, so I said okay. He sang it to me in the car as we were going to the recording studio and I thought: Yeah, I get that. We went in with my band and recorded it, and I said, ‘Gordon, I have to have this song.’ And he said, ‘Nah, it’s a pop song.’ He thought of me more as a ’50s rocker. I said, ‘I’m telling you, this sounds like a hit song to me.’ Thank God it was Sandie they gave the song to because she said, ‘Whoever’s singing this demo – it’s his song. I wouldn’t be able to sing it like that.’ So that was it. That was the beginning of it for me.
And you’ve sung it every night of your life ever since…
Exactly! That one is always in. No doubt.
Don’t you get tired of it?
No. I really like the song, and it’s a test. It’s not easy to sing. You can’t just glide through it; you’ve got to sing it because of the range of the thing. Same with ‘Delilah’. I like doing them to prove that I still can.
How do you look after the voice?
I’ve learnt not to get dehydrated. I remember in the ’60s, I was in Berlin and I lost my voice. I didn’t know much about humidity then, and this throat specialist said, ‘You come from Britain, and you don’t know about humidity because the air never gets dry there.’ In Berlin the humidity drops to about six per cent. Singers need about 60 per cent. I found the same problem when I went to Las Vegas.
Do you remember those early Vegas days very clearly?
Well, I went to have a look at it in ’65, when I first went to America. I saw Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin… In London we had a club called Talk of the Town, and it was like there were six Talk of the Towns here in one town! They offered me a contract in ’68, and I’ve played there every year since then. I think I’m the longest running performer there. I don’t think Frank Sinatra even played there that long.
And that’s where you met Elvis?
No, I met him in Hollywood at Paramount Studios in ’65, and he came to see me at the Flamingo in Vegas in ’68 to see what I was all about. He wanted to make a comeback; he wanted to play Vegas. So he came and watched me work, and he said it gave him confidence. Singing that kind of music in Vegas successfully – he’d tried it in the ’50s and it didn’t work for him then. So we’d be working there at the same time – he’d be at the Hilton and I’d be at Caesar’s Palace. We used to get together after the shows.
Did you ever see Elvis turn down a cheeseburger?
Er, no. He used to like a pizza as well. He used to keep the pizza under his bed.
Did he have a favourite topping?
I don’t know. I never checked. But we’d be up late, singing gospel songs, and he’d say [slips into a bad Elvis impersonation], ‘Do you like pizza?’ And I’d say [in an emphasised Welsh valleys accent], ‘Yeah, I don’t mind it, but I don’t want one right now. I’ve already eaten.’ And he’d say, ‘Well I always keep a few handy.’ He had it under the bed, I remember, just in case. But he used to laugh about it, you know? He wasn’t a secret eater. He was always ordering stuff up from room service. But he made fun of it. When he started getting a gut on him, I remember he had this exercise bike in the suite. He said to me, ‘Do you exercise, Tom?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ He said, ‘So do I.’ This bike was an electric bike that would move by itself. He used to sit there eating devilled eggs and laughing. He was having fun with it, but it backfired on him in the end.
The late ’70s/early ’80s were a lean time for you…
What I achieved in the ’60s and early ’70s carried me through. I was playing the arenas into the ’80s, so I wasn’t aware that my recording career was slipping because the shows were so big. It started to show a bit in the ’80s, and I started to play smaller places. I recorded a ballad called ‘A Boy From Nowhere’, so it started to happen for me again in ’87. Then I recorded [the Prince classic] ‘Kiss’ with the Art of Noise in ’88 and I was back on Top 40 radio, so I started playing bigger places again.
That almost inhuman opening note in your 1994 hit, ‘If I Only Knew’ – is that physically possible?
Oh, I can do it! When I recorded it, Trevor Horn (the producer) apologised to me because he stretched the note [digitally]. He said, ‘I’m sorry about that, Tom. You’ve got to go and do that on stage now.’ But we slam some echo on it and… well, it’s still effective, anyway.
It’s been reported that you’re thinking of packing up in America and heading home. Have you done that yet?
No. I was slightly misquoted. I said, ‘Well, it’s always a possibility’. They put that I was moving back there last year, which wasn’t true, of course.
Can you imagine life back in Trefforest?
Well, I wouldn’t be able to live right there. I did keep a place back in Wales, in the Vale of Glamorgan, but not right in Pontypridd. I wouldn’t be able to have any privacy at all. But, you know, Wales is a possibility. I could get a place there.
Do you ever worry that you might be remembered as a walking knicker magnet?
I wouldn’t like that. If they want to talk about [the years when women showered his stage with underwear], you can’t stop that really because it happened. I would like to think the reason that it did happen is because of what I was doing on stage – because of my voice; because the songs I was singing were getting people excited. Over the years my shows have been reviewed not on how good I’m singing or what songs I’m doing, but how many pairs of underwear are up there. You know, ‘Tom must be slipping now because he only had 20 pairs of knickers where there used to be 500 pairs.’ It’s immaterial, really. What I’m putting out – that’s the main question.
Originally published on Time Out Abu Dhabi in 2009.