On April 23, legendary singer Sir Tom Jones is releasing Surrounded By Time—his 42nd studio album. Even though this is such a familiar process for him by now, he’s still enthusiastic about it: “I’ve always gotten excited when an album is coming out,” he tells American Songwriter during a call from his London home. “Then you get the feedback from the people. If it’s critically acclaimed, you think, ‘Well, that’s great!’ But at the end of the day, it’s ‘What do the public think?’”
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It’s been a while since the public got new material from Jones—his last album, Long Lost Suitcase, out in 2015, so this has been a relatively long gap, given his usual prolific output. This delay, Jones says, happened because “My wife passed away five years ago, so I wasn’t in any mood to record, and it’s been like that for a while.”
By 2019, when Jones felt ready to record again, his life experiences had a significant impact on Surrounded By Time. On this album, he covers a diverse array of artists such as Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, and The Waterboys, but he says he made each song his own: “I get inside it. I listen to the lyrics and I get into it and I am that person in the song,” he says. “All those things I’ve mentioned in the songs, I’ve lived through. So basically, this album is about my life. It’s songs that have affected me at different times of my life.”
Jones singles out the poignant ballad “I’m Growing Old” (by Bobby Cole) as an example of his approach this time: “I’ve held this bloody thing since I was about 33 years old,” he says with a laugh. “Now I’m old enough to do it. The person in the song, his wife has passed on, and that wasn’t the case, of course, in my thirties. So now things have happened.”
Surrounded By Time is also a particularly personal album for Jones because it’s the only one he’s ever recorded in Wales, where he was born and raised. “I thought, what a great idea to record in Wales for the first time,” he says. This didn’t happen sooner, he adds, because music-related businesses only appeared there relatively recently. “When I was growing up, there were no recording studios in Wales. There was nothing like that locally in a lot of places, not only Wales. So everybody had to go to London, you see. That’s why the Beatles came down from Liverpool. Van Morrison came over from Ireland. We all went to London in order to get a record contract. So that’s why I never recorded in Wales.”
Wales may not have had recording studios or record labels when Jones was starting his career, but he says that it was the perfect place for him to begin perfecting his singing and performing skills when he was in elementary school.
“On Friday afternoons, when the teacher was getting the register together, she used to say to me, ‘Tommy, put a concert on,’” Jones says, “so I was like a Master of Ceremonies—I would run these little shows and I would get the kids up to tell a joke or sing a song, poetry, whatever they could do.” Soon, though, he realized that his classmates preferred it when he did solo shows. His teacher didn’t mind. “She said, ‘Well, all the kids are happy, that’s the main thing. I’ve got all this work to do. So if you need to sing the whole thing, then do that.’ So it was great.”
Jones enjoyed singing so much, he says, “Because it was the most natural thing that I’ve ever done. I’m dyslexic, you see, so I always had a problem spelling. I can read, no problem. But I try to write it and I’m stuck. So I always had this disability, I thought. They hadn’t diagnosed it, really, when I was a kid. So singing, to me, was a great release because it made me very popular in school.”
As he got older, Jones found another source of inspiration: “I was a teenager in the ‘50s and rock and roll hit me hard. “Rock Around the Clock” came out—Bill Haley & the Comets were in a movie called The Blackboard Jungle, and I saw that and I heard that song and I thought, ‘Jesus Christ!’ This was like, wow,” he says.
Jones moved to London, where he soon established himself as a powerful singer and mesmerizing performer. He released his debut album, Along Came Jones, in 1965. For the rest of that decade on into the 1970s, he was one of the most popular singers in the world thanks to hit singles such as “It’s Not Unusual,” “What’s New Pussycat?,” “Delilah,” “She’s a Lady” and many more. He has gone on to become so revered for his musical contributions that Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 2006.
Jones has some theories about why he has been able to carve out such a long and successful career despite ever-shifting musical trends. “The real singers will come through,” he says, “and that’s what I feel that I am. I’m adaptable. I like all different styles of music. And thank God, my voice is not only powerful, but it’s very flexible.” This is still the case, he says, because “I take better care of myself now than I did when I was in my twenties.”
Most of all, though, Jones says he has continued to sing simply because he loves it. “I’ll sing at the drop of a hat,” he says. “Before lockdown, at parties, I’d get up and sing. And people would say, ‘Wow, a lot of singers won’t sing unless they pay them.’ But as long as there’s a good piano player there, I’ll jump up and give you a few tunes.”
Now eighty years old, Jones is still refusing to slow down: besides releasing Surrounded By Time, he’s also a coach on The Voice U.K. (which he’s done throughout the current COVID-29 pandemic). Next up, he’ll do a string of shows across the U.K. in July. “I can’t wait to get up there and find out which [new] songs go over strongest with the audience,” he says. “That’s going to be the test. Recording is one thing, but doing them live, that’s when you get the feedback.”
And after that, Jones undoubtedly will come up with even more songs to share with the world. “There’s music running through my brain constantly,” he says. “People say to me, ‘Isn’t show business hard work?’ I say, ‘I haven’t worked since 1962.’ Singing, to me is not work.”
Photo by Rick Guest