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From the Vaults

Shaped by a Manager's Imagination

November 10, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Arnold George Dorsey and Thomas Jones Woodward have had hugely successful pop careers, but we may have never heard of either if it weren't for Gordon Mills. He's the manager who rescued both singers from obscurity and gave them not only new names--Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones, respectively--but also seductive musical identities.

The Welshman had aspirations as a pop star himself, but he was smart enough in the early '60s to recognize that he could be more effective guiding the careers of others. Mills also saw that the future for him (and his acts) wasn't in the crowded field of rock 'n' roll, but in the void that had been left in the mainstream, adult pop world.

The key moment for Mills was in 1964, when he saw a group called Tommy Scott & the Senators in a club in Wales. Mills marveled at the lead singer's charisma and vocal power, and he talked him into leaving the group for a solo career.

Mills knew that image was a crucial element in the star-making process, so he wanted a more distinctive stage name than the one Thomas Jones Woodward had chosen for himself. Noticing the fascination at the time with the film "Tom Jones," Mills talked Woodward into using his first and middle name. He then co-wrote Tom Jones' first hit single, "It's Not Unusual."

With one career launched, Mills spotted another promising young singer, Dorsey. Mills again gave him a new name, this one borrowed from German opera composer Engelbert Humperdinck, and he steered Dorsey even further into mainstream pop territory.

Where Jones' trademark would be his earthy intensity (from exaggerated hip-shaking a la Elvis Presley to turbo-charged vocals), Humperdinck would be the gentle, ultra-romantic balladeer. Humperdinck's crooning style was especially effective on country music, and he broke into the Top 10 in the U.S. in 1967 with an old country hit, "Release Me (and Let Me Love Again)."

In keeping with his mainstream strategy, Mills dressed both singers in tuxedos and booked them into Las Vegas showrooms, where they were huge draws. Between them, they registered 17 Top 20 hits. Mills also helped both singers land their own TV musical variety shows.

For all their success, however neither Jones nor Humperdinck fared well with critics.

In "The Rolling Stone Album Guide," Jones' albums get mostly two and a half stars out of a possible five. "Tom Jones remains a phenomenon of pandering and a marketing triumph," declares the book's Paul Evans, indirectly praising Mills, who died of cancer in 1986.

Humperdinck fared even worse in the book, getting as many as two stars only for his greatest hits album. Evans writes, "Predictable orchestra arrangements add the veneer of 'class' to his records; a nice-guy persona and a buttery voice keep things smooth. This former idol is the kind of singer who makes Dean Martin seem interesting."

How do the recordings fare after all this time?

** 1/2 Tom Jones, "The Best of Tom Jones: The Millennium Collection," Polydor. One of Jones' heroes was Jerry Lee Lewis, and it's not that big a leap to imagine Lewis' following a career path vaguely similar to Jones' if the rock pioneer had donned a tuxedo and abandoned the piano after "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On." Both men had exaggerated, aggressive personas and over-the-top vocal tendencies.

Jones' vocals are so cartoonish in places--including such hits as "What's New Pussycat?" and "Delilah"--that it's hard not to laugh. Fortunately, Jones was in on the joke. He approached the music with a wink, which made him a disarming concert attraction.

It's always tempting to wonder just how good Jones might have been if he had stepped outside of his sexy image and showed a bit more vocal restraint. His reading of "Green, Green Grass of Home," a country music classic, is a sign of that artistic potential.

For the most part, Jones was merely a pop caricature. If you could capture his good-natured demeanor in a Broadway production, you might have a show to rival the fun of the ABBA-inspired hit London musical "Mamma Mia."

** Engelbert Humperdinck's "Ultimate Collection" Hip-0. Humperdinck first gained attention with lush, pop versions of country hits, including "There Goes My Everything" and "Am I That Easy to Forget" (both included here along with "Release Me"), and the material fit his gentle, understated style perfectly. But Mills quickly pushed the singer deeper into a grandiose pop world and supplied him with material that was often so weightless that the music became mush.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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