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It can't be any more unusual

From sickly kid to scandalous stage dynamo to self-aware revivalist, old swivel hips is Sir Thomas Jones now -- but you can still call him Tom.

September 17, 2006|Geoff Boucher

THE boy seemed destined to work in the dark. The son of a miner, he grew up in the 1940s under the bleak umbrella skies of South Wales in the village of Treforest, where local life was as hard as the coal and iron that sustained it. Thomas Jones Woodward was expected to join the other men in the mines, but tuberculosis changed that. He was bedridden for two years and then sent off to church with the girls to learn to sing.

He not only learned about singing, he learned about girls.

It was an unusual beginning for the boy who would grow up to be singer Tom Jones, a man more interesting on closer inspection than his cartoonish popular image as some singing gigolo in tight pants. He's gotten more respect from peers and younger artists than from critics (note his close friendship with the late Elvis Presley and, in recent years, his collaborations with Wyclef Jean, Tori Amos, Portishead and Trevor Horn). And while he is a regular on the Las Vegas circuit, he's shown a willingness to take risks that set him apart from Wayne Newton, Robert Goulet and other frozen-in-time fixtures on the Strip.

So now, at 66, Jones finds himself both hailed and dismissed, depending on who's around. On stage, his greatest challenge is finding the appropriate swivel for a sex symbol approaching the age when many other folks are contemplating hip replacements. To his credit, he does it with a sly smile. He has spoofed himself in "The Simpsons" and the Tim Burton film "Mars Attacks!" and knows the crowds he plays to now often sing along with a wink that wasn't there in the 1960s, when Jones was portrayed as a libidinous scandal as a club performer in London.

"That man, they called me," Jones said with a mock expression of finger-wagging outrage. "In 1964 I was playing at Beat City, a club on Oxford Street, and the Rolling Stones were playing too. They were catching on with the kids and they had been booked in this R&B club, so it was full of all these girls, maybe 14 and 15. I remember it was so hot. The paint was peeling off the roof. I just hit the stage. I burst out there. And the expressions on these girl's faces -- I'm singing and thinking in my head, 'Don't worry, I won't hurt you.' "

Jagger and the Stones came out with their own brand of leer, but according to Jones, that didn't seem to scare young London or their parents as much as his leather-clad, sex panther approach. "Jagger looked effeminate and moved in an effeminate way. And the Beatles, they were boyish, with their lank hair and songs that were not aggressive. Mild. I was singing R&B and 1950s rock, intense like Jerry Lee Lewis, and putting my body into it. The reaction I got was: 'This man is dangerous!' "

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Growing up Jones

EARLIER this year, Treforest's most famous son was summoned to Buckingham Palace to be knighted. It was a moment in the sun for the coal miner's son, to be sure, but Jones also has not had a Top 40 hit on the U.S. charts since 1988 and only two since 1971. That means he sometimes gets second billing even in his own house -- he bought his Tudor-style mansion in Bel-Air in 1974 from Dean Martin, but is still hearing about the former owner.

"People say it all the time, they call it 'Dean Martin's house,' " he said with a bit of exasperation. "I've been there for years. I guess the only time the house is going to belong to me is when I sell it."

On a recent afternoon Jones dropped by Vibrato, a stylish jazz and supper club owned by Herb Alpert in Bel-Air. A few heads turned to check out the famous visitor. He arrived in a freshly pressed striped shirt that he wore untucked, a look that made his shoulders seem especially broad. He wore a thick gold necklace and some rings. His hair and beard are dyed to a deep ebony that, along with his California tan, bring attention to his pale blue eyes.

Jones has had surgery to keep his face taut (he has been quoted in the British press, in fact, saying that his doctor has cautioned him against further work) but his physique remains a marvel. At his Hollywood Bowl show this summer, he raised his silk shirt at one point and flashed his stomach; the crowd of course went wild, just as they did back at the clubs of London in the 1960s. There are some differences now. Boxer shorts are among the undergarments thrown on stage, for one thing, and it's hard to imagine that 40 years ago the manly Jones would have greeted that delivery with a shrug and a smile as he does now.

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