Tom Jones - The Life by Sean Smith

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Tom Jones - The Life by Sean Smith

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An objective, comprehensive biography of the singer from South Wales who became one of the most popular vocalists of the modern musical age
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 312 Date: March 2015
Publisher: Harper Collins
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780008104450

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Few singers have sustained a career over half a century and appealed to succeeding generations in the way that the former Thomas John Woodward of Treforest has managed to do. Almost written off during a lean period or two, he proved himself the master of re-invention, and now in his mid-70s he is loved and revered as something of a national treasure.

Sean Smith has charted the remarkable life and career very effectively in this volume. It is indeed more or less a ‘rags to riches’ tale, of a boy growing up in a small Welsh mining village or, to borrow a title from one of his most successful singles, ‘A Boy From Nowhere’. His early years were happy enough, apart from being briefly blighted by tuberculosis during his adolescence, which had the advantage of interrupting his never very congenial schooldays. Marriage at the age of sixteen out of necessity, and the speedy birth of son Mark to his wife Linda, followed very soon afterwards.

A recurring theme throughout the book is that Tom has been exceptionally fortunate in that Linda has been the forgiving type, prepared to put up with his numerous and rather too public infidelities over the years. One is reminded of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and the latter’s quiet acceptance of the realisation that ‘after all, he loved me the best’. There was also a neat symmetry in the fact that after Tom went out of fashion and was regarded as something of a has-been in the early 1980s, his original manager Gordon Mills died and Mark took over the reins. His career soon returned to its former glory, and he is one of the very few names who is still as popular well into the twenty-first century as he was during the swinging sixties.

However, much of this is jumping ahead a little. The early sixties saw him as the front man of local group The Senators, before it became apparent that a solo career beckoned. Even at that stage, the voice was a remarkable instrument to be reckoned with, as the first few hit records showed. One moment Tom would be bringing the house down wherever he played with a powerful ‘Great Balls Of Fire’, the next he would be moving his audience to tears with big ballads. From the moment when ‘It’s Not Unusual’ captured the nation and became his first hit and first No. 1, he rarely looked back.

Hit after hit followed, as did the round of BBC television series, success in America, seasons at Las Vegas, friendships with Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, the occasional ventures into film territory, and above all an astute choice of recording material which embraced rock’n’roll, big ballads, a James Bond theme, and later country music. He was also one of the very few artists who began to write or co-write songs himself after many years of relying on material supplied to him by others. Smith does not gloss over the occasional negative issues, not just the affairs, but also the resentment of musicians who worked with and supported him during the lean early days and later felt unfairly thrown by the wayside. Sadly such casualties are generally par for the course in the competitive world of showbiz.

I was already familiar with the early part of the story. So I therefore found the later chapters particularly illuminating, with their descriptions of how he and Mark relaunched his career with one astute move after another. The collaborations with such names from the younger generation as The Art of Noise, The Stereophonics and Jools Holland, and appearances at the Glastonbury festival, continued the born-again success story. He turned in one of the few really remarkable performances at the Queen’s diamond jubilee concert, easily outshining some of his contemporaries on the bill whose appearances proved that they were long past their best. Later he was introduced to a new generation through his appearances on as a coach on BBC TV’s ‘The Voice’.

Above all, there was a remarkable spat with Island Records, which signed him in 2010 and were expecting him to provide him with another funky pop album. When one of the top management heard what he called ‘a collection of hymns’, he disparaged it as ‘a sick joke’, and threatened to ask for his money back. The album in question, the blues-and gospel-flavoured ‘Praise and Blame’, was a heartfelt return to Tom’s spiritual roots. It was released anyway - to some of the best reviews and sales yet of his career and narrowly missed topping the album charts. Sometimes the artist does know better than the record company suits with cigars.

I was left with the impression of a remarkable talent who has had his share of luck, and at the same time a commitment to hard work, a character whose lengthy career in a notoriously fickle business has been well-deserved. The last chapter inevitably broaches the question of when the man will retire, but on his present reckoning, the time has not yet arrived.

Smith has talked to several people who knew Tom well as a person, and the result is a solidly-researched portrait that brings the character to life very well. Anybody who is familiar with his work on record will feel that they know the man, or the voice, even better after reading this book.

For further reading, may we recommend studies of two of his contemporaries, Elvis Has Left the Building: The Day the King Died by Dylan Jones, and another very successful British vocalist, Matt Monro: The Singer's Singer by Michele Monro

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