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Keeping up with Tom Jones

Keeping up with Tom Jones — We talk to the swinging ’60s entertainer who’s suddenly hip all over again

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The true Tom Jones fan knows this: You can take the man out of the tight pants, but you can’t take the tight pants out of the man. At 52, the Welsh grandfather prefers Miami Vice-like jackets and crew-neck shirts to unbuttoned-to-there Qiana. But he can still belt out a rendition of his 1965 hit ”It’s Not Unusual” to dampen the palms. And of late, those moist hands are manifesting themselves in a whole new generation. The Jones Revival, fueled by his covers of Prince’s ”Kiss,” EMF’s ”Unbelievable,” and the Beatles’ ”Come Together,” is now approaching the crescendo stage. In the past few months, Mr. Retro-Cool has appeared on Leno’s and Letterman’s shows, done gigs on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Simpsons (Marge thinks he’s a dreamboat), and performed with Sting in a March 2 rain-forest benefit at Carnegie Hall in a set that stole the show. And on Feb. 21 he hit the air with his own show on the cable music channel VH-1: The Right Time, a six-part musical tour through the evolution of pop music. Once again, Tom Jones is hot, hot, hot. So we visited with the pussycat to find out why, why, why.

A few years ago you put out a memo to your fan clubs saying, ”Hey, cool it with the undies.” What do you do with the stuff your fans throw on stage? I used to encourage it. If somebody threw some underwear on stage, I would pick it up, wipe my brow, ”’ello, ‘ello, da-da-da,” you know, do a whole thing using it as a prop. But that backfired. Now, I don’t take advantage of it. Wherever it lands, that’s where it stays. Except for toys. Because I have two grandchildren, you know.

What’s the kinkiest offering ever tossed your way? One time a woman threw a sequined jockstrap, because that year I was wearing sequined jackets. So I picked it up and said, ”Well, this is next year’s wardrobe.”

Is it difficult to work in tight pants? Not really. I grew up in the ’50s wearing tight pants. When the teddy boy look came out, the trousers were tight, the shoes were big, crepe-soled shoes, (we wore) long jackets, skinny ties, long hair.

Do you pack your pants? No.

Do you still do those hunnhh-hunnhh sexy moves? If the songs are sexy, they should be performed that way. But I wouldn’t do some moves that I did 30 years ago, because they’re old-fashioned.

It’s hip all over again to dig Mr. Jones. Leno, Letterman, and Sting do. Who else has been paying homage? Jason Priestley. He called me up the other night and asked me to do a Beverly Hills, 90210, then sent a script around, which I haven’t had a chance to look at yet. I’d love to do it when I get the time.

Did you ever hear a song and say, ”That’s it, that’s my big hit”? Yeah, the first one, ”It’s Not Unusual.” (My manager) Gordon Mills wrote it for a girl singer in England called Sandie Shaw. He was looking for more of a rock & roll song for me because that’s what I was doing: I wore leather jackets and jeans, and I had greasy hair, like someone from West Side Story. Anyway, I did the demo. When I heard it played back, I said, ”This is it. This is definitely it.” He said, ”No, this is not for you, this is Sandie Shaw’s song.” I said, ”I don’t care who it’s supposed to be for, I want this song. If I don’t record this song, I’m going back to Wales.” They said, ”Well, we’ve got to submit the song to Sandie Shaw, we’ve been commissioned. But we won’t push it.” They took the song to Sandie Shaw’s manager and she said, ”All right, when we get time we’ll listen to it.” I don’t know if Sandie Shaw ever did hear it. Because we went into the studio and recorded it properly and put it out.