When you’ve released hit songs in six different decades and at least as many genres, pushy fans can come in every type, so it’s best to keep alert. Which might be why Tom Jones is a little quiet right now, standing in line in the crowded lobby of my office building waiting to sign in at the desk. Either that or he’s annoyed at having to show ID even though he’s sold more than 100 million albums and comes armed with a weapons-grade baritone that can still blow the doors off virtually any enclosed space, and therefore should probably be allowed to go freely wherever he wants, including New York’s headquarters. But rules are rules, so Jones — gray but looking younger than 75, in a black turtleneck and leather jacket — hands over his passport, shakes hands with a starstruck security guard, and heads upstairs.
On the elevator, Jones’s son and manager, Mark Woodward (he kept Tom’s original last name), stays vigilant, becoming a human shield as people enter and exit. Jones has already declined, through his publicist, my offer to buy him coffee at a café on the third floor that serves the whole building, including employees of the Department of Labor and Scientific American, among other dangerous elements you’d not want to come within panty-throwing distance of. So we get off on four.
Jones seems less than thrilled when I walk him into New York’s third-nicest conference room (the ones with windows had been booked) — “O-kay …” he sighs, taking a seat — but it’s an understandable reaction from someone who has a tendency to go underappreciated. Can you believe that he’s still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Neither can he. “Jann Wenner said, ‘Your name comes up every year, but we can’t get enough people to vote for you,’ ” says Jones. “I wonder why, especially since there are some people in there nowadays that wouldn’t know rock and roll if they fell over it.” He suggests that the big-band arrangements of his most popular hits helped reinforce his Vegas-headliner image. “It’s because ‘It’s Not Unusual’ had brass on it,” he says. “And then came ‘What’s New Pussycat?,’ which had everything on it.”
By comparison, there’s almost nothing on his most recent albums, a trilogy of covers collections produced by Ethan Johns in the vein of Johnny Cash’s work with Rick Rubin. The new one, Long Lost Suitcase, includes versions of Willie Nelson’s “Opportunity to Cry” and the Rolling Stones’ “Factory Girl” that feature only Jones’s voice and a discreet rhythm section. I ask if he had to hold anything back for fear of overwhelming the accompaniment. “Not at all,” he says. “It depends on how it’s mixed — you can make one guitar louder than me. And this was how I used to do it back in Wales, in clubs and pubs.” But he does admit to occasionally restraining himself in duets. On This Is Tom Jones, the ABC variety series he hosted from 1969 to 1971, he performed with Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, and Wilson Pickett. “Aretha Franklin was the only one” with whom he could let loose. “There was some volume on that woman.”
Suitcase was released concurrently with Over the Top and Back, Jones’s highly entertaining, somewhat revealing new memoir. Regrets, he’s had a few, including not having first crack at Paul Anka’s “My Way” (it would have been his if Frank Sinatra had said no); rejecting “The Long and Winding Road,” which Paul McCartney wrote for him (Jones already had his next single lined up); and not being able to release the R&B album he recorded for Interscope in 1996, which, Jones writes, includes “some of the best work, vocally, I have ever done” (“Jimmy Iovine thought it was ‘too authentic,’ ” he gripes to me).
Jones wrote the book in part to correct the errors in his own life story, which has been out of his hands since the press release for 1965’s “It’s Not Unusual” announced him as a single 22-year-old coal miner (he was 24 and married with a 7-year-old son and had escaped the mines by the grace of a childhood battle with TB). Later, he says, he was libeled by Anka, who alleged in his own memoir that in the early ’70s, Jones and his manager brought him to an underground London club where they watched a woman have sex with a sheep. In Over the Top and Back, Jones writes, “I don’t remember that … And how drunk would you have to be not to remember that?” — which isn’t quite a denial. “It never happened!” he tells me. “Anka made that up completely. He must have been on something.”
About those headlines last month: Jones says he has no plans to have his DNA tested for African roots. “A reporter said, ‘A lot of black people think you’re black,’ ” he says. “I said yes, singers especially — Otis Redding [heard my voice and] said, ‘He’s got to be black.’ So the reporter says, ‘Would you be opposed to a DNA test?’ I said no, and then it was, ‘Tom Jones Is Getting a DNA Test to Find Out If He’s Black.’ ” Even worse is when his family is brought into it: “This other fellow asked, ‘Does your wife travel with you?’ I said no, because she’s got emphysema, she feels that she’s lost her spark, and she feels she doesn’t look as good as she did. They said, ‘Tom Jones says his wife has lost her spark, she doesn’t look as good as she did, and she’s manically depressive.’ That’s what they printed! And the flak I got from women — they said, ‘Who wouldn’t be a manic depressive, married to this schmuck?’ ” Meanwhile, they’ve reached their 58th anniversary. Brian Wilson and Paris Hilton live on their block in Los Angeles, as well as, directly across the street, Charlie Sheen. “Vanna White lives there too,” says Jones, “and this one day I saw her out walking. She asked, ‘How do you like living here?’ I said, ‘It’s great! Quiet!’ And she said, ‘Yes, with some exceptions’ ” — and pointed at Sheen’s house.
Jones is due in New York’s photo studio, and stands up. Our photographer will need to work fast, he says, because he’s flying to London tonight — “I’m singing a Christmas song on a show called TFI Friday. I don’t know how they get away with that; it means ‘Thank fuck it’s Friday’ ” — and then back to L.A. As we walk, Jones’s publicist notices the holiday decorations around the office and asks if we’ve had a company party. I tell him yes, it was last night. “And you’re sober?” Jones laughs.
He gets a quick touch-up from a stylist who can hardly believe the week she’s been having (yesterday, she got to cut Christopher Walken’s hair), sits for a few pictures, and makes for the exit. News about my guest has apparently spread, and suddenly there’s an ad hoc Tom Jones fan club forming near the reception area. I help him escape into the hallway through a side door. He steps onto the elevator and, as the doors close, mouths, “Thank you.”
*This article appears in the December 28, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.