Sir Tom Jones has been much compared to Johnny Cash recently.
But what could the late grizzled country and western icon, dubbed the ‘Man in Black’, have in common with Sir Tom Jones – one of Wales’ finest pop exports and a polished former heartthrob.
Both artists carved out successful late careers, transforming into elder statesmen in the process.
Earlier this year, Sir Tom, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, became the oldest man to top the UK album chart.
Surrounded By Time, his 41st studio album, also gave him his fourth number one – and his first since 1999’s Reload.
“As soon as you are born, you are on the clock – and that clock starts ticking,” he reflects down the phone from his London flat.
“When I used to work in a paper mill on a 12-hour shift, I used to think, ‘I’ll be glad to get these 12 hours over with’. But then afterwards, you realise that’s 12 hours coming off your life. It is a strange thing once you start to think about how much time we have.
“I have got to 80 already, and I have had a great time getting here. It’s all to do with time.”
Sir Tom has clearly been reflecting on his own impermanence.
Surrounded By Time, his fourth album with producer Ethan Johns, is full of ruminations on ageing, loss and family.
It features 12 covers – although Sir Tom is not fond of the word – ranging from the psychedelic (The Windmills Of Your Mind) to the epic (Bob Dylan’s One More Cup Of Coffee) and the heartbreakingly personal I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall, a tribute to his late wife Linda.
The presence of Sir Tom’s wife of 59 years, who died of cancer in April 2016 at the age of 75, hangs over the album.
The pair met at high school in Pontypridd, just north of Cardiff, and married in March 1957, both aged 16, after Linda fell pregnant with their son Mark.
To support them, Sir Tom took jobs in construction and worked in a paper mill.
Somewhat surprisingly, Surrounded By Time is the first album Sir Tom has recorded in Wales – at Monnow Valley Studio in Monmouth.
“When I was driving up to the front of the studio, they had the Welsh dragon flying and I thought, ‘This is an omen, this feels great’,” he exclaims.
The record begins with the sombre I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall in memory of his wife.
“I wanted to put it first,” he explains. “This album, everything happens after that.
“This happened and I fought through it. And these songs are representing that.”
Encouraged by producer Mr Johns, Sir Tom goes to surprisingly experimental places, including some swirling psychedelic rock. Is the singer making up for missing out on the hippier side of the 1960s?
“My records, you see, in those days they were straight ahead,” he recalls. “We would go in there with a live band and that was it. I don’t think the songs I was doing would warrant a sitar …”
He chuckles deeply. “What’s New Pussycat? was a big thumping Burt Bacharach tune with four grand pianos. I don’t know whether the sitar would have worked on that, anyway.”
Their marriage survived the trials and tribulations of fame.
Until just a few years ago, they lived together in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, but shortly after her death, he sold up and moved back to the UK.
“The best way to deal with grief is to talk about it,” he offers. “When Linda died, it was shocking for me because I had known her all my life. She was always there. Even if she wasn’t there personally, she would be on the end of the phone.
“She was always there. And then she wasn’t.
“I didn’t think I would be able to sing anymore, but I saw a counsellor and she said, ‘You have got to face it, now this is what happened, do you want to survive it or do you want to die with her?’
“Linda said herself, ‘Don’t you fall with me, you have got to get on that stage and keep going’.
“It was my son who talked me into it – and my doctor,” he recalls. “He said you should go and see a counsellor because you can’t do it on your own.
“My son helped me a lot and Linda, God bless her, when she was still alive, because myself and my son were in the room with her in the hospital for 10 days, she said, ‘You two have got to mentor one another now, you have got to hold one another up’.
“And that is what we have done.”
Linda is still with him – he keeps her ashes in a “little, beautiful box” in the bedroom of his flat in London.
Sir Tom was eventually able to get back on stage – before the pandemic put paid to touring.
“It was very hard at the beginning,” he sighs. “I didn’t know if I could do the shows. Then I got on the stage and the audience lifted me up.
“Hampton Court was the first show I played after she died. The audience lifts you up and you think, ‘My God, this is the best place to be to get over this’ – rather than just lock yourself in a room. That doesn’t work. You have got to get on with life.
“There is a lesson there for everybody. If you can get over that grief, whatever it is, if you can just see through it, time does heal. It’s an old saying, but it is true.”
The album Surrounded By Time is out now.
Are you a Tom Jones fan? Why not share your favourite song of his in the comments section below?
– With PA
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