Saturday, August 22, 2009

What's New Pussycat?, Tom Jones (1965)

I'm a Navy Seal and I just threw my panties at him. - YouTube commenter

Ah, the charismatic Tom Jones. I have always been a sucker for a showman - someone who commits to his material to such a degree that you can't help but become a convert even if the material itself is questionable or campy.

For that reason, What's New Pussycat? will always be a favorite. That signature growl: it's ridiculous - and it's sublime. As another YouTube commenter says, "Only Tom Jones knows how to make this such an awesome song."

It's probably worth mentioning that What's New Pussycat? had the advantage of having been written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David - who really were incapable of writing a bad song - for the score of the Peter Sellers hit movie. Jones had sung their To Wait For Love as the B-side of It's Not Unusual; they were impressed with his interpretation of a song that other artists had failed to nail in earlier attempts.

Many times before I've noted that the AM radio playlists during the 60s were as diverse as the streets of New York City. (What's New Pussycat? was #5 the week Satisfaction was #2 on the Billboard charts.) So if you grew up then, it was not unusual to hear Jones belting out his songs on radio and on his weekly variety series, This Is Tom Jones (1969-71). The audience did a lot of screaming. He was considered risqué in certain circles, and sometimes he was even banned, but it was all just good clean fun.

Yet for all the love thrown at Jones' various hits, there isn't a lot in his catalogue that did justice to that lustrous powerhouse of a voice. The arts and culture website Cosmopolis suggested that Jones has "... one of the most incredible and sexiest male voices in show business, comparable to greats like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley ... This comparison of course sheds a bad light on his accomplishments. For years he has worked with pitiful musicians and arrangements. Instead of becoming one of the all time greats, he has produced some of the worst kitsch on the market. His main problem: He is no songwriter and depends on material written by others."

Whether that was his main problem or not, in recent years Jones has tried his hand at his own material - check out songs he co-wrote with Wyclef Jean and Jerry Wonder Duplessis for his 2002 Mr. Jones album. According to Jones, "Wyclef and Jerry ... know how to work with me, my voice, my history, and they know how to stretch me while still making me find what's real." (Check out Jean's remix of Pussycat!)

In a BBC Radio interview around the time of his collaboration with the great piano player Jools Holland, Jones acknowledged that always having had so much material put in front of him didn't do much to inspire him to write on his own. Somewhere along the line that changed, but he stressed that he needs to write with others; the collaboration is essential for the ideas to flow, he said.

In trying to find what's real over the years through vast experimentation with musical styles, one thing Jones has never been hampered by is a lack of certainty as to his allure. A friend who saw him live in the 80s handed him some flowers from her perch in front of the stage. Was she ever surprised when he leaned over and gave her a kiss - a French kiss!


Sheila said...

But Wendy, you left out the best part: the flowers I gave him were wilted and he said "It happens to me all the time" ;)

KarmaSartre said...

Surprising, wonderful choice. The write-up really captures the waste of an amazing instrument. It would be great to hear him explode a few great songs some day.

I remember the soundtrack album well: a gorgeous "Here I AM" by Dionne Warwick (played while Ursula Andress parachutes into Sellers' (or Allen's?) MG en route to the castle in France), and Manfredd Mann's stunning "My Little Red Book".

Seeing Tom interviewed (and, I think, trapped by the horny Grandma) on BBC's "Kumars at No. 42" spoof was a delight.

The "To Wait for Love" song seems so ironic after your insightful write-up (clever how you snuck not-unusual in).

For what it's worth, a cursory net search seems to indicate women are not allowed in the Navy Seals.

Sheila said...

For what it's worth, a cursory net search seems to indicate women are not allowed in the Navy Seals.

I think Wendy chose that particular You Tube comment because it's natural to assume that it was left by a woman rather than believe that a man - a Navy Seal! - would throw his drawers at Tom Jones.

Wade said...

Another guy I never knew where to put. You're all over that part of my musical knowledge. My only contemporary experience with TJ was a hit he had on country radio in the late seventies, "Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow," which (as I remember it) was a lackluster song that was just trampled by his voice. I've never heard him do anything except full-bore, full-lung stuff. I'll check him out further (as Barry had me checking out Gladys Knight last week. She's somebody else I didn't know where to put. In checking her out, I sort of fell in love with her.)