As the Welsh king of the balladeers gears up for his gig in Abu Dhabi this week, Jon Wilks quizzes him about knickers, hits and Elvis Presley’s secret pizzas
We’ve heard you were a bit of a rocker back in the day. Any truth in that? Oh, yeah! In the ’50s – teddy boys and all that, you know – we were listening to rock ’n’ roll music… When I first took the band into the clubs, the people had never seen a rock band before. When they saw the guitars coming, they said, ‘Oh no! We don’t want this.’ But they knew me, I’d been before, so I said, ‘Hang on,’ you know? ‘Have a listen.’ So I’d do big ballads and then sling Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Great Balls of Fire’ in there when they weren’t looking. That’s the way I was getting it across then.
Do you remember when you first heard ‘It’s Not Unusual’? Yes.
Did it suggest itself to you as an immediate hit? Oh, right away. My manager, Gordon Mills, was a songwriter as well… One day he came to me and said, ‘I’ve got this song that I’m writing, and if we get a good demo, we can present it to Sandy Shaw.’ Well [Sandy] had had two or three number ones at the time, so I said okay. He sang it to me in the car as we were going to the recording studio and I thought: Yeah, I get that. And we went in with my band and recorded it, and I said, ‘Gordon, I have to have this song.’ And he said, ‘Nah, it’s a pop song.’ He thought of me more as a ’50s rocker… he’d rather Sandy Shaw did it instead of me, because I’d done nothing at the time. Thank God it was her they gave the song to, because she said, ‘Whoever’s singing this demo – it’s his song. I wouldn’t be able to sing it like that.’ So that was it. That was the beginning of it for me.
And you’ve sung it every night of your life ever since... Exactly! That one is always in. No doubt.
Don’t you get tired of it? No, no. I really like the song, and it’s a test. It’s not easy to sing. You can’t just glide through it; you’ve got to sing it because of the range of the thing. Same with ‘Delilah’. I like doing them to prove that I still can.
How did you meet Elvis? I met him in Hollywood at Paramount Studios in ’65, and he came to see me at the Flamingo in Vegas in ’68 to see what I was all about. He wanted to make a comeback; he wanted to play Vegas. So he came and watched me work, and he said it gave him confidence. Singing that kind of music in Vegas successfully – he’d tried in the ’50s and it didn’t work for him then. So we’d be working there at the same time – he’d be at the Hilton and I’d be at Caesar’s Palace – and we used to get together after the shows.
Did you ever see Elvis turn down a cheeseburger? Er, no. He used to really like a pizza as well. He used to keep the pizza under his bed.
Did he have a favourite topping? I don’t know. I never checked. But we’d be up late, singing gospel songs, and he’d say [slips into a bad Elvis impersonation], ‘Do you like pizza?’ And I’d say [in an emphasised Welsh accent], ‘Yeah, I don’t mind it, but I don’t want one right now. I’ve already eaten.’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, well I always keep a few handy.’ He had it under the bed, I remember, just in case. But he used to laugh about it, you know? He wasn’t a secret eater. He was always ordering stuff from room service. But he made fun of it. When he started getting a gut on him, I remember he had this exercise bike in the suite. He said, ‘Do you exercise, Tom?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ He said, ‘So do I.’ This bike was an electric bike that would move by itself. He used to sit there eating devilled eggs and laughing. He was having fun with it, but it backfired on him in the end.
You were quite famous for having women throw their knickers at you. Do you ever worry that you might be remembered as a walking knicker magnet? Well, if I was remembered that way, I wouldn’t like that. First of all [they should think of me as] The Voice, then they can say what they like. If they want to talk about that, you can’t stop that really because it’s happened. You can’t say it hasn’t, because it has! I would like to think the reason that it did happen is because of what I was doing on stage; because of my voice; because the songs I was singing were getting people excited. You’ve got to remember the reason why. Over the years it’s been forgotten as far as the press are concerned. My shows have been reviewed sometimes on not so much how good I’m singing, or what songs I’m doing, but how many pairs of underwear are up there. You know, ‘Tom must be slipping now because he only had 20 pairs of knickers where there used to be 500 pairs.’ It’s immaterial, really. What am I putting out? That’s the main question.
Tom through time
'60s Tom got his big break in 1965 with ‘It’s Not Unusual’ and followed it up with a string of hits, including ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘Delilah’. By the late ’60s he was focusing less on singles and more on lucrative Las Vegas gigs.
'70s After 1971 hits ‘Till’ and ‘She’s a Lady’, his popularity waned, although he did have a US country hit with 1976’s ‘Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow’.
'80s The quiet period continued through the ’80s, but was punctured by hits ‘The Boy from Nowhere’ and ‘Kiss’.
'90s Tom’s career was on the upswing in the ’90s, with a spot at the Glastonbury music festival and a collaboration with Robbie Williams reconnecting him with pop culture.
'00s Tom performed at the Washington, DC New Year’s Eve ball at the behest of Bill Clinton. He also released Reload, a collaborative album that spawned the club hit ‘Sex Bomb’.