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Tom Jones: Burning Down the House

The legendary Welsh singer Tom Jones has enjoyed almost six decades in the music industry - and despite being 78, he's still at the top of his game. The former factory and construction worker from Pontypridd is a familiar face on our television screens as a judge on the ITV talent show, The Voice.

He's famous for jumping out of his seat and giving an impromptu performance of some of his hits during the show, to the delight of the audience and his fellow judges. He also uses his Welsh heritage to persuade the Welsh contestants to join his team - a tactic which often works well!

Tom Jones

© Raph_PH / CC BY 2.0

 

Early years

Long before the days of The Voice, Jones, the son of a coal miner, was growing up in the village of Treforest, where he was born in June 1940. As a youngster, he loved American blues, rock 'n' roll and R&B, but his only experience of singing was in the school choir and at local gatherings of family and friends.

Instead of having aspirations to be a pop star, he settled down to work as a builder's labourer on leaving school at 16.

All of this changed in 1963 when Jones began to sing with a local band, The Senators, in his leisure time. They were a big hit locally but didn't receive much attention outside Pontypridd, due to their rural location. The following year, London-based pop manager Gordon Mills, who was originally from Wales, saw Jones singing live.

He recognised the 23-year-old's potential and took Jones to London to manage his career. He signed for Decca Records, but his first single, Chills and Fever, wasn't a hit.

 

Number one single

Jones went on to release the upbeat single, It's Not Unusual, in 1965. It was the record that rocketed him to stardom, as it reached number one in the British singles chart and also entered the top ten in the United States' singles chart.

His instant success in America led to his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and he became a sex symbol for thousands of female fans, thanks to his raunchy, hip-swinging dance moves and booming baritone voice.

His career continued to thrive throughout the 1960s and he enjoyed many hit records, including Green Green Grass of Home, Delilah, Once Upon a Time, I'll Never Fall in Love, With These Hands and I'm Coming Home, to name but a few.

He also worked on film soundtracks, singing What's New Pussycat for the 1965 comedy of the same name. He sang Thunderball, the title track of the James Bond film, the same year and went on to win a Grammy Award for Best New Artist.

 

Television show

Jones had his own TV show, This is Tom Jones, from 1969 to 1971. It was aired in both the US and the UK and ran for 65 episodes.

His guests included the era's top stars, such as Peter Sellers, Paul Anka, Herman's Hermits, Sonny and Cher, George Burns, Sammy Davis Jr, Diahann Carroll, Tony Bennett, Matt Monro and many, many more. He was in Las Vegas for much of the 1970s and hung out with Elvis Presley.

He launched his own record label, MAM Records, with his manager and also completed numerous live tours, sealing his success as one of the decade's true global superstars.  She's a Lady and Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow were also big hits in the states.

 

Collaborations

Well-known for collaborating with other artists to make hit records, in the 1980s and '90s, Jones worked on a multitude of collaborations, including releasing the 1991 album, Carrying a Torch, with Van Morrison.

He also reworked the Prince song, Kiss, with Art of Noise in 1988, which reached number five in the UK charts - the video won the MTV Breakthrough Award. In 1999, Jones teamed up with the Stereophonics to record Mama Told Me Not to Come. The single was released in March 2000 and reached number four in the UK singles chart.

Originally written and released by Talking Heads in 1983, Jones collaborated with The Cardigans to produce Burning Down the House in 1999. Although it was initially a track off his album, Reload, it was released as a single that went on to become a massive hit all over Europe.

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Inspiration

The inspiration for Burning Down the House came from Talking Heads' drummer and fan of funky music, Chris Frantz.  Rumour has it, he was inspired to write the song after seeing a live show in New York by the American band P-Funk. He heard the crowd shouting at the band to "burn down the house!"

It wasn't an incitement to arson, but rather meant the same as "raise the roof" in bygone times, in terms of working the audience up into a frenzy and getting everyone dancing and screaming for more.

Frantz's inspiration came before the days of the cult dance song with a similar theme, The Roof is on Fire, released by WestBam in 1990, but the meaning was the same.

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Speaking in 1984 to the radio station, NFR, Frantz said his wife Tina Weymouth, Talking Heads' bass player, created the original track for Burning Down the House. Then, the band worked on it together to "refine the groove." They said the words were chosen to fit the rhythm, which is a common practice with funk songs, so some of them didn't seem to make sense.

The opening lines, "Used to keep it cool, used to be a fool, all about the bounce in my step, watch it on the news", were an example of lyrics that didn't "get in the way of the groove". Frantz described it as a "feel good song."

It was played a lot on MTV and became Talking Heads' biggest hit. As well as being covered by Jones and The Cardigans, it is also used in plenty of films and television shows, such as the Gilmore Girls and Revenge of the Nerds.

 

The Voice

Jones has been a judge on The Voice since 2012, first when it was launched by the BBC and then later after it moved to ITV. He won the show in 2018 with his teenage vocalist, Ruti Olajugbagbe, 19, whose prize was a recording contract with Polydor Records.

In 2015, he published his memoirs, Over the Top and Back: The Autobiography. As well as being a judge on The Voice, Jones is still singing live, although he had to cancel part of his tour between May and August 2018, due to illness.

Fans were relieved when he appeared to be back in great health as the new series of The Voice launched earlier this year, with a spectacular live performance of Sweet Dreams by the coaches.

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