Illustration - Photo: Wikipedia

Tom Jones, MVM Dome, Budapest, on July 12, 2022

Tom, Elvis and Priscilla: a kind of love triangle

Welsh music legend Tom Jones remembers being asked in some of his early interviews, “How long do you think you'll be able to keep up the momentum?”, to which he’d reply, "I'll sing until I'm 97!”, a far-distant figure he plucked out of the air. When he appears in Budapest in July he will have just turned 82, and seems to be still full of energy. Read on for his fond memories of the “King of Rock 'n' Roll” and his denial that he is dating Priscilla Presley after Jones' wife of 59 years died of lung cancer in 2016.

Before hitting it big in early 1965 with his smash single “It’s Not Unusual”, Jones had made a name for himself singing covers of Presley’s songs in the demanding atmosphere of working men’s clubs and pubs across his native Wales. Originally written by Gordon Mills and Les Reed for Sandie Shaw, she rejected “It’s Not Unusual” after hearing a demo sung by Jones, recommending that he sing it himself. Jones was earning £5 a song singing demos at the time.

Born Thomas Jones Woodward in Pontypridd, South Wales, on June 7, 1940 to a traditional coal-mining family, he was the son of Freda (Jones) and Thomas Woodward. He began singing at an early age in church and in the school choir.

Jones left school at 16 and married Linda in 1957 when they were both that age. She was eight months pregnant with their son Mark. The singer brought in money for his family from a variety of jobs, singing in venues at night. By 1963 he was playing regularly with his own group, and his idol was Elvis Presley. “People back home would say, ‘Wow, Tom, you sing as good as Elvis Presley’,” he says. “I used to say, ‘Well, I’ll tell him that when I see him’. I had this vision of meeting him.”

Jones rocketed to popularity with “It’s Not Unusual”. Later in 1965 he and Presley first met at the Paramount stage in Hollywood, where Elvis was filming “Paradise Hawaiian Style”. Jones was thrilled to discover that Presley loved the way he sang: “That was a big deal for me.”

Jones says his new pal was larger than life from the very moment they met. “He started walking toward me singing my song ‘With These Hands’. I thought, ‘My God, if the boys back home could see me now’. (It was) earth-shattering. Well, because Elvis Presley was the one, so meeting Elvis Presley was the pinnacle.”

Their relationship was cemented after Presley saw Jones perform in Las Vegas on April 6, 1968, which inspired Elvis to take up his own residency there in July 1969. The pair spent many nights partying and sharing confidences in their Vegas hotel rooms over the following years, including the night when Elvis sang to Tom in the shower.

“I was staying in Caesar’s Palace and he was at the Hilton, and somebody had sent him a song he thought would be good for me so he came over. When I came off the stage he was there in my hotel room. He said, ‘Tom, I got this song, man’. And I said, ‘Well, Elvis, I got to get in the shower’. I had been sweating!”

Shortly after Jones hopped into the shower, he could hear Presley singing to him. “I thought, ‘My God, I’m going nuts. I can hear Elvis singing’. So I open my eyes and he’s leaning over the door singing this song to me. I said, ‘Jesus Christ!’ And he said, ‘The song, man, the song.’ I still don’t know what the song was because it was a big shower, and there was a lot of echo in there. But we became that close.”

When Jones told Presley’s then-wife Priscilla the story of what had happened, he said she was shocked. “She said, ‘I can’t believe that Elvis would be in the bathroom with you at the same time – he never was with me!’ I said, ‘Well, he was with me, Priscilla. He was. I was naked and he was half-naked because he had gone to the toilet and had to get his leather pants up. They were North Beach leather, which were hard to get up.”

In fact, they were so hard to pull up that Presley had to call his bodyguard, Red, to come into the bathroom and help him. “Red looked up at me and he said, ‘If you told somebody this, they wouldn’t believe you’,'” Jones remembers. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going to tell them.’ Elvis Presley was a one-off, believe me. He was fantastic.”

Jones says he and Presley bonded further over their shared love of gospel music. “He was born in the southern states and was influenced by black gospel singers there. He couldn’t understand how I had so much gospel in me, because that’s what he related to. You see, Elvis Presley was really a gospel singer. And he heard that in me, and in Vegas, we would be up at night singing gospel songs. I would mostly listen, because he knew more gospel songs than I did. We definitely had a closeness.”

The two remained close, including holidaying together in Hawaii in 1969, until Presley’s death in 1977 at age 42. To this day, Jones still keeps in touch with Priscilla, who married Presley in May 1967 and divorced him in 1973. They had famously met when she was just 14 years old in 1959 and he was 24. Dating rumours about Tom and Priscilla have swirled in the years since Jones’ wife Linda died in 2016 but Jones makes clear that he and Priscilla, 77, are just friends.

“We’re not dating but we do go out to dinner,” Jones says. “A friend of mine, Jeff Franklin, is a TV producer, and he’s got a big house up in LA. We’ll go up there and have sing-a-longs and things like that. She’s up there a lot and so we talk, and she’s a very dear friend of mine… I met her in the ’60s and she’s been a friend of mine ever since. But there is nothing romantic, no.”

After losing Linda, Jones says he “couldn’t” get married again because “there’s no history with anybody else”.

On his latest album “Surrounded by Time”, released in April 2021, Jones pays homage to Linda with his cover of Bernice Johnson’s “I Won’t Crumble with You If You Fall”. “When we found out she was sick, I cancelled the tour I was on and went to visit her in the hospital in LA.” They had lived in Los Angeles since 1974 but Jones moved back to the UK following her death. “I told her I wasn’t sure if I would be able to sing anymore. But she told me, ‘You’ve got to. There’s no way out for me, I know where I’m going. But don’t die with me’.

“That song right there is saying, ‘I’ll do anything for you… But I won’t crumble with you if you fall’. And she told me not crumble, to carry on. So, that song is very important to me,” he adds.

“Surrounded by Time” marks Jones’ 41st album of his nearly six-decade career and has seen him become the oldest man to have a UK number one album. The previous record was held by Bob Dylan with “Rough and Rowdy Ways” at the age of 79.

Jones hopes it’s not his last, and remembers that “I’ll sing until I’m 97!” remark with a chuckle. “Why I said that I don’t know. But the closer I’m getting to it, I’m thinking it will be 97. Hopefully, it’ll be 100!” Slowing down is what kills you, he has said.

Jones was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1998 and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to music in 2005. He’ll perform in Budapest on July 12.

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