Thursday, August 02, 2012

"Help Yourself" / Tom Jones

Ah, here we are in the august days of August, the dog days of summer. We're already hot and sweaty -- might as well cue up the Tom Jones.

Like Petula Clark, Tom Jones -- born Thomas Woodward in Pontypridd, Wales -- slipstreamed on the British Invasion and slid straight into Easy Listening fame. As a kid, I was always embarrassed by Tom Jones -- all hip gyrations, unbuttoned shirts, and man jewelry tangled in chest hair. Why listen to Tom Jones when Davy Jones was so much more my cup of tea?

But I've come around. Tom Jones -- or rather, Sir Tom Jones, since he was knighted in 2006 -- has had a late-career resurgence that makes even Nick Lowe look like a slacker.  When his pop career faltered, he turned country crooner in the 1980s; he stormed back into critical acclaim in 1999 with his duets album Reload and iced the cake in 2002 with Mr. Jones, an album produced by -- get this -- Wyclef Jean. Stealing a page from the Johnny Cash playbook, Sir Tom has exploited the grit and growl of his aging voice, raging and testifying away on his 2010 album Praise & Blame and 2012's Spirit in the Room. He's in better form than ever, freed at last to sing however the hell he wants to. An example to us all.

Inevitably, now that I can hear the authentic bluesman within the pop star, I've come to re-evaluate the 60s stuff as well. And so I give you the Ultimate Swinger's Anthem:

This clip is from Tom's first TV variety show (notice the TJ's embroidered on the male slaves' PJs), and it unabashedly celebrates everything that used to repulse me about Tom Jones  -- the tight trousers, the ruffled satin shirt, the mini-skirted females rushing to his arms. Nevertheless, I find the song itself irresistible. That perky horn intro lifts my heart instantly; the smashing crescendos leading into the chorus compel me to dance in my chair.

The utter randiness of this song strikes me now as rather quaint, a relic of that pre-AIDS era when the sexual revolution was tipping over into unbridled promiscuity. By all accounts, Tom Jones took to that era like a duck to water. Though he's been married to the same woman since 1957, that never stopped him from sleeping around -- at the height of his fame, he once claimed, he slept with 250 groupies a year. Well, if enough panties and hotel room keys get flung onto a Vegas stage, something's gonna happen. I don't believe his wife was totally cool with this -- reports say she beat him black and blue on a few occasions. Jones, though a serious boxing aficionado, claimed he never struck her back, just took it like a man because he deserved it. There's Welsh morality for you.

But "Help Yourself" has a bouyant, giddy quality that somehow redeems it for me. There's none of the sleazy, predatory undertones of "What's New Pussycat?" and "It's Not Unusual," or the flogging rhythms of "Delilah"  (I apologize in advance for planting those three earworms, but you really can't talk about Tom Jones otherwise.) Even Tom doesn't seem to be taking it seriously. And really, when a song starts out comparing sex to candy, it's pretty hard to keep a straight face. There's something downright sweet about that last verse: "My heart has love enough for two / More than enough for me and you / I'm rich with love, a millionaire / I've so much, it's unfair / Why don't you take a share." Aw, all he wants is to make you happy. . . .

"Help Yourself" is totally a summer song for me, released in July 1968, on the heels of "Delilah." It was everywhere that summer, climbing to #1 in the UK and #3 in the US.  I never owned it and never had any reason to look at the label, so only now do I learn that it's a rewrite of a bubbly Italian pop song, "Gli Occhi Miei" ("These Eyes of Mine") by Carlo Donida; the English lyrics were penned by Jack Fishman. Donida was no flash in the pan; he also wrote the song "Uno Dei Tanti," rewritten in English as "I Who Have Nothing," which Jones also recorded in 1970. Hey, ripping off Italian pop worked for Dusty Springfield, why not for Tom Jones? Just for fun, here's the original, as recorded by Wilma Doich.

 It's a different thing entirely when a chick sings it, right? I can imagine Sandie Shaw's doing "Help Yourself" without the bombastic orchestral stuff, and it would be a marvel of delicate surrender. Instead, we have Tom Jones's gyrating pelvis.

But oh, go back to Tom's version and listen to that voice. The phrasing, the rich vibrato, the tender swoops around certain words -- yes, and his oddball vowels -- as a vocal stylist he couldn't be beat.


Wakeup said...

This one is kind of a departure for him, isn't it? Something he needs in his repertoire to counter all that drama. No one can do the drama like he does. 'Thunderball' comes to mind for me - drama.
Anyway, this one is fun and bouncy. Like I said, he needs one like that.

wwolfe said...

I love his version of "Kiss" - I much prefer it to Prince's original, in fact. The moment when the music stops and Tom shouts, "Think I better dance now!" is the peak of his career. He briefly hosted a show on VH-1 in that channel's early days where one musician would join him in conversation and performing. He did a version of "Heaven Help Us All" - I want to say it was actually with Stevie Wonder, but my memory might be playing tricks on me. Whoever his co-singer was, Tom sang the heck out of it. That's still the version I hear in my head when I think of that song.