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Discovering Tom Jones

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DISCOVERING TOM JONES

 

By Desmond Zwar

 

Before Gordon Mills became the famous star-maker of pop, he was playing Saturday night poker with a group of starving songwriters and musicians in London.

 

‘I’ve found this guy, Tom Jones, in Wales,’ Mills told his friends, ‘and I think I’ll manage him.’ ‘Oh shut up and deal, Gordon,’ said writer Barry Mason.

 

‘I happened to be in Wales a little while later, and went to hear Tom sing. I reported back to Gordon that I thought he was too tough; too butch to be commercial. He had this huge voice and a broken nose and the thing then was pretty boys, with songs like "I gotta rubber ball/I’ll bounce it back to you."

 

‘But how wrong can you be?’ wonders the man whose songs later helped sweep Jones to fame.

 

Barry can’t read music and can only tap out a note or two on the piano. But as one of the world’s leading songwriters, he is a major figure in the success story of Jones, Englebert Humperdink, PJ Proby and Petula Clarke. He thanks "Delilah", the song synonymous with Jones, for paying for his home at Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey. Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand and Rod Stewart have all sung his compositions, yet he lives with self-doubt. ‘On a grade of 10 my self-confidence is about minus-seven. As you get older, your confidence and judgement goes.’

 

If you admire his "The Last Waltz", Barry will admit he wrote the words, then sang the melody into a tape recorder, in 20 minutes flat. ‘Englebert had this hit "Please Release Me" which was one of the biggest hits of all time. Gordon Mills then had a problem: how do you follow it? The obvious thing was another Country song, but maybe a bit more up-tempo. I was working with Les Reed on a cold English afternoon in Woking and we stopped for a cup of tea. Les said he always knew when his mum and dad were coming home from the village hall dance, because the MC called out: "Take your partners for the last waltz!" I said that sounded like a good lyric for a song.

 

‘When the engineers made the demonstration disc, everybody laughed.’ Except the canny Mills. ‘Gordon decided to go with it. What a risk? What a gamble?’

 

Behind his back the pop world called Mills "The Mule". He might have been a father figure to the stars, said Barry, ‘but he was a tough, hard Welshman who got his own way.’

 

When Gilbert O’Sullivan made the hit "Nothing Rhymed", Mills launched the lad at 24, wearing a pudding-basin haircut, dressed in a suit with schoolboy shorts, daggy socks and a cloth cap. ‘That was the way Gordon knew he could get him photographed by Fleet Street. Look at what he did with Elton John and his outrageous clothes? Elton had to have the guts to do it and people took his picture.’

 

O’Sullivan and Mills later had a falling out which led to court action. PJ Proby, says Barry, has had several re-launches but as many failures because he won’t trust people. Englebert, however, still "wows them" on the American circuit.

 

Today Barry commutes from Walton-upon-Thames to Paris to work with Michel Le Grande ("Windmills of my Mind") and a team of writers, each specialised in reading what the youth of the world want to hear. ‘We get together, have a cup of tea, moan about the world and the football and then start work. When I get back I’m going to start straight into "White Knight".’ (When "White Knight" hits the air-waves you can say you read about it here, first...)

 

‘I met this lady a couple of days ago and she said she was an independent woman, but "just want someone to look after me - a white knight." ‘I think of a song title first and that is a great one.’ (He sings, clicking his thumbs on the beat): ‘Gimme a white night/ Alright/ Who’ll look after me/tonight! Can’t you see/ You’re gonna stay with me/ To-night!’

 

It has to be "funky", so he’ll run it past the team-man whose expertise is funk. ‘We’ll build a hook and maybe work on a contrasting piece of music, but still keeping the feel of it going; it can’t be too contrasting, because you lose the impetus and the audience.

 

‘At the end of the day, after we’ve polished the lyrics a little, the song will be finished.’

 

Then comes the task of selling it to a producer. ‘In the days of the Beatles and George Martin there were maybe seven great producers to go to. If one didn’t want to cut it, you went on to the next. Today it’s different; music is controlled by little close-knit groups of writers, musicians and producers. I couldn’t write a song now for Celine Dion.’

 

Barry, in Australia with his cabaret show, doesn’t talk about age. ‘I’m in a young man’s business, trying to get inside young peoples’ heads.’

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