Sir Tom Jones: ‘The knicker throwing started in the Copacabana in New York in 1968’

The singer, 80, on enthusiastic audiences, singing Sex Bomb at 90, meeting a young Michael Jackson and losing the love of his life

I’ve been singing since I was a kid growing up in Pontypridd in South Wales. I would sing in school. I would sing in chapel. Any chance I got to get up and sing, I took it.

I was quarantined for two years with tuberculosis. I was in hospital or confined to my house from 1952 to 1954, from the age of 12 to 14. There was an old gas lamp-post at the end of the street I could see out of the window from our house where the local kids used to gather. I used to think, “When I can walk to the lamp-post again, I’ll never complain about anything as long as I live.” I still see that lamp-post in my mind and think, “What am I complaining about?”

Getting married at 16 didn’t quell my musical ambitions. I was seven months older than my wife, Linda, and rather than dampening my desire it only made me more determined to succeed. I just thought, “I gotta do this.” I was working long hours on a winding machine in a paper mill, but I had a young son, too, so I needed to wait until I was 21 before going for it properly.

The knicker throwing started in the Copacabana in New York in 1968. It was a supper club, so ladies were handing me napkins to wipe my brow, then this one woman decided to go a step further and she stood up and took her underwear off. She lifted up everything, took her knickers off and handed them to me. I said, “Thank you very much,” then wiped my brow and said, “Watch you don’t catch cold,” and gave them back.

Linda never played second fiddle to me. Because we married so young, the marriage was solid before I had success with It’s Not Unusual in 1965. She would say, “Always know who the No 1 is. Me.” She was always there first.

I’ve never smoked a joint. I never got into drugs. Kids these days take ecstasy pills and they don’t know what’s in them. They take a bad one and they die. Dabbling with drugs always scared the shit out of me.

Michael Jackson used to hang out at my house in Bel Air before he’d gone too far. I met him when he was a kid. Quincy Jones, who produced Off the Wall and Thriller, lived around the corner from me, so he used to pass the house to see Quincy and one day he rang the bell with his sister La Toya and said, “I’ve finally plucked up enough courage to ring your bell and say hello.” I said, “Sure. You can come and see me whenever I’m here.” He was just like a kid. Like a fan. He looked at the pictures on the wall in my pool table room and said, “Wow, you’ve had such a great career,” and I said, “Having. Not had.”

Losing Linda five years ago was the lowest part of my life. I honestly didn’t think I was going to get through it. I had to go and see a grief therapist because I kept thinking, “Did I do enough? Was I on the case? Did she slip away without me really realising what was happening?”” But the therapist said, “No, she had lung cancer, there is nothing you could have done.” Now every time I step on stage, Linda is with me. Before she died, she said, “Don’t think of me dying, think of me laughing.” That’s how I remember her.

The plan is very much for me to be on stage in 10 years’ time, doing Sex Bomb. If I have my way, I will. God willing. God willing is the thing.

Tom Jones’s new album, Surrounded by Time, is released on 23 April


Nick McGrath

The GuardianTramp

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