In which I record an event of which Google has no accounting.
I’m pretty sure it was summer, 1992. Google says Tom Jones played New York’s Westbury Music Fair in ’93, so I assume he would not also have visited the Friar Tuck in Catskill that season. Plus, at the Friar Tuck, he played two songs that came out in ’91, so it couldn’t have been before then. Thus my deduction.
In any case, the Welsh Soul Brother was still riding his 1988 worldwide hit, a fabulous rendition/re-invention of Prince’s “Kiss” masterminded by Trevor Horn/Art of Noise and Jones’ son, Mark, who’d become dad’s manager in ’86. Mark had summarily instructed his old man to ditch the leather trousers for well-cut suits, and record something cool, fer fook’s sake! Genius move.
On a weekend away from our Manhattan home, Holly and I heard about the show at the Friar Tuck’s “Buckingham Palace Theatre,” and conspired to venture to Catskill. We’d bought TJ’s 60s and 70s LPs at yard sales, and enjoyed them both genuinely and ironically, and we loved his irresistible “Kiss.” In those days, we were always angling for a road trip down the two-lane blacktop to some adventure (or misadventure). This plan seemed promising, and if memory serves, it wasn’t expensive.
At the city limits, a faded sign proclaimed Catskill as Mike Tyson’s early 80s home, where he’d trained with (and been adopted by) local legend Cus D’Amato. The terrain was sadly common depressed blue collar Upstate NY, land gone to seed, a sense of barely hanging on, of cheap real estate. Until we rounded a corner and saw the line of cars turning onto to the long drive leading to the Buckingham Palace Theatre at the Friar Tuck Resort & Convention Center.
This was old-school, down-at-the-heels glitz, echoes of bygone Borscht Belt days. Like Vegas, Jr. Chandeliers, folding chairs, stonework, etc. The 2000-capacity Buckingham Palace Theatre was quite full, if not a sellout; an audience of excited middle-aged ladies, original TJ fans I presume, and some game husbands, plus the odd 20-or-30-something rocker clique. Of course, I heard the odd joke about girdles being thrown onstage. An elder woman proclaimed, to the amused distress of her friends: “I’m gonna scream when he does ‘It’s So Unusual’! (sic)” I’d never been in a space with that many women, that much unabashed lust.
The lights dimmed and a quintet hit the stage. They were serviceable, all with ponytails or mullets. One blew into a heinous synth programmed to “sound like a horn section.” (Early 90s digital tech almost always awful.) But they were fine. Tom strode out in a green silk suit and, to our amazement, launched into a stunning version of Richard Thompson’s “I Feel So Good.” Despite furrowed brows, and a palpable sense of confusion at this very current choice (previously unheard by them, I’m betting), the elder fans were civil and appreciative. I envision them trusting Jones wouldn’t leave them unsatisfied. Above all, I am absolutely positive they were transfixed by that voice.
His voice was astounding. One of those artists whose instrument has never been fully represented on record, via analog, digital, whatever. (I am reminded of Glen Campbell at Mohegan Sun on his farewell tour, voice undiminished by time or illness.) I have tried out a few of his tunes, and they are fucking hard to sing well. (“Delilah,” “What’s New Pussycat,” and “Thunderball,” for instance. No recordings exist of me trying to sing these songs, and never will.) At fifty-two (a year younger than I am now), he hit every note, just filled the room, commanded it, wove a spell with those pipes, transported all of us from the Friar Tuck in Catskill to… Heaven? But he also came off as nice, approachable. Not dangerous. Powerfully sexy. His own, very distinctive thing. He could rock, but he possessed a finesse few rockers can claim, a mastery of sound. Although no undergarments of any kind were thrown onstage, it would not have surprised me if there had been.
Other contemporary tunes he slayed: Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis,” and EMF’s “Unbelievable.” (Neither of which seem to be in his discography, sadly.) He chatted with the audience, said he was “so happy” to be at the Friar Tuck. In the middle of the set he sang all his hits, back to back (including “Kiss”), with admirable gusto, and the crowd went nuts.
Having done his due diligence with those chestnuts, he closed with another surprise: Johnny Winter’s “Still Alive and Well.” Which he and the mullet-y band KILLED. Frankly, at that point, he could’ve sung the theme to “Scooby Doo” and everyone – the older women, the husbands in tow, the cooler-than-thou rockers – would’ve loved it. To this day, Tom Jones remains one of the best singers I have ever seen, certainly in my Top 5.
I’ve been talking about that show for 25+ years. And now that I have written this, it will finally be searchable on Google.
More to come.