Although there’s no citation on Google, my wife and I saw Tom Jones play in Catskill at the Buckingham Palace Theater at the Friar Tuck Inn in the summer of 1992. He was fantastic.
The Welsh Soul Brother was still riding his 1988 worldwide hit, a fabulous re-invention of Prince’s “Kiss,” masterminded by famed Eighties producer Trevor Horn and Jones’ son, Mark. Mark Jones (b. 1957) had become dad’s manager in ’86. He’d instructed his old man to ditch the tight trousers for well-cut suits, and to record something cool. Mark’s influence on his father’s subsequent resurgence among a new demographic cannot be overstated.
We were weekenders then, taking refuge from Manhattan in a Chichester cabin. We’d bought TJ’s Sixties and Seventies LPs at yard sales, and genuinely enjoyed them. We loved his irresistible single “Kiss,” and the fun video.
In those weekender days, we often hit the two-lane blacktop for adventure (or misadventure). The notion of a “Tom Jones Road Trip” was tantalizing. Catskill was about an hour’s drive.
At the city limits, a faded sign proclaimed Catskill as Mike Tyson’s early Eighties home, where he’d trained with, and been adopted by local legend Cus D’Amato. We drove through real estate gone to seed, a sadly common post-NAFTA formerly bustling blue-collar town, barely holding on. Dismal. Until we rounded a corner to a line of cars heading to the Buckingham Palace Theatre at the Friar Tuck Resort & Convention Center.
The Friar Tuck was down-at-the-heels glitz, with Borscht Belt echoes; gaudy chandeliers, creaky folding chairs, ancient cigarette smell. The 2000-capacity venue was packed: excited middle-aged ladies, original TJ fans I presume, some game husbands, plus the odd clique of hipster rockers. Of course someone joked about girdles being thrown onstage. One 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 lusty women.
The lights dimmed and a serviceable quintet hit the stage, sporting ponytails and mullets. They were fine. Tom strode out in a green silk suit. To our amazement, he launched into a stunning version of Richard Thompson’s still-new “I Feel So Good.” Despite furrowed brows and confusion at the song choice, the fans were civil and appreciative. I think they trusted they would not leave unsatisfied. Mainly, all of us were transfixed by that voice.
Turns out, Tom Jones is one of those artists whose instrument has never been fully captured by recording technology, analog, digital, whatever. At 52, he not only hit every note (and his songs are not easy to sing, trust me), he filled the room with sound, commanded it, wove a spell with those pipes, transported all fully into the moment.
He also came off as nice, approachable. Not dangerous. Sweetly sexy. A little goofy. His own, distinctive thing. He could rock, but he possessed a finesse few rockers can claim, a calm mastery. Not unlike an opera singer. Although no undergarments of any kind were thrown onstage, it would not have surprised me if there had been.
He slayed other contemporary tunes: Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis,” and EMF’s “Unbelievable.” 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. Pandemonium ensued.
He closed with another surprise: Johnny Winter’s “Still Alive and Well.” Frankly, at that point, he could’ve sung the “Scooby Doo” theme and everyone 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 decades. And now that I’ve written this, it will finally be searchable on Google.