REVIEW by Chris Moss

NWR Issue r29

Just Help Yourself: Tom Jones, The Squires and the Road to Stardom

by Vernon Hopkins

Tom Jones belongs to a tiny niche of the very famous that seem always to have been around. As a mainstream artist whose creative peak was some five decades ago and who seemed to come down from some holy place when he appeared seated beside one-hit wonder Jessie J on BBC’s The Voice, he has not been subject to the scrutiny or adulation of a Bowie or a Jagger. Rather, he’s widely viewed as an ironic, even kitsch superstar, a singer that mums and grandmas adore, a tabloid legend of legends – the thrown knickers, the gyrating hips, the cheeky Welsh smile. In short, most of the stuff we think we know about Tom Jones is hearsay, rumour, fib or fantasy.

Vernon Hopkins, however, was there. The Senators, who later became The Squires – providing the driving rhythm for hits like ‘It’s Not Unusual’ and ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ – were his idea. An accomplished self-taught guitarist, he left his job as a compositor to become a professional musician in a beat band. Having experienced the peaks and troughs of that career, he has now, in his Seventies, given the world his version of events.

‘Why?’ is a fair question. Well, partly because he feels his own career is worth sharing – and it is, not least for reminding us that rock ’n’ roll happened in south Wales as well as London and Liverpool. But perhaps mainly because his association with Tom Jones provides him not only with readers but with an opportunity to reflect on what is lost when so much is ostensibly gained by one individual artist.

Chance plays a key role in the fame game. In the case of The Senators, it was cardplaying for cash that took away their first singer, Elvis-soundalike Tom Pitman, and made room for the arrival of Tommy Woodward, a cocky singer with an acoustic guitar, a broken nose and a voice that audiences in Pontypridd social clubs disdained for ‘singing all over the shop’. Hopkins tells a lovely story of how, in the spring of 1962, he left a singer-less gig midway to go and find Woodward propping up the bar with his Ted pals at the White Hart in a part of town known as The Tumble. Tom was persuaded to do a turn with The Senators in return for a ‘couple of quid’ and some bottles of light ale, which had to be smuggled into the teetotal YMCA where the concert was taking place. Opening with ‘Great Balls of Fire’, Woodward blew the audience away with his powerful vocals and strutting manner. This was the first time he’d performed with a band and without having to strum the three or four chords he knew. Hopkins sees the moment as a destiny-defining one: ‘Then something magical happened to Tommy. Having no guitar to deal with he began to command the stage, moving from one end to the other and giving some rhythm to his body.’ After an interval and a few light ales, Tom returned, ‘a man possessed’, and killed it.

The audience couldn’t resist, of course. Soon the floor was dancing wildly. Woodward had realised he was a singer, a performer, a soloist who needed a band as support. The Senators had replaced a talented cover artist with the real thing. The beginning of success – and the stresses that involves.

The band soon acquired a manager. They toured widely across south Wales, expanded their repertoire (Jones was never a strict rock ’n’ roll artist, and his extensive record collection contained discs by the likes of Brook Benton, Ray Charles, and Chuck Jackson) and singer Tom softened his look from Teddy Boy to Gene Vincent-inspired leather. The Senators became The Squires and Tommy Woodward became Tommy Scott (‘The Senators, with twisting Tommy Scott’) and subsequently Tom Jones – an Everyman from Wales, for the world. Those who have read other Tom Jones biographies will be familiar with the story of his leaving his job at the Treforest paper mill, meeting manager Gordon Mills, releasing a first single, charting with a second, winning a Grammy and moving to London and, later, Las Vegas.

Hopkins litters the oft-told story with wry anecdotes. The prose is ordinary, even cornily homespun at times, but the stories, about working with local comic Bryn the Fish and getting royally shat on while spending the night in a pigeon coop, raise a chuckle or two. The chatty, casual tone disguises a simmering – even seething – resentment. ‘Tom was always out for Tom and inevitably left in his slipstream a trail of callous and ruthless decisions that adversely affected those around him,’ Hopkins tells us. But this is probably true of all single-minded artists. He alludes to Jones’ extroversion and talent for picking up girls, though he was married with a young son. But Jones was twenty-tow and catching up on two years of teen angst – he’d been bedridden during puberty due to tuberculosis – when he joined The Senators. In some ways, Just Help Yourself is a torn book: Hopkins wants to celebrate his own career, but knows Jones is going to be his readers’ main interest; he wants to be nostalgic about his musical roots and friendships, including with Tom Jones, but has to tell us that he ends up playing in the Costa del Sol, no doubt watching The Voice and wondering what might have been. Of the book’s 350 pages, more than 300 are given over to The Squires. The remainder tries to breeze through the denouement that followed the break-up reported to Hopkins not by Jones or any manager but by a daily newspaper as an ‘amicable split’ – but you can’t breeze through a long life.

Originally released by Swansea-based ‘revenue share’ publisher Iponymous in 2012, this memoir engages for its candour and also for the fact that failure, or being an also-ran, is far more interesting than mega-success. Celebrities are like empty spaces, mediated into oblivion. Hopkins still connects with the young lad who picked at his first guitar, dreaming of stardom – he kind of made it, and his story is, in the end, more universal than that of his one-time bandmate, sometime buddy, now rich and very remote.

Chris Moss is a travel writer and journalist.

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