Gary James' Interview With
Tom Jones Tribute Artist
David La Fame
He may have started out playing bars in bands in London, but these days you'll find him doing his tribute show to Tom Jones. We talked to David about his Tom Jones tribute.
Q - How did you settle on a Tom Jones tribute? Was it a process of elimination? Maybe you thought of doing Sinatra or Elvis, but felt this field was over crowded.
A - I was doing, and still am doing a corporate comedy show, very similar to what Danny Gans, or in Canada we have a guy named Andre Phillipe Gagnon, and basically what it is is just a series of very short impersonations of famous singers. Most of what you do is done in a comedy format, so it's more of a send-up, but of course in between that there has to be more than just comedy. You do work really, really hard to try and sound or imitate the person you're doing. So, I was doing everybody from Tom Jones to Frankie Valli to Neil Diamond to Prince to all three Bee Gees. There were so many different characters in a 45 minute set. I happened to be doing this one day for an agent and she made the remark that "The Tom Jones voice is very close," and there was a market for Tom Jones as a stand-alone character. I don't look anything like him in real life, but do have a theatre background, so I used some of those resources and the next thing you know I was looking like Tom Jones and I was out there doing that.
Q - Where did you debut your act?
A - I honestly don't remember. You've really got me thinking now as I'm going back. I honestly can't remember. I think it was a Legion in Ontario (Canada). That's the most likely candidate.
Q - Is Tom Jones still performing today?
A - Yes, he is. He's 75 years old. He's re-invented himself a little bit as he always seems to. He's one of the judges I think on The Voice in the U.K. His career is actually flourishing. He's always been much more popular in the U.K. than he has on this side of the water.
Q - He did a lot of work in Las Vegas in the '70s.
A - He did, yeah.
Q - Did you ever see Tom Jones in concert?
A - No. Actually I had tickets to go see him a couple of years ago and it just so happened on that particular date his health wasn't good and he had to cancel the gig. So, I haven't gone to see him yet.
Q - Does he know about your act?
A - Not to my knowledge.
Q - How expensive was it to put an act like yours together?
A - In terms of money, the wig alone cost me $1,000 and I now have two of them. So, you've got $2,000 in wigs. There's probably another $1,000 in costumes 'cause costumes have to be custom made. You purchase all the accessories that go with it, the jewelry and then there's on-going expenses. It's expensive to have something like that cleaned on a regular basis. The wig has to be cleaned by the person who made it. In terms of monetary investment, there's a good $2,000 to $3,000 investment in that. But it's the time that is really the big investment. You have to learn all the songs. You have to learn them the way he does them and then you have to learn the way he does them in concert and then you have to learn the character, the moves. There's the rehearsals. There's the adaptation all the time. The Tom that I do is late '70s, early '80s I suppose. When I go out, I've still got the open shirt, the tight trousers. During that time his gestures were really quite exaggerated and in many ways a little rude. I have to do the adaptation where I keep the essence of that, but you have to be aware that in the audience, especially on a Legends type night where there's more than one character on the bill, you've got people for whom that might be a little too much. You've got couples in the house, which the women might love it, the guys don't. You have to take the character, being a tribute artist as you know is a fine balance between replicating all the aspects of a character, from the way they talked to the way they walk, to their mannerisms, their gestures, to the things they would say in certain situations and keeping it tangible and real to the people who are in front of you.
Q - Your video shows a band behind you. Is that a house band or your band?
A - That's my band. There's probably three distinct bands that I work with on a regular basis. Each one of them has an interchange of musicians depending on who is available at one time. It really depends on the gig. I do get calls to work with other bands, other band leaders. In this business you're sometimes hired by agents, sometimes you're hired by band leaders, sometimes it's producers. Sometimes these producers have their own band they're working with. They may already have a show in place and they just need to add a Tom Jones to it. So, at any given time you're working, but I prefer to work with the same guys. It keeps things consistent. If I'm going into the unknown, I will try to take a musical director with me who knows my stuff.
Q - How much work is there for a guy like you?
A - As Tom, I probably do fifty to sixty shows over the course of a year. Some months I'll do two shows. Some months I'll do a dozen or more.
Q - Where's the market place for a Tom Jones tribute act?
A - I do about 70% of my shows in the U.S., probably 25% up in Canada and then 5% would be international. International for me is, I've been as far away as Abu Dhabi. Typically if I'm going out of North America it's usually like I'm performing somewhere in the Caribbean.
Q - What Tom Jones did was put on a show. You don't see that anymore, at least not in combination with the high degree of talent he had / has.
A - That is the essence of Tom. Quite honestly, I've seen a lot of tribute artists over time. I've worked with a lot. The nice thing about this business is you get to know a lot of people. So much of your work comes from knowing other tribute artists. I have to say the most successful tribute artists take the essence of the artist and regardless of what that particular artist is like in concert for real, they do, and I've used word before, they make it tangible and that's the most important thing for a tribute to do. A good example of what I'm talking about is I've seen guys who do U2, Bono as a character. He's a very sort of larger than life, holier than thou kind of character. I've seen guys do that where there's been no proper outreach or connection with the audience. While that might be true to Bono himself in terms of their presentation, being able to smile and being able to reach out and touch and be there for photographs and have a discussion of the show with an audience member, to me that's the tangible part and that is the extra part you have to do as a tribute artist. Ultimately what you're doing at that point is you're setting yourself up for rapport and greeting audience members.
Q - When you're not playing Tom Jones, you're doing what?
A - I now also have a Police tribute band and I play bass and play the role of Sting. That's about as far away from a Tom Jones voice as you can get. (laughs)
Q - When you were growing up, did you see any soon-to-be famous musicians?
A - I grew up in the late '70s, early '80s. That's when I was going out to clubs. I saw quite a few stars when they were younger, like Paul Young. He used to be in a band called The Q-tips, a big R&B band. I used to go out and watch him all the time. There was a band that was massive in England. They had one hit over here (U.S.) and that was The Jam. I remember seeing them in sort of the early days of Punk. I saw a lot of the early Punk bands because that was sort of what I was listening to. This is where The Police comes from for me. Although I impersonate Tom, I have to be perfectly honest and say that I wasn't a fan. He was actually a bit before my time. I never bought any of his music until I had to learn it. (laughs)
Q - They were a good band!
A - As a kid, they were my band. That's why I do it now. That is my music. That is my passion. That's my little fantasy gig right there. So, when I'm playing those Police gigs, those are just getting me off in the biggest way. (laughs)