Tom Jones’s first attempt at busking began ominously as a crowd gathered around a set of speakers and a lone microphone set up on the South Bank of the Thames near the Royal Festival Hall. “It’s Tom Jones, isn’t it?” one woman asked. “I’ve never liked him since he had his nose done. He had a sensible Welsh nose in the old days.”
Skateboarders and BMX bikers gathered nonplussed at a nearby underpass. Sir Tom would be using the graffiti-covered skating area if it rained, they were told. “That would be a bit awkward,” one BMX rider said. “We’d have to ride around him.”
But any doubt that the 68-year-old singer could still thrill a crowd was dispelled the moment he stepped up to the microphone. “Can you hear me all right?” he asked. The crowd, which had swelled to about 400, cheered and raised their arms, not in celebration, but to capture the moment on their mobile telephones.
An acoustic guitarist struck up a Jerry Lee Lewis song and Sir Tom bellowed into the microphone: “Put on your red dress, on, baby, ‘Cause we’re going out tonight.”
The gig, organised by The Culture Show on BBC Two, was part of a competition between musicians to see who could raise the most for charity by busking. Sir Tom’s main aim was to beat a Welsh male-voice choir. Early impressions were encouraging. “Hey, we’ve got a fiver in here,” he said, looking in one of the champagne buckets used as collecting tins. “That’s more than I got paid for my first gig.”
The singer, dressed in a polo neck and jacket, then sang the opening lines of his 1966 hit Green, Green Grass of Home to rapturous applause, followed by Jerry Lee Lewis’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire.
The singer worked the crowd with tricks learned from five decades of performing, entreating his female fans
to “wiggle around just a little bit”. One middle-aged woman said that she would have thrown her knickers at him “if only it were a bit warmer”.
Sir Tom was scheduled to do only three songs, but expanded it to six as the crowd called for more. Then he sang them all again. One audience member shouted: “You ought to do this professionally and give up the busking.”
The loudest cheer was reserved for It’s Not Unusual, his 1965 No 1 hit. Martine Le Page, 22, held up her mobile telephone so her mother could listen. Her mother pronounced herself satisfied. “He’s still as good as ever,” she said.
Sir Tom’s ambition to beat the Welsh choir was fulfilled. The crowd, which included veteran members of the Tom Jones fan club, contributed more than £460. Sean O’Leary, a professional busker who left his patch underneath a railway bridge nearby to listen to Sir Tom, was impressed. “I played for half an hour this afternoon and got nothing. I’ve heard what he played. Maybe if I learn those songs I’ll make some more money.”
In the street – looking at the stars
Badly Drawn Boy The Mercury prize winner busked outside Waterloo Station in 2003. Hidden cameras captured the reaction of commuters as he played the guitar and sang, earning £1.60 for his efforts.
Sir Paul McCartney The former Beatle earned even less when he spent a day busking in the capital in 2005 in fake beard and dark glasses. He said: “I only got a few shillings and I thought, ‘This doesn’t feel right’. So I gave it to charity”.
Joshua Bell The violinist was persuaded by The Washington Post to busk in a busy station, to gauge reactions to great playing outside a concert setting. He earned $32 in 45 minutes — playing on a Stradivarius worth £2 million.
Nigel Kennedy Started his career busking and returned to the street in 2001 for charity. He raised more than £100 for the Big Issue Foundation in a few minutes.