"The Lean Years"
taken from Chapter 22: Gordon's Last Days
By 1986 Tom was as concerned as he has ever been about his career. He worked constantly in America - Vegas for two months in four two week stints, a week or two in Atlantic City and at least a hundred one nighters across the States. The venues were getting smaller. There were no new songs on the TV or radio. Tom was aware that his career was in trouble. In the past he had been saved by recording a great song. The problem was to find one
"I had got preoccupied with live performances," he admitted , " they didn't dwindle away with the hits. A year went by, two three years went and the audience was still there. Playing the big venues, I got caught up in that thinking everybody can hear me I was singing the songs but it was not being recorded not being captured for others to see.
" In 1978 Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow had hit number 15 in the American pop charts . It had been his first country number one which helped Gordon [Mills] negotiate a substantial new deal. In 1980 Tom signed with the European record conglomerate Polygram, who were determined to establish a presence in America. "They didn't know what to do with me," he recalls, "In the studio there has to be direction, particularly when the record companies have so many different divisions. The first record I did for them - Darlin' - became a country hit. So the country division said they'd got me a hit and they wanted the next album to be country. I said fine."
That could have been an inspired decision. The record industry were still obsessed with the hangover from the disco era and country music was enjoying a solid revival. Its audiences have always appreciated a man with a big voice and the ability to wring every available tear drop from a lyric. For the cover picture of Darlin' Tom posed in western duds. He looked deeply uncomfortable. On songs like his remake of Elvis' 1959 hit One Night he sounded it too.
"I had some success on the first one," says Tom, " and they wanted another one and another one, I was digging my own grave, covering myself in cow pats. I had a commitment so I didn't want to make a bad album and they just sold enough to keep me in that country thing. I was playing smaller venues but it didn't dry up. What kept me going without the records was that the people were there."
When the Polygram deal ended Tom refused to re-sign. For the first time in 21 years he had no record deal. Then in July 1986 his manager and mentor, Gordon Mills, died of stomach cancer. Tom's career had reached its lowest ebb. But he made the decision to entrust his career to the man who understood him better than anybody alive ... his son Mark.
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© Robin Eggar, 2000. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in any form.