Surrounded by Time has dark tones that seem tied to 2020, but did it precede COVID-19?
We finished before the lockdown. A lot of it was live, with the musicians in the room at the same time. I didn't know the pandemic was going to be so heavy. It's amazing these songs are even more relevant than when I recorded them.
What drew you to “Talking Reality Television Blues,” which sardonically tracks the history of TV?
I really related to it because I was there. As a kid, I had tuberculosis and was bedridden for two years. And my mother bought me a television set in 1952, when TV first came out in the U.K. I remember all the things listed in the lyrics. I saw the queen's coronation from my bed. In Britain, we didn't know who Milton Berle was, but I got to know him in the States. The moon landing. I saw that live in the dressing room between two shows I was doing in New Haven. Michael Jackson. I knew him when he was a kid with the Jackson 5. And Donald Trump. He would come to my shows in Atlantic City. When the song was written, Trump was not president yet. He was just the old guy with the comb-over on reality television.
You chose to do a spoken-word version, which might surprise fans.
I've always been a Hank Williams fan, and he did an album, Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter, where he speaks songs. I liked that. There's a song he did, “I've Been Down That Road Before,” which almost made my album. It touches a nerve with me because it's about getting into scraps. It goes: “You see these teeth that I ain't got and these knots on my bald head? I'll guarantee you boys I didn't get them there from lying home in bed.”
Would you consider getting married again?
No. I had a wonderful life with my wife. I've never met anybody else like her, and there's no point looking.
After Linda died, how did you get your career going again?
I went to a grief therapist, and she told me not to make any sudden moves because I was in mourning. I told her I didn't think I'd be able to sing anymore, and she asked what song would be the hardest for me to do. It was a Bob Dylan song, “What Good Am I?” It's a very touching song. So she said, “That's the first one you should sing. If you can get through that, then you know you can do it.” I got some musicians together — just a rhythm section in a hotel room — and we did it.
You've recorded in multiple genres, making you difficult to pigeonhole. Has that hurt your career?
I got my TV show in the late ‘60s because of my versatility. I could sing duets with anybody that came on — Wilson Picket or Jerry Lee Lewis or Robert Goulet or Barbara Eden. There is no limit to my versatility, which I always thought was an asset. But versatility can be a problem. Where do you go? What records do you make? Van Morrison once said to me, “You would have been a great blues singer. Why didn't you do that?” It wasn't enough. I loved Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and Big Bill Broonzy. But I also loved Brook Benton. Soul music was a big thing for me. I could have pursued gospel or opera, but it's too restricting. I could not just stick to one thing. I need to be fluid.
You've been a coach on The Voice in the U.K. since 2012. What's the best advice you can offer a rookie singer?
Not to copy. They put more notes in one word now than ever before. I say be yourself. You don't have to compete. Look at Norah Jones. When everything was hip-hop, she was sitting at the piano with this lovely voice. Don't be frightened to be different. When I first got to London, they said curly hair doesn't work anymore. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones with their boyish looks were popular, and there I am, this macho guy from South Wales with a broken nose. I tell kids to stick to their guns.
Edna Gundersen, a regular AARP music critic, was the longtime pop critic for USA Today.