Ex-bandmate of Sir Tom tells his side of the story

‘WE HAD A POUND A DAY TO LIVE ON’: Vernon Hopkins

‘A REAL BAND’: The Senators, with Tom Jones, left, and from left: rhythm guitarist Dai Cooper, lead guitarist Mickey Gee, drummer Chris Slade and bass guitarist Vernon Hopkins.

First published in News
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WHEN Vernon Hopkins, founder of Pontypridd beat group The Senators, decided to ask local Teddy Boy Tommy Woodward, to sing with them, he had little thought of the consequences.

Desperate to find a singer to help them fill a set at the local YMCA, Vernon had lured Tommy away from the bar of his local with promises of money and more booze. Vernon knew Tomcould sing and they needed a frontman.

It was a twist of fate because Tommy Woodward would become Sir Tom Jones and Vernon and his band would find themselves abandoned in his wake.

Now Vernon has written a noholds barred book on his time with Tom called Tom Jones: Just Help Yourself – a tale of success and shattered dreams, hope and heartbreak and ultimately, of friendship destroyed.

“After that night I fought to get Tomto join the band. I knewI wanted him because he had an amazing voice,” recalls Vernon, from his home in Pontarddulais where he now lives with wife, Abercrave-born 60s singer Mia Lewis. “From then on we became a real band, good friends.”

They drewa huge local following and in 1964, the band was spotted by manager Gordon Mills who whisked them off to London in the hope of getting them signed.

It didn’t quite go to plan.

“We were living in Ladbroke Grove and it was rough,” recalls Vernon. “Nine months we were there starving, living in horrible conditions in a rat-invested hovel. The things that happened there could fill a book in itself.

We had a pound a day to live on.

“And we weren’t even making music, just sitting tight. One day Gordon asked us to demo a song called It’s Not Unusual.

“As soon as we heard it we wanted it and we begged to be allowed to release it, but Gordon said, no, it was for Sandie Shaw.

We’d had enough and were on the verge of going home”

When Sandie Shaw turned down the song, the group, now called Tommy Scott and the Squires, were offered it.

Or rather, Tom was, The Squires, it seemed, would be sitting this one out and backing was provided by a session group.

It was a bitter blow.

“We couldn’t believe it,” says Vernon. “We’d been together all these years and the first song we got, we weren’t allowed to play on it.

“It was a big disappointment and we were in for more.”

And so it began, Tom was moved out of the ‘black hole of Calcutta’ as they called their flat, and into a mansion. The rest of the band played a waiting game.

There were TV appearances and live shows, including a Royal Command performance, an EP and recording sessions, but while Gordon and Tom got richer, the boys were not sharing in the wealth.

“We were left to rot with no money,” recounts Vernon. “All our time together and we were given nothing – it was a joke.”.

The Squires, once five fast friends from the Valleys, were being torn apart and Vernon was at breaking point.

The end came in 1969 when Mills fired Vernon and the boys.

Vernon said: “We were slung out like dirty old mats. It was cold, it was cruel, it was callous and mean,” he explains.

But time eased the pain and Vernon would go on to brighter things, playing with other performers such as Little Arrows star Leapy Lee; he married Mia, and together they had some success as a duo.

They never heard from Tom, the friendship had disappeared with the dream.

But fast-forward a fewyears to 1988 and Vernon received a phone call. Tom wanted to see him.

By then, Gordon Mills had died and Tomwanted Vernon to meet him at a gig he was doing in London.

If Vernon admits he was unnerved watching Tom perform from the audience, Tom was apparently also unnerved at seeing Vernon in the front row.

And so it was with some hesitation that Vernon went backstage for a chat, which did not go the way Vernon expected.

“He didn’t ask about me or the boys. That was the last time I saw him,” says Vernon, who has a daughter Tara and two grandchildren.

But writing the book was a therapeutic process that has let Vernon tell his story.

“It’s full of humour, sadness and fun. Sometimes I’d be laughing my head off and then other times crying,” says Vernon who has a second book about to be released, a novel called One of the Boys, written with the help of JG Ballard, author of Empire of the Sun, a friend who died in 2009.

● Tom Jones: Just Help Yourself is available from Tesco, Amazon and other retailers.

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