If he ever gets another chance to meet Tom Jones, Mark Sylvester would like to tell the singer how he really feels.
Ideally, they would sit across from one another over a hot cup of tea or maybe a beer and talk shop. Sylvester would ask for a few pointers on his act, sing for the man he considers “the voice, the master,” and finally thank Tom Jones, thank him for everything.
Jones has even appeared to him in dreams, doling out singing tips and telling him how to swing those hips.
“I feel like Tom Jones is in me,” says Sylvester, “he comes into me.”
Originally from Kuala Lumpur, 53-year-old Sylvester has been impersonating Tom Jones in Asia for the last 30 years. He has performed the Welsh singer’s greatest hits in seven Asian countries including Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia-where crowds have reached 10,000 or more and past performances have included a 48-piece orchestra.
Sylvester dresses for each show in too-tight leather pants, a blousy shirt and a large silver cross on a chain around his neck-all signatures of Jones-and has swiveled his hips in a small London club and crooned to hundreds at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
Currently, he can be seen every night save Sunday at the carpeted lounge of Phnom Penh’s Hotel Cambodiana, where he is billed simply as “Asia’s Tom Jones.”
Sylvester started singing Jones’ songs in the basement of an air-conditioning company where he worked as a technician in the early 1970s. All day, he would listen to the piped-in tunes and sing along loud above the drone of the machines, subconsciously developing the booming voice quality characteristic of Jones.
His boss told him he had a voice big enough for radio, and friends pointed him toward an upcoming talent competition in Kuala Lumpur. Sylvester practiced so much before the competition that he lost his voice. Panic-stricken, he thought, “It’s in the Lord’s hands.”
The Lord smiled on Mark Sylvester. That night he won the equivalent of about $500 and a six-month contract to sing at the beer garden where the competition was held. One year later, he was making a living solely off of singing Tom Jones.
The two met once, back in 1980 outside a concert at the Hilton in Kuala Lumpur, though there wasn’t time for more than a glimpse and handshake as the star moved quickly on, surrounded by security guards.
Sylvester sent an e-mail several years ago, but never heard back. He remembers feeling sad but “I said, ‘nevermind’…. Maybe he was too busy. Maybe he never got my e-mail. These big stars never read their e-mails anyway.”
“I am not the only Tom Jones lover,” he said. “I am together with millions.”
A few gray roots peek out at the fringe of Sylvester’s thick 1970s hairdo as he marvels how, “even at his age,” 63-year-old Tom Jones still has what it takes.
Sylvester may as well be referring to himself-except he’s not. Despite the sculpted sideburns and Elvis-like gyrations, the concrete skyscrapers of Sylvester’s Kuala Lumpur are far from the pale Welshman’s “Green, Green Grass of Home.” They are as different, you might say, as night and day.
Sylvester says he’ll let the ladies decide whether or not he is a sex symbol, but that he can say definitively he will never surpass the level of Tom Jones.
“He’s my master, so how can I go above him?”
At a live show earlier this month at the Cambodiana lounge, audience members laughed as Sylvester threw his black blazer aside and popped open the first three buttons of his dress shirt, revealing a shiny cross against a glistening, 53-year-old chest.
Sylvester laughed too, albeit not as heartily, and wiped a bit of sweat from his brow. He reached into his shirt, grabbed his right pectoral, and jiggled it at the audience.
“Love will never do what you want it to. Why can’t this crazy love be mine?” go the lyrics of Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual,” guiding Sylvester through another show.
There is no resentment in Sylvester. No sense that if Tom Jones didn’t exist, he would have had a bigger spotlight in which to shine.
“He must be there so that I can go on,” Sylvester said of Jones. “He is my direction in life.”