P.J. Proby’s story is one of those crazed, it should be a movie but no one would believe it tales that I love so much. This is a mere thumbnail sketch of a man who’s voice can raise a fan’s enthusiasm to seismic proportions. A quick Google search will keep you busy reading and watching videos all week. The great Nik Cohn, perhaps the most insightful chronicler of pop music the U.K has ever produced (I even love his book on New Orleans hip hop, Triksta (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) and I don’t even like the music) dedicated an entire chapter to him in his classic work Pop: From The Beginning (Rock: From The Beginning in the U.S., Stein & Day, 1969).
P.J. Proby, born James Marcus Smith in Houston, Texas, 1938, into an upper class banking family headed to L.A. in the late 50’s to make it as either a singer or pop star. His first managers renamed him Jett Powers (after James Dean’s character in Giant) and it was as Jett Powers he cut two incredible rock’n’roll 45’s that would have insured his infamy even if he’d headed back to Houston and taken his father’s job running the Second National Bank. The first 45, released in ’58 was on the Design label, a subsidiary of the budget Pickwick Records (where Lou Reed started out)– Go Girl Go b/w Teenage Quarrel on which he was backed by a rockin’ little combo called Vince Paris & the Raunch Hands (where the Crypt Records group would steal their name from) is, I think, the pinnacle of his entire recorded catalog. 1959 saw his second release– Loud Perfume b/w My Troubles on Beta, an L.A. label, features Marcus/Powers/Proby fronting the Bumps Blackwell Orchestra, the same session players heard on all of Little Richard and Sam Cooke’s early L.A. recordings. Both singles sank without a trace but have been re-issued dozens if not hundreds of times over the ensuing decades. To make ends meet he began recording demos for Elvis and Johnny Cash (amongst others), his voice had an amazing range and he was a spot on mimic who could reproduce nearly any style from Hank Williams to Mario Lanza.
Marcus tried his hand as a songwriter, selling the rather peculiar “Clown Shoes” to Johnny Burnette, then he struck up a songwriting partnership with Sharon Sheeley. Sharon Sheeley was one of those characters who would have been inducted into the rock’n’roll hall of fame years ago if that idiotic institution had anything to do with rock’n’roll. She wrote hits for Ricky Nelson (including “Poor Little Fool”), Eddie Cochran (“Something Else”), Brenda Lee, Irma Thomas (“Break-A-Way”, her best) and others. She was Eddie Cochran’s last girlfriend, and was in the cab when it crashed and killed him. It was Sheeley who brought James Marcus Smith to the attention of British producer Jack Good, then working in L.A. on the U.S. TV show Shindig (best R&R TV show ever) where Sheeley herself was working as a writer. Good spotted Marcus’ potential and signed him up. Good’s dream was to produce a rock’n’roll version of Othello and at various times names like Jerry Lee Lewis and then newly renamed P.J. Proby were put forth as his Iago (it was eventually produced on film as Catch My Soul with Lance LeGault in the Iago role, Ritchie Havens played Othello, Tony Joe White was Cassio, it’s unwatchable). Good brought Proby to London in ’64 and launched him on a career with more ups and downs than Elvis’ pill box. Proby was an immediate sensation scoring a string of U.K. chart topping hits–Hold Me, Together, Somewhere, Maria (from West Side Story), et al, that were well made, even moving, histrionic pop, sort of Johnny Ray meets Elvis meets Tom Jones only better. It was the voice, his voice could overcome the schmaltziest material. These records may sound goofy to you hard core rockers, but with the studio guitar team of Big Jim Sullivan and his young side kick Jimmy Page, the pair that livened up so many U.K. pop discs from Dave Berry’s The Crying Game to Donovan’s Sunshine Superman, and Proby’s over the top, operatic delivery they retain a certain appeal that is not camp but genuinely soul stirring. Last time I looked his hits could be found here (but you never know with these things, if the link no longer works try the Chewbone blog on the right).
After his first hits Proby set out on his first headlining tour of the U.K., super stardom seemed assured. He cut a striking figure, his hair cut into Beatles like bangs with a long pony tail trailing down his back, blue crushed velvet tunic and tight pants, buckle shoes. The first night of the tour his tight velvet pants split, exposing his stuff to the audience. The effete Brits were appalled but forgiving, the first time. When the same thing happened the second and third night of the tour it caused a sensation. The third night the curtains were dropped on him mid song and the following day the press went wild. Proby responded by issuing the single I Apologize, it went top ten.
Proby lived hard. He drank bourbon like it was water. When Cohn interviewed him in 1966 he found him barricaded in a luxury hotel surrounded by acolytes, court jesters, groupies, body guards and the usual assortment of trash any rock star attracts.
You really owe it to yourself to track down a copy of Ugly Things magazine #19 (the last of the great fanzines in the tradition of Who Put The Bomp and Kicks). In it you’ll find an interview with Kim Fowely (someone should do a book of Kim Fowley’s greatest interviews) who recounts wild and wooly tales of time spent in London with Proby complete with X-rated cameos by Diana Dors and Haley Mills!
Proby became Fleet Street’s favorite whipping boy. And he gave them plenty of ammo. While he would have hit records until 1967 (his last hit Nikki Hoeky, an early delve into swamp rock that Tony Joe White and Creedence would take to the bank, it was his only U.S. hit), he was constantly in trouble, getting drunk, throwing tantrums (often onstage), getting banned, making headlines. He retired for a year to raise horses (1966-7) only to end up having to declare bankruptcy after finding himself
L200,00 in debt. In the early 70’s he would star in a West End musical portraying Elvis, record with Dutch prog rock group Focus (of Hocus Pocus fame), in the 80’s he went new wave, recording Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart and other post-punk tunes.
But at heart Proby was always a rocker, his LP’s, especially the early Liberty ones like I Am P.J. Proby always have some great rock’n’roll tunes thrown in, I prefer this stuff to his hits. Take a listen to his version of Ray Sharpe’s classic Linda Lu, or this over the top work out on Stagger Lee (I think this is my favorite version ever). Another great LP track is the rockin’ Caldonia. His choice of cover tunes was all over the place, for example this whacked out take on the Jayhawks’ Stranded In The Jungle
is quite impressive or how about this rendition of Huey Smith & the Clowns’ Rockin’ Pneumonia (and the Boogie Woogie Flu), or the killer version of the Five Keys’ Ling Ting Tong on the top clip (above).
All his early albums are well worth searching out more for the filler material than the hits. An excellent selection of his rockers was here as recently as yesterday (be sure to note the password).
Every now and then Proby hits the road and plays some supper clubs to pay the bills. His fans still love him. So somewhere out there he sits– P.J. Proby, he should be as big as Tom Jones, or at least Englebert Humperdink. Proby and his bottle of bourbon, in front of the tv set, cursing under his breath. That’s the way I imagine it. Who knows, maybe he’s playing golf or looking at porn on the internet. I wonder what he’s doing right now. I wonder what he’s thinking….