“My idea of fun is what puts most people in jail.”
The entire point underlying this blog is to impart enthusiasm for the given subject matter. Sharing something extraordinary, remarkable or even just plain fun with the audience. Life’s too short to focus on lameass things. And to have to write about things you don’t even like? Nope, not how we really want to spend our days. Plus, why would you, the reader want to read about something mundane? Of course you don’t want that. You want awe-inspiring. Or at least things with cute cats and Twin Peaks-themed pot pipes. It’s our primary job here at Dangerous Minds to entertain you. Sometimes it’s simply to distract you from all of the bad shit going down…
You’ll get all of the above, in spades, I reckon, in the form of Texas-born rock and roller, PJ Proby, the entire package. He’s admittedly a pretty obscure figure. Frankly not even the most archly jaded rock snobs have probably ever heard of the guy. The subset of crate diggers who have actually heard the sound of the man’s truly phenomenal voice is smaller still. (His classic albums have hardly existed in the CD age.) I’ve been obsessed with him since the late 80s and have long wanted to make a documentary about him. Frankly I’m not really sure if I am acquainted with anyone who knows or cares about him like I do. (Maybe you do, but I don’t know you, do I?) Considering the intense megawatt talent the man possesses, all the lucky breaks that he’s had over his six decade-long career, and all of the immortals his orbit has collided with, PJ Proby should be, as he’s said himself—and I agree with this wholeheartedly—at least as famous as his one-time drinking buddy Tom Jones. That was not to be, although it coulda been and shoulda been.
When Tom Jones was just starting out, he was often accused—unfairly I think—of copying Proby’s act. In many ways PJ Proby and Jones are performers in that same general mold: powerful belters, macho, sexy, equally at home singing heart-breaking lonely boy ballads or bellowing balls-out rockers. When Proby’s infamous onstage trouser-splitting stunt occurred in Croydon (more on this below), it was in fact Jones who hastily replaced him on the package tour he was embarked upon after Proby was summarily banned from most of the live stages in Britain. If you like early Scott Walker, or the big ballady material Dusty Springfield excelled at, or even Nick Cave, then PJ Proby is probably in your wheelhouse. His records are easy to find—usually for really cheap—in used record bins. Every one of them is a mixture of filler and hits, but when he connects with the material, something sublime happens. I think he’s one of the all time greatest talents in rock and roll history, but few people would know that in 2017, or care.
PJ Proby was born James Marcus Smith on November 6, 1938, in Houston. His great-grandfather on his mother’s side was the outlaw gunfighter John Wesley Hardin and his father was a successful banker. He was educated at the strict San Marcos Military Academy, but even at school he was known as a bit of a hellraiser and was early on convinced that he was a genius and destined for greatness of some sort. His showbiz ambitions started early with local preteen appearances singing country music. He met Elvis Presley on that circuit when he was just 12 or 13 and Elvis at one point dated his step sister, Betty. But this was just the start of Proby’s improbable, Zelig or Forrest Gump-like ability to always be where the action was. Even at that age, he just was warming up, but already in the right places at the right time and always with the right crowd.
After moving to Hollywood in the mid-50s to become and actor and/or a singer, Smith took the name “Jett Powers” and recorded the single “Go, Girl Go!,” which is best known today as a song that the Cramps dug. (Jett’s backing band the Moondogs included Elliot Ingber/“Winged Eel Fingerling,” later of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, on lead guitar). Signed to a songwriting and performing contract with Liberty (along with the likes of Leon Russell and Glen Campbell), he recorded under the name Orville Woods so that the public would think he was black! Additionally Proby made a living working as a bodyguard for closeted gay entertainers like Rock Hudson, Liberace and Tab Hunter (by his own account, brutally dispensing anyone who dared hassle one of them in a “gay bashing” manner). Proby also recorded “vocal guides” for $10 a pop so that performers like Elvis could more efficiently make use of expensive recording studio time. (He did twenty such vocal guides for Presley, mimicking his singing style in a full-throated manner that was said to have amused the King.) In early 1964 Jackie DeShannon and songwriter Sharon Sheeley (who’d been his best friend, Eddie Cochran’s, fiancée) introduced Proby—then bearded and wearing his hair extremely long as he was hoping to play the part of Jesus in a musical—to Jack Good who was visiting from London. The meeting would change the course of his life.
Good, the prominent TV producer and manager who gave the world Shindig!, Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, Billy Fury, Marty Wilde and others of Britain’s first wave of rock and roll stars (he’s also the guy who convinced Gene Vincent to don that Richard III garb) is alleged to have grabbed Proby’s ponytail to see if it was real. Soon afterward, Good’s secretary called from London and offered the complete unknown a spot on the Beatles’ upcoming television special “With the Beatles.”
Upon his arrival at Heathrow airport Proby told reporters of his intentions for Great Britain: “I’m going to fight all your men, fuck all your women and steal all your money. Then I’m going to buy myself a yacht and sail off into the wide blue yonder.”
When the show aired, Proby immediately became extremely famous, the very definition of the overnight sensation, even if his fame was to be short-lived. A single, “Hold Me” was recorded and rushed out so quickly that a stray vocal was inadvertently pressed into the record’s fadeout on the initial run. The song became a smash, reaching #3 in the UK charts. He racked up more hits with utterly histrionic (and almost insane-sounding, yet mesmerizing) cover versions of West Side Story‘s “Somewhere” and “Maria,” as well as with a song the Beatles had tried unsuccessfully to record for the Help! soundtrack, but that none of them could adequately sing. They opted to gift the song, “That Means a Lot,” to someone with the pipes who could, their American pal (well at least Lennon liked him) Proby. Incredibly, George Martin even arranged the song for him!
PJ Proby performs the castoff number from ‘Help!’ that Lennon and McCartney gave him, “That Means a Lot” on ‘Hollywood A Go-Go’ in 1965. If you are not mazed by this, I cannot possibly help you.
What insane luck, right? Soon Beatles manager Brian Epstein set up Proby with a UK package tour, co-headlining with Cilla Black. That’s when things got a bit out of the egotistical young rocker’s control: At a date in Croydon, Proby clad in his trademark tight velvet jumpsuit and looking like an 18th century dandy, was doing his James Brown-inspired stage act (the likes of which still staid post war Britain had not yet seen) and slid across the stage, tearing his pants around the knees and upwards from there. The crowd of teenaged girls went utterly mad, but the incident caused a stir in the media getting Proby on the radar of Britain’s self-appointed moral censor, Mary Whitehouse. When Proby did the same thing two nights later it was widely reported that he’d done something lewd in Luton. The Daily Mirror wrote that he was a “morally insane degenerate” and urged parents to keep their children from attending one of his shows. Whitehouse called his “thrusting” obscene but Proby claimed otherwise and available photos seem to corroborate his side of the story. He was kicked off the tour anyway and banned from the ABC theater chain and BBC radio and television. This was a good decade before the Sex Pistols, of course. Proby had a few more semi hits, but without radio play his star quickly faded. He later said of the incident:
“I was Britain’s Errol Flynn, the rough mother of pop. I was Jimmy Dean all busted up. I was Marlon Brando. They wanted rid of me.”
Canadian audiences were still able to thrill to Proby live in concert, while his work visa was yanked for a time in the UK
Back in Hollywood, Proby had his sole Billboard Hot 100 Top 30 hit with the infectious cajun-spiced rocker “Niki Hoeky.” He bought a mansion in Beverly Hills and married one of Dean Martin’s daughters. When he found out that she’d been having an affair with his car mechanic and saw them walking together hand in hand, he discharged his gun in the air several times to intimidate them. He soon found himself surrounded at gunpoint by much of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department and did a three month stint in a holding cell before moving back to the UK. He recorded his Three Week Hero album in 1968 with Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones, then of the New Yardbirds, but soon to be rechristened Led Zeppelin. It was the very first time all four of them would be inside of a recording studio together.
In 1971 Proby played Cassio on the West End in Catch My Soul, Jack Good’s rock musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. He made the cabaret and nightclub circuit for money and even recorded an album with the Dutch prog rockers Focus (it’s amazing!). In 1977, again with Good producing, he co-starred in Elvis – The Musical—Shakin’ Stevens played the young King of rock and roll while Proby played him in his later years—which won a Best Musical award the following year. Proby was fired when he began getting drunk before going onstage and started speaking directly to the audience.
There are all kinds of crazy PJ Proby stories involving Jack Daniels, bankruptcies, guns, underage girls, more guns and more Jack Daniels. Every once in while during the 80s he’d turn up again in some completely insane or scandalous situation. He went through six wives. He worked as a shepherd on a farm before running off with the farmer’s daughter. He recorded some totally off the wall covers of songs like “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” “Heroes” and “Tainted Love” for the Manchester-based Savoy label, there was at least one fairly lurid television news piece about him (see below) and several “where is he now?” type articles. He was able to keep the wolves from the door singing on the oldies circuit for many years and been sober for a long time, but still has a reputation for being a bit “difficult.” (He is said to have burned through five road managers on a 2015 Australian oldies tour.) Proby recorded the remarkable Legend album with Marc Almond and Neal X, with a duet with Almond—the soaring “Yesterday Has Gone”—reaching #58 on the UK pop charts in 1996. (It’s well worth seeking out if you are so inclined, I think it’s a super strong album.) He toured with the Who during their 1997 Quadrophenia US and Europe show playing the role of the Godfather.
As late as 2011, Proby was still getting himself into trouble, being charged with nine charges of benefit fraud, specifically for signing on the dole while failing to declare savings and that he’d been working again. He pleaded not guilty to all of the charges and was cleared all of them in 2012. He celebrated by recording two loopy new songs “I’m PJ” and “We The Jury”. In 2015, he performed with Van Morrison on the album, Duets: Re-working the Catalogue, actually singing Morrison’s 2002 song “Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby” with him and simultaneously answering that question himself: PJ Proby was still improbably here.
PJ Proby’s wild life has been bizarre and outsized—and his talent so HUGE—that if this is your first exposure to him (and odds are that might be) you probably can’t believe you’ve never heard of him before. But he was always his own worst enemy which is why he remains the Zelig of rock, a fascinating footnote of celebrity in our time. PJ Proby is meant to be sitting on the manuscript of a 500 page autobiography. I hope it gets published. No one will believe it. A documentary film, long in production, titled PJ Proby: A God Amongst Men (how he has often described himself, apparently not completely without irony) remains unreleased.
Extremely odd 1988 TV piece about Proby who was not in great shape when this was shot. If you’ve read this far, you definitely have to watch this.
“Somewhere” and “You’ve Come Back” in Australia, 1966
“A Change is a Gonna Come” and “Maria” on Australian television in 1966
Proby’s star-making 1964 performance on ITV’s ‘Around the Beatles’
Extended live footage, again from Aussie TV, 1966. What rock star had hair THIS LONG (AND A BEARD!) in 1966 beside Frank Zappa?
Van Morrison and PJ Proby sing “Whatever Happened to PJ Proby” live at Van’s 70th Cyprus Avenue birthday celebration in east Belfast in 2015.
1967’s “You Can’t Come Home Again (If You Leave Me Now)” is considered a Northern Soul classic.
“You Don’t Love Me No More”
Proby’s only American hit, 1967’s “Niki Hoeky”
The non-album 1969 single"Hanging from Your Loving Tree” with the future Led Zeppelin backing him.
“The Day That Lorraine Came Down” from 1969’s ‘Three Week Hero’ with backing from Jimmy Page, Robert Plant (on backing vocals), John Paul Jones (who arranged it) and John Bonham. It’s incredibly obvious that you are hearing Led Zeppelin here.
Proby, serious and sober on ‘This Morning with Richard and Judy’ in 1995.