Sunday, 20 May 2018
I'm Comin' Home/Turn Her Away/Together/I Apologise
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.”
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.
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.
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.