That's Torn It!
The Story of P.J. Proby
Mojo. May 1997
P J. PROBY, SURVIVOR OF 30 YEARS OF fame, purgatory, and sporadic redemption, is holding court on one of his favourite subjects. "From Graceland to the stage is all he ever knew in life – apart from Germany, which he saw from a hotel window and an army base. He died without ever going around the world. Without ever knowing what Lobster Thermidor was. I got tired of going to Elvis's house to eat every Saturday because I got tired of fried chicken and hamburgers. Elvis didn't know what good cuisine was and he didn't wanna learn." He stayed a good country boy, I venture? "No," says Proby, quietly offended. "That's not country, that's ignorant. Roy Rogers was a country boy but he acted like a king and saw the world. Elvis didn't have the desire or the intelligence..."
The hair may be greyer now, the granite-hewn visage closer to Desperate Dan than the boy Adonis it used to resemble. But at 58 P.J. Proby still suffers fools less than gladly. Epithets like 'Dionysus' and 'Legend' have been mightily over-subscribed down the years, lazily applied to any old low-rent Hank Williams who stumbles into town armed with a sheaf of songs and a carefully contrived attitude, but when you meet Proby in the flesh you encounter the genuine larger-than-life article. You get the impression that if he'd met Dionysus he'd have drunk him under the carpet.
In the late '50s, Proby, then a struggling songwriter called Jett Powers (after Tyrone), used to demo the songs for Elvis's motion pictures. Despite the kudos and reflected glory, Proby retains an uncharacteristically modest attitude towards the venture. "Any Southern boy with a country voice can do Elvis," he insists. The two Southern boys go back further than the movie soundtracks, and Proby remembers a world where Elvis's initial fame was confined to below the Mason-Dixon Line and there were separate radio stations for country, pop and race records. Proby only cared for the latter.
"The trouble was," he continues, "Elvis was taken over by Parker when he was so young and he had everything so fast that he never had a life of his own. All he knew was how to sign cheques for whatever he wanted."
And for a brief period in the mid-'60s that was P. J. Proby too. As he once put it, the good fairy came every day and left a million pound note under the pillow. Proby had it all. The looks, the blessing of Lennon and McCartney, the backing of Jack Good, eulogised by Nik Cohn in the seminal book Awopbopaloobop. Oh, and he could sing a bit as well. Rock'n'roll, country, opera, ballads, the blues, the lot. A rebel yell from the lips of Mario Lanza. Roll over Screamin' Jay and tell Caruso the news.
Born James Marcus Smith in Houston, Texas in 1938, Proby's parents divorced when he was nine. As part of the custody deal, Proby was shipped off to military academy. "A carrier pigeon between the two new families," is how he describes his childhood. "But I always knew where I wanted to end up. In the movies." So he went to Hollywood, got the Elvis gig, and became a bit of a face about town. Despite hanging out with the A-list he was living like a bum, mostly sleeping in a friend's garage – when he wasn't holed up in Wilcox police station of a weekend. Infamous and unruly even then.
A key figure in the early chronology, indeed the person who first made him get his shit together, was Sharon Sheeley. A songwriter at the time with partner Jackie DeShannon, the pair were penning hits for Ricky Nelson and Eddie Cochran. She was later Eddie Cochran's girlfriend, and it was Sheeley who rechristened Powers Proby (after an old boyfriend from junior high) and got him his first recording contract, in 1960, with Dick Glasser at Liberty Records. At Liberty publishers Metric Music he worked alongside Glen Campbell, Leon Russel, and David Gates. New York got the Brill Building; the Liberty house writers had their own little shed out in the parking lot.
"Every demo I ever did for them had David on bass, Leon on piano, Glen on guitar. We all did falsetto backing vocals 'cos Liberty couldn't afford the girls." You could always do a passable falsetto, though, couldn't you? "You certainly can when they pay you. You'd be surprised how high that voice can go for money."
In 1963 Sharon Sheeley returned from a tour of the UK and showed Proby home movie footage of Eden Kane, Adam Faith, Cliff, etc. Proby was unimpressed with our Xerox copy. "As far as I was concerned y'll didn't have one person in England who could sing," he maintains. But he was impressed with the man who made them, promoter Jack Good, the Svengali who showed us how to do pop TV with Oh Boy and then shipped the whole operation over to the USA and called it Shindig.
"One night Jack got a call from Brian Epstein asking him to produce The Beatles' first TV spectacular for Rediffusion," says Proby. "I'd heard 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand', which hadn't impressed me at all." On learning, to his amazement, that that was "one hot group from England" and that he was being offered a prime spot in the proceedings, Proby quit Hollywood pausing only, as he tells it, to raid the Warners film set wardrobe. "I got one of Troy Donahue's shirts, Paul Newman's shirt from Billy The Kid, Russ Tamblyn's boots from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers... and when I put on Alan Ladd's coat, it was like a nice leather T-shirt." (A previous incarnation of this story has him wearing Tuesday Weld's knickers as well...)
A very Proby tale, that. Like most of his stories it's mythologised and embellished to the nth, but rooted in the reckless reality that he calls home. The thespian in Proby still does somegreat impressions – a whiny Sharon Sheeley, a vinegary old Rediffusion PA, a luvvie-darling Jack Good (we'll pass on the Brummie John Lennon, though). Sure, you have to pick your way through the well-worn anecdotes – worn through in some cases – about how he met Good, paved the way for the Walker Brothers to clean up in England, and co-wrote 'Mama Told Me Not To Come' with Randy Newman, not to mention the frequently implausible and chronologically skew-whiff how-I-invented-everything persona, but he is still one of rock'n'roll's great raconteurs.
"In England I started at the top and worked my way down," he says truthfully. "My first show was at the Albert Hall. Bottom of the bill to Adam Faith. I already knew that these singers couldn't sing diddly squat. They just politely stood there and shook their hair and their hips a little. I decided to give them a taste of America. I got horns, three girl singers. I had to do the hit ['Hold Me'], but the rest was stuff you'd never heard here, the James Brown Harlem act."
Proby doesn't so much warm to a theme as take a blowtorch to it. He did pretty much the same to English audiences. "Your boys over here were doing a very bad job of trying to learn what the blues was. I'd been raised on Chess and King records, so excuse me but the Rolling Stones in 1964 didn't sound anything like black men." To Proby, Jagger was just a camp parody of a James Brown we still hadn't seen yet. "I could be camp as well," agrees the Texan who wore a bow in his hair in 1964, "but I'd follow it up with some beef."
And that's pretty much the way this back door man exploded on to our black-and-white TV screens, a vision in buckskin shoes with gold buckles, satin bell-bottom pants, velvet smock or shirtless altogether, page boy hair done up in a pony-tail. He preened, pouted, wiggled his arse and waggled his tongue at all the pretty girls in the front rows of Mr Delfont and Mr Grade's provincial theatres. And like Willie Dixon said, those little girls understood. To a generation weened on 'Bachelor Boy', his 'Walking The Dog' on the aforementioned Beatles special was truly orgasmic. He tore up England.
His early singles boasted great production. Listen to what he does to Peggy Lee's sultry blueprint for 'Hold Me' on the original Decca 45. All wailing harmonica, sonic fuzz, and Spectoresque compression, it still sounds like one of the loudest records ever pressed. That he had great session men helped too: Jimmy Page on rhythm. Big Jim Sullivan on lead, Charles Blackwell on piano, Ginger Baker on drums. I enthuse about Page's proto-Zep playing on 'Hold Me''s follow-up 'Together'. "That wasn't Jimmy. That was Big Jim Sullivan. Jimmy couldn't pick lead then." Proby even got a song out of John Lennon. Reasoning that if the Billy Js and the Fourmosts of this world were entitled to Beatles cast-offs, then he'd have one for himself. Lennon gave him 'That Means A Lot'. Proby was also brazen enough to ask George Martin to produce. He got that too.
I relate to Proby the tale of a kid I once knew who swears to this day that he saw P.J. jump though a giant paper hoop on Top Of The Pops, while singing 'Hold Me'. He has no proof. No fanzine curator can confirm it. The BBC wiped all those early TOTPs years ago. So did ya do it, Jim? "Yes I did. Onto a sprung floor as well. The crew didn't wanna do it 'cos of the risk of injury. They wanted to show a cartoon with me on it and then a shot of me stepping through it. I said, No I'll dive through it. You couldn't rehearse it. I would have broken their prop. Once that thing was up you couldn't see the floor so I did it blind on live TV." And burned himself into the consciousness of a 10-year-old in the process.
And yes, dear reader, I was that Saul on the road to Damascus.
For Proby it was all so easy: you could see it in his eyes in those early appearances. You could hear it in his voice as he hammed up the West Side Story hits 'Maria' and 'Somewhere' and the Talk Of The Town standards that showed this boy could really sing. It couldn't last. Just when it seemed that he had located the nation's collective clitoris, they took it all away from him.
Firstly, Proby developed a little local difficulty in the tailoring department. Touring the ABC circuit with Cilia Black in February 1965, he split his trousers from knee to crotch. When it happened three nights in a row he was thrown off the tour and banned from TV and the entire ABC circuit. You may have read about it – it was in all the papers. It took another year to get him thrown out of England altogether but they managed that when his work permit expired in March 1966. Proby smelt a conspiracy. He still does. But, as Nik Cohn said at the time, even after the trouser-splitting and subsequent humiliation, "he never walked small". In fact he made some of his best records.
Proby had always chosen his material well. On his debut album I Am PJ. Proby he'd been the first person to do a James Brown cover in the UK ('I'll Go Crazy'). And he was shrewd at picking stuff that had charted Stateside but remained unheard here, like 'She Cried', a US hit for Jay And The Americans, or uncensorcd stuff from his race records days like 'Work With Me, Annie'. Best of all though are the tear-jerkers, which in Proby's hands became three-minute portraits of epic angst. Jackie De Shannon's 'Just Like Him', Goffin & King's 'Don't Forget About Me' and 'I Can't Make It Alone', which only Dusty ever came remotely close to when she went to Memphis three years later. Most epic of all was Proby's version of Gershwin's 'It Ain't Necessarily So'. Forget Lennon's Arthur Janov primal period. Here was PJ. Proby exorcising demons and who knows what else in 1965. "That was my old buddies Jack Daniel and Jim Beam," he grins. Then there was his gumbo phase. 'Ling Ting Tong', a Five Keys '50s US hit, and 'Niki Hoeky', picked up from a young New Orleans architect passing through on his way to Haight-Ashbury. Both contained arcane references to '"smoking bula" and "bukka bus", which as anyone from the Dixie Cups to Dr John will tell you roughly translates as "weedhead". 'Niki Hoeky' went gold in the USA, a factor that couldn't stop Proby getting thrown off Dick Clark's Where The Action Is tour for simulating dope-smoking.
In 1968 the taxman came and took his million pound note away (and the Rolls, the Lear Jet, and the payrolled lackies) and Proby filed for bankruptcy. In the summer of that year he recorded the Three Week Hero album, a fairly pedestrian country-blues-tinged affair which in all honesty didn't make the most of its backing group – Led Zeppelin. The sessions did, however, realise Proby's greatest ever song title, 'Merry Hopkins Never Had Days Like These'. It came out on a B-side. Proby's life was turning into a B-side.
In 1970 Proby briefly renewed his acquaintance with Jack Good, treading the boards in Good's dire rock musical Catch My Soul, before being sacked for "unpredictability". By 1972 he was reduced to appearing anonymously, in a mask, on ITV talent show Opportunity Knocks. "A favour for Hughie Green," Proby alleges. "He wanted to leave ATV and take Opportunity Knocks to Australia where they were offering him lots of money. He came backstage and asked me if I would help him break his contract by performing as a professional on something that was supposed to be an amateur show."
Equally bizarre was a mid-'70s collaboration with Focus. One moment he was singing Waylon Jennings numbers for his supper, next minute he was Jan Akkerman's replacement, singing jazz-prog on the appropriately-titled Focus Con Proby LP.
In 1977 Proby appeared in Jack Good's West End production of Elvis The Musical. With the corpse still warm, Proby took the part on the understanding that the storyline remained faithful to the myth: "I didn't want it to mention the drugs or show Elvis up for anything other than what the public thought he was." Apart from these brief periods of sobriety the only time Proby got media attention was when he was trundled out on some TV nostalgia show. The mausoleum grimness of such '60s retrospectives as Unforgettable ("Unforgiveable", as one reviewer dubbed it) was only offset by Proby's tendency to wear his greying hair in girly bunches. Not what you'd expect from a man approaching middle age.
The Forties are when the male vocal cords are supposed to be at their most flexible, when Sinatra and Tony Bennett did some of their best work. But then Sinatra and Bennett weren't living on DHSS handouts and plastic bags full of Special Brew up in a barn in Bronte country with snow coming in through the holes in the roof. When Sinatra did 'September Of My Years' I'd hazard a guess that he wasn't walking six miles to sign on.
There is a video compilation circulating among hardcore Proby fans, lovingly compiled by a Proby obsessive, which painfully documents the extent of his long slow descent into cabaret hell and beyond. The footage illustrates that for Proby the late '70s and early '80s, when he was working at all, were one long slog of chicken-in-a-basket backwater gigs and turgid 'where are they now' slots where regional TV hacks asked him the same three questions ("Why did you split your trousers?" "Why are you dating an under-age girl?" and, "Is it true that you are on the dole?"; "No," says Proby to the latter. "They won't allow me the dole. I get social security.")
It's a measure of how far he'd fallen that, apart from the occasional doomed residency where he is augmented by a competent MU house band capable of cranking out 'Hold Me' and 'Somewhere' while holding expressions of contemptuous boredom, he is mostly backed by third-rate outfits. One gig filmed in Manchester's Heaton Park in the early '80s shows him accompanied by a makeshift combo playing a kind of mutant free-form bluegrass that simply defies belief (not to mention Western tonality): imagine Zoot Horn Rollo playing the Grand Ole Opry in blindfold and boxing gloves, and still you aren't even close. Yet even here in the depths of despair and audience indifference the songs remain well chosen and pertinent to his condition – even when he's interrupting them every four bars to deliver a rambling dipso monologue.
Staples of the Proby repertoire throughout the dark days include Willie Nelson's world-weary 'On The Road Again', and 'Bad News (Travels Like Wildfire)', a Johnny Cash song tailor-made for Proby with its "trouble follows me everywhere I go" refrain. Dispensing with his avant garde bluegrass boys after three numbers, Proby staggers to the front of the stage and drunkenly assumes the Las Vegas Presley posture. Side on, legs slightly bent, arms whirling. People in the audience are laughing at him; it's not affectionate laughter either. It's the kind of merciless guffawing that greeted David like when he announced on the Wogan show that he was the godhead. Those who aren't hooting with laughter shout "Gedoff." The PA is turned off. Proby stands mic-less, bellowing like a madman. He is booze-soaked and oblivious to the derision.
Enter David Britton and Mike Butterworth, controversial publishers of Savoy Books and scourges of James Anderton's Manchester Constabulary. "We first met Proby in '81," says Britton. "He was playing a local pub near the old Electric Ballroom. He had his hair in two bangs which was an amazing haircut for those tough working-men's venues he was playing. The kind of characters you get in those places weren't that clued up on the Pre-Raphaelite imagery that he was putting out. " Proby originally wanted Britton and Butterworth to write his life story, using David Niven's Moon's A Balloon as the blueprint.
"But his life was completely the opposite of that," reasons Britton, "plus he was in the grip of alcoholism and had a thousand and one problems around him, as he always does. He had this young girlfriend Allison who he'd met when he was working as a stable hand. She was 14 at the time. ["She's 10," Proby told a visibly unamused Noel Edmonds on one of those bring-out-your-dead TV appearances of the early '80s.] Also the police and The People and the News Of The World were onto him." Britton gave up on the book and in 1985 started making records with Proby instead. One slight logistical problem: neither Britton nor Butterworth had ever produced a record in their lives. Proby had no useful contacts to speak of, his standing in the music industry by now zero minus and falling.
Over the next four years Savoy collaborated with Proby on some of the most startling he ever made. A def jam 'Tainted Love', a parodic 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', an Oliver-enunciated 'Anarchy In The UK', a ghostly and echo-drenched ''Heroes'', a restrained and respectful 'Sign 'O' The Times', and, best of all, versions on 'In The Air Tonight' and 'I'm On Fire' which take a flamethrower to the AOR coating of the originals. Because Proby didn't know any of the material, the Savoy team usually started with a rudimentary click track and built from there. "He wanted to do country songs," says Britton. "Modern music had just passed him by. When we played him ''Heroes'', for instance, he seemed to be under the impression that we would just take his voice and put it over Bowie's backing track."
"I just took Marc's song and aborted it," says Proby of 'Tainted Love'. "Some of those songs were so horrendously out there they are in." At one point in the fan's video footage some wag in a cabaret club audience calls out for 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. "He listen," responds Proby, "the guy who wrote that tied a sheet around his neck and threw himself out of the bedroom window."
"Oh yeah, he hated every one of them," agrees Britton, "and he fought us all the way down the line. They were all done despite him." And yet one can't help feeling that if Bowie, say, or Scott Walker had made the same move during the same period we would all be applauding them now for their conceptual brilliance. The series of Savoy recordings is Bowie's Pin-Ups reconvened and spewed up in some post modernist futurescape where rock'n'roll sounds alien and unsafe again. Like it should do. The most amazing thing is that the records got made at all. By now Proby had so many hellhounds on his trail they were hunting in packs.
"The erratic mindset brought on by the alcohol meant that Proby couldn't assimilate anything," acknowledges Britton. "All the things that weren't going right in his life were cascading in on him. I think everyone around him thought he was going to die. Proby thought he was going to die. Because of the drinking, if you didn't get something down on tape between two and 4pm you'd had it. After four he was another person." I show Britton a little of the fan footage. On an unsuspecting HTV local news programme Proby croaks an a cappella 'Hold Me', drumming his fists dementedly on the newsreader's desk. You can see the fear in the presenters' eyes. "Get this madman out of our studio," they are saying. "You see what I mean – after four o'clock," says Britton knowingly.
Most notorious of all the Savoy tracks was 'Hardcore 97002', 15 minutes of the kind of stuff that Frank out of Blue Velvet would probably chill out to after an evening on the inhaler. As Madonna had just played the Hacienda it was put about that Proby's partner on the dirty duetting was the material girl herself. "Madonna's people were going to sue me," chuckles Proby. "Sue me? What did I have? She could sue me 'til the cows come home. She could sue me for the straw bed I was sleeping on. I was living like Heidi," he says of his bleak existence up on Haworth moors.
Britton took the Savoy tapes to EMI and Virgin, among others, but nobody wanted to know. Each poorly-distributed release lost money and stacks of unsold product piled up in the Savoy offices. Ironically, most were critically well received, garnering good reviews from those who thought that this was perhaps exactly what we needed in the era of corporate rock. "With hindsight, of course, I realise that Jim was too ill to perform them and tour with them anyway," says Britton. "Plus, every time we went and did radio to promote them, they'd end up playing 'Somewhere' instead."
Does he regret doing those Savoy songs? "I probably will regret it this time next year," he says shrewdly. "In a way I hope I do because it will mean someone's done a clean-up campaign on me." Something that Proby himself began in earnest in 1992, prompted, some say, by the death of his mother. On a previous visit to Texas when he'd gone home to die he'd been arrested for vagrancy. Now fully dried out, he hasn't touched a drop in five years. It wasn't easy. He tells me that in the midst of the terrors the once dependable voice seized up completely.
"I wrote four songs when I was in Charing Cross Hospital and donated them to the hospital charity. I said to the nurse, Only trouble is I've copied them from the music that's playing. Can't you hear that tune? She said, 'What tune P.J.? There's no music in this ward.' I could hear it coming through the walls. I was writing tunes to music that wasn't there."
Acting came to the rescue again in 1993 when Bill Kenwright "sneaked" Proby into Jack Good's Good Rocking Tonight after Good had vowed he would never employ Proby again. "I use plays for therapy now, like Eric or Elton used a counsellor. No man has ever lived what I've lived, so how could a therapist tell me how to get over it or how to live my life? I've used the public as my therapist since 1992 and I've gone on no matter what condition I was in, even if I couldn't walk straight, hoping it would get better." "I underestimated him," says David Britton with feeling. "He was so bad, the poor man. If you could have seen some of the things we've seen you'd have thought this man is just going to die. I've seen him in the gutter. When you see somebody going down like that... his willpower must be so great."
And now, buoyed by the modest success of his walk-on part in Marc Almond's latest venture, playing the Gene Pitney role on the old Cupid's Inspiration classic 'Yesterday Has Gone', Proby is back with Legend, his First LP in decades. Is he behaving himself? I ask the press person on the phone. "Most of the time," she laughs. With the wilderness years and the dependency finally behind him he can still be a curmudgeonly old sod. At our interview rendezvous the Cafe Royal he flatly refuses to be left alone with his interviewer, insisting on the permanent presence of EMI reps.
The wariness is soon broken when I order a Jack Daniel's and Coke. "I never trust a journalist who doesn't drink," he says. An hour and a half of unexpurgated anecdotage later I depart, leaving the legend deep in conversation with the record company people. Not happy with the production on his new album, he wants to take his songs back and redo them. He wants gospel singers and steel guitars. He wants Jordanaires fit for his Elvis. He doesn't want the proposed next single, 'Child Of Clay', on the album at all. In the middle of this lavish electropop showcase they've planned for him, he wants to insert Perry Como, Jo Stafford and Nat King Cole numbers. He thinks Marc Almond should do more Johnnie Ray songs. He's still prone to seeing conspiracies in every motive. Still "a fucking pirate in this world of drudge," as Ian Hunter called him in Diary Of A Rock'N'Roll Star.
"THAT MAN HAS BEEN TO MADNESS," TESTIFIES David Britton. "Don't talk about Jim Morrison madness, that's a fucking joke in comparison. Proby is a blazing anarchistic light to all rock'n'rollers. All those others, apart from Jerry Lee, are fucked and gone. He's still there." Britton and I are musing about all the missed opportunities. How Proby nearly ended up in McLaren's Rock And Roll Swindle. How he managed to live in Manchester for 20 years without ever impacting on the psyche of Manchester music. "Do you know the story of Proby going to join the Doors after Morrison died?" asks Britton. "That's a murky little area. You think, Preposterous that couldn't have happened. But Proby was in a play called Spider Rabbit in the early '70s with Amanda Lear, which was done by the same guy who made the film Bongo Wolf's Revenge in 1966/'67. Bongo Wolf was a friend that Proby brought over from Los Angeles. Very much in the Kim Fowley mould. No point in tackling Jim on it, though. He doesn't think anything of the Doors so it wouldn't make any impression on him anyway."
He's right. "My tastes still stop at Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and some of those Italian boys from the '50s," says Proby. After railing against what he calls the "commercially proper" singers with no emotion, no soul and no charisma, he's suddenly off on one again. The declamatory pomp spills out unruly and unrestrained.
"Michael Jackson is a shame to the black blues race. He can't sing as good as Ben E King or James Brown. He showed he could scream a little James Brown but that's it. He thinks he can dance like Gene Kelly. Who is he trying to kid with that moonwalk? I seen black guys doing that when I was seven years old. They'd be doing that in bar rooms with spit on the floor. They'd be on the street doing that, tap-dancing for nickels with dimes between their toes 'cos they couldn't afford tap shoes. Gimme Memphis Minnie or Blind Lemon. The real people. It took the white boys to make John Lee Hooker famous. He never had a Cadillac when he was 40 years old. He got one now. I was on a TV bill once with Sonny Boy Williamson. That was the closest I got to those people..."
Only while playing back the interview tapes do I realise who Proby really reminds me of. All through our meeting it's been bugging me – that declamatory pomp, those short staccato sentences, those audacious non-linear leaps from subject to subject. Where have I heard that before? I consult the oracle – Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop, which: hymned P.J. Proby just as he was hitting the skids. "He is the great doomed romantic showman of our time," Cohn declared..." along with Muhammad Ali."
That was written 28 years ago – as much foresight as insight. But at least P.J. is still standing. And that is something no-one could have predicted.
©Rob Chapman, 1997