P.J. Proby Biography

James Marcus Smith, 6 November 1938, Houston, Texas, USA. This iconoclastic singer spent his early career in Hollywood, recording demos for song publishing houses. Several low-key singles ensued, credited to Jett Powers and a number of bit parts as an actor ensued, before the Proby appellation surfaced on ‘So Do I’ (1963). ‘Powers’ had already demonstrated a songwriting talent, his most notable composition being ‘Clown Shoes’ for Johnny Burnette in 1962. The artist came to Britain the following year, at the behest of producer Jack Good, to appear on the Around The Beatles television special. An ebullient revival of ‘Hold Me’, originally a gentle ballad, brought Proby a UK Top 3 hit, while the similarly raucous ‘Together’ reached number 8. Proby completely changed direction following a move to Liberty Records and, again, reached the UK Top 10 with a memorable version of ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story. This record started a series of epic ballads featuring Proby’s strong but affected vocal. Both ‘I Apologise’ (complete with Billy Eckstine paraphrasing) and ‘Maria’ (again from West Side Story) became big hits. Proby’s biggest hit, however, was with the popular UK press.

Following a ‘split trousers’ incident, Proby was accused of obscenity. He then made an act of regularly splitting his crushed blue velvet jumpsuit. He completed his attire during the mid-60s with a Tom Jones wig and black bow tie and baggy nightshirts. Prior to ‘Maria’ (4 months earlier) his chart career suddenly floundered with John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s ‘That Means A Lot’, and although further immaculate productions followed after ‘Maria’ with ‘To Make A Big Man Cry’ and the Righteous Brothers -sounding ‘I Can’t Make It Alone’, Proby was relegated to the cabaret circuit. Although he continued to record, the press were more interested in his tax problems and subsequent bankruptcy. Three Week Hero won retrospective acclaim when the singer’s backing group achieved fame as Led Zeppelin. In 1970, Proby took the role of Iago in Catch My Soul, former mentor Good’s rock adaptation of Othello. Proby’s subsequent work was more sporadic; he appeared on the UK nightclub circuit, played Elvis Presley in the stage production Elvis On Stage until he was sacked, and continued to court publicity for erratic behaviour. In 1985 he completed two suitably eccentric versions of ‘Tainted Love’, previously a hit for Soft Cell, which became the first of a series of contentious singles for Manchester-based independent label Savoy Records. Recreations of songs by Joy Division (‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’) and David Bowie (‘Heroes’) followed, but further releases were marred by poor production and the artist’s often incoherent intonation.

Although years of apparent self-abuse had robbed the singer of his powers of old, he retained the ability to enthral and infuriate. In 1993 Proby made an unannounced appearance in Jack Good’s Good Rockin’ Tonite at the Liverpool Empire. Further Proby sightings were made in June 1995 when he began a 15 minute spot during each performance of the London production of the Roy Orbison musical Only The Lonely. In late 1996, in a major interview with Q magazine, Proby once again squared up for another comeback. This came in muted form with a minor hit collaboration with Marc Almond on a cover version of Cupid’s Inspiration’s ‘Yesterday Has Gone’. Proby remains a wonderfully unpredictable eccentric.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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