PJ – star act with staying power
The life of James Marcus Smith began on November 6th 1938 at Herman Hospital in Houston, Texas, USA.
As a young boy, Jim, like many others, was influenced by black Negro musicians and their music. In spite of the racism that ruled heavily in the Southern States, he listened to all the Baptist Gospel singers around his area on Sundays, and sang along with them. In those days nearly everybody in the South sang in church.
As a three-year-old, his Uncle Dan took him to a recording booth at the nearby fairground and recorded him singing his first ever song called “Roll Out The Barrel”.
Jim met and worked with Tommy Sands and Elvis Presley, George Jones, Tennessee Ernie Ford, The Collins Kids, and many others, while growing up in Houston, at places like The Hitching Post, The Eagles Hall, The South Maine Olde Spanish Trail for the leading DJs at the time, Cliffie Stone & Biff Collie. Still, he had to wait for fame, as he had promised his parents that he would finish high school before pursuing fame and fortune.
He had been attending San Marcos Military Academy, in San Marcos, Texas since he was nine years old and, in the summer for three months in 1953, 1954, and 1955, he studied at the Culver Naval Academy in South Bend, Indiana. He graduated in 1957 from Western Military in Alton, Illinois. After that, he made his way to Hollywood.
On arriving in Hollywood, he contacted his old friend Tommy Sands who suggested he goes to see the local leading vocal coach Lillian Goodman, who trained all the Hollywood greats. She introduced Jim to song-writing Oscar winner Ray Gilbert. Ray took Jim to the big agents Gaby Lutz, Heller and Lobe, who had such names as Liberace, Kay Starr, Frankie Laine and many other’s on their books. Jim was signed up and was named “Jett Powers” as they thought that “Jim Smith” was too ordinary.
Jim met a girl named Sharon Sheeley who had written a big hit for Ricky Nelson called “Poor Little Fool” and, at the time, was going with Eddie Cochran. They became the closest of friends. Jett, by now, was going with Sharon’s friend Dottie Harmony and began writing with Sharon, Dottie, Jackie De Shannon, Dick Glasser, Baker Knight, The Burnette Brothers, Johnny and Dorsey, and many others at the time.
At the same time, Jim was introduced to Kim Fowley who used him in his new group The Hollywood Argyles, and scored a bighit with the 1960 “Alley Oop”. Sharon later took him to Liberty Records where they signed him to a song-writing and singing contract. Sharon changed his name yet again to PJ Proby after a boy she had dated before going with Eddie Cochran when in Junior High School.
On that day a first step to world-wide fame was taken.
In 1961, Liberty released the first PJ Proby single “Try To Forget Her” and “There Stands The One”, produced by Dick Glasser, with vocal backing by the Johnny Mann singers, Glen Campbell on guitar, Leon Russell on keyboards, David Gates on bass, Hal Blane on drums, plus a string section.
Proby was kept busy in the studios as a session singer for such artists as BB King, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Elvis Presley. But his burning desire was still to have a successful career as a solo singer.
In 1962, Sharon Sheeley and Jackie de Shannon composed a number and gave it to Proby “The Other Side of Town” which was coupled with “Watch Me Walk Away” composed by their friend and producer Dick Glasser – “Dickie” to Sharon and Jackie. The production was very good but the company did not do any promotion work on it for Proby. This was a pattern to be repeated until PJ started his recording career in England.
It was Sharon and Jackie who introduced Proby to the talented and charismatic producer Jack Good. In late 1963, Jack Good travelled back to England, at the request of Brian Epstein, to produce the first TV special to be screened worldwide of the fast -rising group The Beatles. The programme was to be called “Around The Beatles”, with a few newcomers at the time – Cilla Black, Long John Baldry (more famous now for discovering Elton John and Rod Stewart) and a little black girl named Millie.
Jack took with him some demo tapes of PJ which impressed Epstein and the ‘Boys’, enough to have Jack send for him in Hollywood. Through the satellite Telstar, the show was broadcast all over the world, giving millions of people the chance to get to know PJ Proby. That breakthrough lead to Proby’s arrangement of the old 1939 Dick Haymes ballad “Hold Me” which PJ turned into an up tempo rocker ,reaching the No.3 spot in the British charts.
This success was followed by yet another transformed oldie from the same period “Together”, also in the same style, which reached No.8 in the charts, Both singles – as did all of Proby releases – charted high in the American Billboard charts. These first singles were released in Europe on the Decca Label; however, PJ was still under contract to Liberty Records USA, who won a successful court action against Decca in their bid to get Proby back.
In 1964, Liberty Records issued the first Proby LP in Britain simply titled “I am P.J. Proby” containing all the music that PJ and Charles Blackwell had put together for Decca. Once again, Liberty Records gave neither the single nor the album any PR work or big marketing campaign. PJ was beginning to realise that, if he was to make things happen, it was going to all be down to him and himself alone. He would have to sell himself by himself – and so he did.
“PJ Proby in Town” respectively arranged and produced by Johnny Spence, Johnny Scott and Ron Richards, with songs by Les Reed and Barry Mason, gave Proby more than enough opportunity to present his wide range of abilities. Highlighted on this album were such numbers as “I Will” (written by Dick Glasser for his sister), “My Prayer”, “To Make A Big Man Cry”, “What Kind Of Fool Am I” and P.J.’s favourite “If I Loved You” from his favourite musical “Carousel”. Jim has always yearned to play Billy Bigelow since watching one of his idols Gordon MacRae in the part.
PJ was known for his exhausting visual stage performances. It was one of these performances on January 29, 1965, at Fairfield hall, Croydon, that Proby, who was the first male ever to wear his hair in a pony tail – in the last century at least, burst out of his skin-tight velvet bell-bottoms doing his act, based on the coloured shows he had been used to attending in the rougher areas of Downtown LA.
He explained to the frantic press that the ripped clothing was an accident due to the weak velvet material: but when, two days later, the same thing again happened, the audiences were wild with excitement, as they had never witnessed such body movement on-stage, nor such provocative mood, and they loved him.
But the British system that governs the music scene were less enthusiastic. Jim was banned from all theatres in Great Britain and not allowed to perform his recordings on the BBC or ATV television stations.
By February 24, Proby was unable to perform almost anywhere, although he was headline news in every newspaper and paparazzi. As a counter-attack to this total boycott on PJ, Liberty released a single on February 27. The recording was “I Apologise”. This was with no promotion or personal appearances permitted, yet it still reached No.11 in the charts, with no radio or television plugs.
Proby continued his recordings despite the door being slammed on him by the industry. In November 1965, he once again proved to his loyal fans that the “magic” was never to leave him. His recording of “Maria” from “West Side Story” was regarded – with “Somewhere” – as two of the best and most exciting versions ever, and are still the two of his most requested songs.
From the 70s, Jim appeared in concert throughout the world, moving also into theatre appearances in many highly successful productions and musicals. Jack Good cast PJ as Cassio in the Rock Musical “Catch my Soul” – an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello”.
Other successful staging followed, in particular, the lead role in the musical “Elvis” that played London’s West End in 1977, and for which, he accepted on behalf of the play the Evening Standard Award for best production of the year.
During the early 90s, PJ quit drinking after a few serious health scares and, for the first time in years, regained control of his personal and professional life. As a therapy to learn to walk and talk again, he started performing as himself in Bill Kenwright’s West End productions “Good Rockin Tonight” and “Only The Lonely”. He then played Elvis once again in “Elvis: The Musical”.
By 1996, PJ was re-signed by EMI to record the “Legend” album which was produced by friend Marc Almond – PJ regarded the songs he recorded for this project as some of the best work he had ever done with contemporary music. Some old friends, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey of The Who, soon after, asked him to join them on a world tour of their latest production “Quadrophenia” playing the part of “The Godfather”. This proved a huge success.
For the next decade, PJ continued to wow audiences across the UK, in various sell-out solo and Sixties-themed concert tours.
Since the new millennium, PJ found a renewed interest in his recording career and, to the delight of his fans, now regularly releases new material on his own independent record label “Select Records”.
In 2008, the legend celebrated the landmark of turning 70 with various performances up and down the UK, and a definitive “Best Of” collection with EMI, which created much nostalgia for the man and his timeless legacy of song.
In 2011, PJ suffered the great injustice of being charged with benefit fraud. He pleaded not guilty and was, in 2012, cleared of all charges by the British Crown Court. To celebrate the outcome of the trial, PJ released a CD single featuring original songs “We The Jury” (written by P.J.) and “I’m PJ”.
To say P.J. Proby is talented is an understatement. He’s a giant who has made an indelible impression on the music and the entertainment industry. There is no dispute that PJ Proby is one of the most exciting performers of our time.
Biography © 2012 P.J. Proby (www.pjproby.net )