P. J. Proby (born James Marcus Smith, 6 November 1938, Houston, Texas, United States) is a singer, songwriter, and actor noted for his theatrical portrayals of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, plus interpretations of old standards in the vein of Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett. The stage name P. J. Proby was suggested to him by a friend named Sharon Sheeley who remembered an old high school boyfriend. In 2008, Proby celebrated his 70th birthday and his original record label EMI released the Best Of The EMI Years 1961-1972.
Youth and early career
Proby grew up in a banking family where his father was the VP of the Second National Bank in Houston, Texas. He was educated at San Marcos Military Academy, Culver Naval Academy and Western Military Academy. After graduation he moved to California to become a motion picture actor and recording artist. Given the stage name Jett Powers by top Hollywood agents Gabey, Lutz, Heller and Loeb, he took acting and singing lessons, and appeared in movies with small roles. Two singles "Go, Girl, Go", and "Loud Perfume", were released on an independent label, but were not noticed. In 1962 he began writing songs and recording demos, for artists such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
Proby was taken by songwriter Sharon Sheeley (who penned "Poor Little Fool" for Ricky Nelson, and was engaged to Eddie Cochran) to audition at Liberty Records. He travelled to London after being introduced to Jack Good by Sheeley and Jackie DeShannon. Soon, Proby created his fashion image of a pony-tail tied back with a ribbon, swashbuckling pirate shirts, and buckle shoes. In addition to this, he wore skin-tight suits made of velvet in different colours for each day of the week. Appearing on The Beatles' television special in 1964, he received great media interest with this fashion styling. Under the production of Good, Proby's balladeer style and theatrical presentation scored a string of hits in 1964 with "Hold Me" and "Together" (featuring session guitarists Big Jim Sullivan and Jimmy Page), "Somewhere", "Maria", and "I Apologise".
A royalty dispute with Liberty Records in 1966, broke his run of success in the UK Singles Chart. His career was also affected by controversies. His skin-tight trousers split open during a concert in England. The women in the audience went wild. Somehow, the trousers split again at the next venue. Critics, and the audience, were divided on whether he was using a gimmick to promote his image, or simply an eccentric rock star. During a concert with Cilla Black in 1965 they split again, and Proby was dropped from the rest of the tour by theatre managers.
Back in the USA
In 1967 Proby scored a Billboard Hot 100 Top 30 hit with "Niki Hoeky". He was then auditioned for the London production of Finian's Rainbow, but did not get the role and to this day has never been told why. Poor managerial advice led to Proby briefly declaring bankruptcy. He returned to the United States to rest. In September 1968, Proby recorded the album Three Week Hero, which was released in 1969. A collection of country-style ballads mixed with blues, the album is notable more for its association with the new Yardbirds, his backing band, who would later become Led Zeppelin.
Success on the London stage
In 1971 he appeared on stage as Casio in a rock musical version of Shakespeare's Othello, called Catch My Soul. The play enjoyed a successful run in London's West End. After, he continued to perform mostly in cabarets and nightclubs, singing 1960s ballads and rhythm 'n' blues material. Signing with Good again in 1977, he portrayed Elvis Presley in a theatrical production of Elvis - The Musical, which received rave reviews, winning a Best Musical of the Year award. In 1978, Proby recorded with the Dutch rock group Focus releasing Focus con Proby. He then returned to singing in clubs, before embarking on a change of direction.
In 1993 Proby appeared in the Jack Good biographical musical "Good Rockin' Tonite" - as himself. Two years later in 1995, Proby appeared in the Roy Orbison tribute show "Only the Lonely". By 1996 Proby was acting again in "Elvis - The Musical".
His career followed a similar path trodden by Tom Jones in the 1980s, who began to cover contemporary songs. Proby began with a version of Joy Division's epic "Love Will Tear Us Apart", followed with Gloria Jones's "Tainted Love", and then, The Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK". He did enjoy minor success but, was largely neglected by the media. In 1989, the Southport, Lancashire based author/songwriter Ron Ellis recorded Proby singing one of his compositions, "Hot California Nights".
By 1990 Proby was living in Bolton, Lancashire and suffering from alcoholism. He was offered a recording deal by John G. Sutton from the Preston based, J'Ace Records, and this led to the release of a single "Stage of Fools", and an album entitled, Thanks. It was distributed internationally by BMG and it brought Proby back into the record shops, for the first time since he left Liberty Records almost twenty years before.
Later in that same year Proby invited Jan Kornas, a fine art and antiques dealer, to become his new manager. The next place of work was the Bobbie Hope's Lansdowne Hotel, North Promenade, Blackpool, where he performed until November. He returned to the Lansdowne the following season.
In 1991, Jan Kornas contacted Jack Good, the producer of Six-Five Special and Oh Boy! who was in Liverpool at the time, whilst he was touring in the his musical Good Rocking Tonight. This was a pivotal point in Proby's resurrected career as Good invited him to join the musical at Manchester Opera House in a cameo role.
Granada TV featured Proby in a documentary and BBC TV featured Proby, on their flagship current affairs programme This Week. Following his return to the public eye, in 1991, Proby suffered a heart attack whilst on holiday in Florida in 1992 which curtailed his activities until 1993. Then he reappeared on stage in the biographical musical of Jack Good's life called Good Rockin Tonight, followed by playing himself in the Roy Orbison story called Only the Lonely. A year later Proby returned to a new production of Elvis, and released the critically acclaimed album Legend. The album featured songwriting and production contributions from Marc Almond, and Neal X from Sigue Sigue Sputnik. A resulting single, "Yesterday Has Gone", a duet with Almond, reached number 58 on the UK chart at the end of 1996.
In 1997, Proby toured with The Who in the United States and in Europe, performing as "The Godfather" in the road production of Quadrophenia. After Quadrophenia, Proby continued singing by doing performances in UK, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. In addition, he had been touring in "Sixties Gold", another revival series of shows, for some years. In August 2004, he also toured in Australia. From February until May 2006, Proby was touring with the "Solid Silver Sixties Show 2006" - and went through five tour managers - throughout much of the UK, which ended at The London Palladium.
In 2002, Van Morrison recorded a song for his album Down the Road entitled "Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby?"
2007 saw him embark on a small solo tour and is set to continue with additional UK dates in 2008, after which he is touring with "Oh Boy - It's the Non-Stop Sixties" (June and July 2008) alongside Chris Farlowe, Vanity Fare, Brian Poole and Mike Pender.
In July 2007, Proby was arrested on suspicion of a £50,000 benefit fraud. The Department of Work and Pensions are believed to be looking into whether the singer has undeclared concert earnings. He is alleged to have collected benefits whilst still performing around the country. Proby has denied the allegations saying: "I don't know anything about any benefit fraud. There is nothing in these allegations whatsoever."
In November 2008, Proby celebrated his 70th birthday. To commemorate the year, EMI has released a new 25-track retrospective, Best Of The EMI Years 1961-1972. This features hit A-side and B-side singles, eight rarities that debut on CD format, and two previously unreleased recordings (which are Les Reed and Barry Mason's "Delilah"; and Jim Ford's "I'm Ahead If I Can Quit While I'm Behind"). Les Reed wrote the song "Delilah" for Proby's 1968 studio album Believe It Or Not, but it was omitted from the finished release. Also around this time, Proby recorded a Christmas single entitled "The Bells Of Christmas Day" along with local guitarist and producer, Andy Crump.
* I Am P. J. Proby (1964)
* P. J. Proby (1965)
* P. J. Proby In Town (1965)
* Enigma (1966)
* Phenomenon (1967)
* Believe It or Not (1968)
* Three Week Hero (1969)
* California License (1970)
* I'm Yours (1972)
* Focus con Proby (1978)
* The Hero (1981)
* Clown Shoes (1987)
* Thanks (1991)
* The Savoy Sessions (1995) (compilation)
* Legend (1996)
* Memories (2003)
* Sentimental Journeys (2003)
* Wanted (2003)
* 20th Century Hits (2005)
* Best Of The EMI Years 1961-1972 (2008 CD features previously unreleased songs)
* "Hold Me" (1964) - Number 3
* "Together" (1964) - Number 8
* "Somewhere" (1964) - Number 6
* "I Apologise" (1965) - Number 11
* "Let The Water Run Down" (1965) - Number 19
* "That Means A Lot" (1965) - Number 30
* "Maria" (1965) - Number 8
* "You've Come Back" (1966) - Number 25
* "To Make A Big Man Cry" (1966) - Number 34
* "I Can't Make It Alone" (1966) - Number 37
* "It's Your Day Today" (1968) - Number 32
* "The Day That Lorraine Came Down" (1968)
* "Hanging From Your Loving Tree" (1969)
* "We'll Meet Again" (1972)
* "Stage Of Fools" (1990) - (J'Ace Records)
* "Yesterday Has Gone" (1996) - Number 58. (Credited to P. J. Proby and Marc Almond featuring the My Life Story Orchestra).
* "Love Me Tender" (2004)
* "Oh My Papa" (2004)
* "The Bells Of Christmas Day" (2008)