PJ. arrived in our living rooms on 6 May 1964, when Paul McCartney introduced PJ. Proby to the world via satellite television in Jack Good’s special Around The Beatles.
PJ. Proby was born James Marcus Smith in Houston, Texas on 6 November 1938. His father was a banker and his mother loved dancing. They divorced when little Jimmy was 9 years old. Jimmy then spent the rest of his youth in military academies. During the holidays he was in Houston, hanging around in the clubs and participating in Biff Collie’s radio shows. Here he performed together with Tommy Sands and Elvis Presley. His stepsister Betty dated them both and Jimmy had to keep them from finding this out.
In 1957 Jimmy went to Hollywood to become a movie star and a singer. In Hollywood he looked up his old friend Tommy Sands, who advised him to take vocal coaching with the famous Lillian Goodman. Through Lillian, he signed up with Ray Gilbert as his manager, who had written songs like Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah and won a coveted Oscar for his music in the picture Song Of The South. Jimmy’s name was changed to Jett Powers by the agents Gaby, Lutz, Heller and Loeb, who represented such names as Liberace, Johnny Ray, Kay Star and Frankie Laine, just to name a few. Two singles were released on Design Records.
Jett Powers met and hung out with
a lot of now famous people, like Sharon Sheeley, who wrote Poor Little Fool for
Ricky Nelson, Eddie Cochran, Elvis’s ex-girlfriend Dotty Harmony who Jett became
engaged to, Kim Fowley, Johnny & Dorsey Burnette and many, many others in the
industry, like songwriter Baker Knight (“The Wonder Of You”) and Jimmy o’Neill
who later presented Shindig, America’s biggest Rock & Record TV show in The
In 1962 Sharon Sheeley got Jett a recording contract with Liberty Records and a song-writing contract with Liberty’s publishing arm Metric Music. Sharon changed Jett’s name to PJ. Proby, after an old boyfriend of her from her high school. Using his real name James Marcus Smith he wrote numerous songs for Metric Music and some of them became hits. The most well known songs are the Searchers’ hit Ain’t Gonna Kiss Ya, Johnny Burnette’s Clown Shoes and I Only Came To Dance With You by The Walker Brothers.
Liberty Records released a few PJ. Proby singles, but nothing much happened, as they didn’t do any promotion. They also released a single under the name of Orville Woods, which was played on the black radio stations across the USA, until a photo of Orville was published and it was discovered he was not black at all, like the record sounded.
PJ. earned money with different jobs – from slinging hamburgers and being a bodyguard for famous actors like Rock Hudson and Liberace to singing demos for songwriters like Ben Weisman and Ruth Batchelor. PJ. was often chosen because of his ability to sing like any other artist he chose. “The Man Of The Thousand Voices”. PJ. did the demo for Bobby Vee’s The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, among many others. He also sang the demos for a lot of the Elvis movies: PJ. recorded them in the morning, for Elvis to learn them and sing them at the end of a day of movie shooting.
For the recording of demos PJ. worked together with up and coming musicians, like guitar players Glen Campbell, Billy Swan, Elliot Ingbar (Mothers Of Invention), Marshall Lieb (The Teddy Bears), drummer Hal Blaine, bass players Larry Taylor (Canned Heat) and David Gates (Bread) and Derry Weaver, piano players Leon Russell, Randy Newman & Glen D. Hardin and on brass Herbie Albert. When there was no money for girl backing singers, they would all join in in falsetto together.
In 1963 Sharon Sheeley introduced PJ. Proby to the English producer Jack Good. Jack had made the successful TV programs in the UK “Oh Boy” and Six Five Special” and was now scouting for talent in the US. Jack was immediately impressed with PJ. Proby and after doing a pilot in America “Young America Swings The World”, Jack invited PJ. to be part of Brian Epstein’s UK special “Around The Beatles”. The rest is history.
Paul McCartney introduced PJ. Proby to the world. PJ. sang 4 songs on this special, varying from pop to a gospel ballad. PJ. made a giant impression and in no time his first UK single “Hold Me” climbed the charts to number 3. This hit was followed shortly by the next hits: “Together” and the unforgettable ballads “Somewhere” and “Maria”.
Although PJ’s hits were impressive, he was best known for his powerful live performances. The UK had never seen a stage act like James Brown, where a performer gave his everything, but PJ. Proby did. PJ’s first show in the Albert Hall as a support act for Adam Faith, blew away the audience. The stage was rushed by screaming teenage girls. PJ. had to flee bleeding into a corrugated iron toilet, while fans ripped his ponytail and his hair out. After that night PJ. would be the main act while performing and touring. His tours took him all over the world: to Australia and New Zealand, Europe and South Africa.
In the beginning of 1965 PJ. was booked on the Cilla Black tour. Again, PJ. Proby was headlining. The UK had never seen anything like him. Sadly, by now a lot of politics were going on inside the business itself. Who was this American, taking work away from our British boys? Mary Whitehouse’s Morals Committee jumped in and said: “We’ll get him! He’ll do something we can get him on!” When PJ’s knee slides on stage caused his velvet pants to rip, she said: “That’s it! He is obscene and we’ll ban him.” PJ. was replaced on the tour by the then fairly unknown Tom Jones. His manager was waiting in the wings, all ready. PJ. was also banned from all the main theatres and from BBC television. The tactics had worked and PJ’s career as a pop star nose-dived.
However, PJ. did not give up. He performed in overalls, which he would only take off if his pants hadn’t split underneath them. The dirty knees proved how much damage the knee slides could do. There still was no British artist whose show could compare to the PJ. Proby show. Sadly, he was not allowed to perform for teenagers any longer.
PJ. stayed in the UK and was only able to get a work permit for nightclub work located up North and in the workingmen’s clubs, playing to a grown-up adult audience only.
He also starred in theatre productions in the West End, like Jack Good’s Catch My Soul and Elvis The Musical, Michael McClure’s Spider Rabbit and Joseph and The Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Through his 50 years in the UK PJ. has had a diverse life and gave us a diversity of songs and theatre performances. His character was never boring and he was often in the headlines. In the Sixties, Nik Cohn wrote his famous rock novel “I’m the greatest, says Johnny Angelo” based on PJ. Proby. He was a legend then and he is a legend now.
PJ’s album “Three Week Hero” with the backing of Led Zeppelin – when they were still known as The New Yardbirds – produced by Steve Rowland, still fetches high prices on eBay.
In the Eighties PJ. recorded a lot of modern songs the PJ. Proby way for Savoy Records, like Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. This led to the album with Marc Almond “Legend” in 1996.
In 1992 PJ. suffered a cardiac arrest from his heavy drinking and anti-depressants. He was resuscitated and managed to grab this second chance that God gave him. He had to learn to walk again and talk again, but luckily he could still sing. He managed to recover through his theatrical portraying in Bill Kenright’s plays “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (the life story of the man who brought him to the attention of The Beatles: Jack Good), “Only The Lonely” and “Elvis The Musical”.
In 1996 PJ’s voice had recovered better than ever. He toured with The Who as the Godfather in Quadrophenia. Additionally, EMI released the album “Legend”, that was produced by Marc Almond.
This century has seen PJ. Proby back on tour with his own show. In 2001 the ban was broken after almost 40 years when The Searchers asked PJ. Proby to participate in a Sixties Tour. Ever since we’ve been able to see PJ. perform again in the theatres. He is a regular guest on Sixties Tours and can also be booked with his own complete stage show.
At 81 years of age, PJ.’s voice is still as powerful as ever, if not stronger. His energy is unbelievable!
PJ. Proby hasn’t lingered in the past. He constantly reinvents himself. He is a true living legend, who doesn’t take things lightly and still gives us his all, plus 100%!
For more information on P.J. visit House of Proby