Texan vocalist P.J Proby (born James Marcus Smith in November 1938) became an overnight sensation in Britain when Jack Good brought him and his pudding-bowl haircut over in 1963 to appear on a TV special.
His specialities were re-vamped old show tunes like Hold Me and mutilations of screen hits like Somewhere and Maria (both from West Side Story).
By the mid-60s, Proby’s stage outfits were reaching Tom Jones levels of tightly fitting suggestiveness. Then, during a show on 29 January 1965 at Croydon’s Castle Hall – opening for Cilla Black – the singer’s velvet trousers split from knee to crotch.
The (mainly female) audience went crazy with Proby telling the suspicious press it was all an unfortunate accident.
When it happened again on 31 January at Luton’s Ritz Cinema, credulity was stretched and the tabloids smelled a rat. The next day Proby was banned by the ABC Theatre group. The next week, ATV did the same, with the BBC soon following. Proby was now unable to perform anywhere in the UK.
A single, titled I Apologise, was rush-released to capitalise on the publicity, and despite the lack of airplay, reached #11 in the UK charts.
Proby subsequently succumbed to tax problems, bankruptcy, alcoholism and – inevitably – a spell as a poverty-stricken stable-hand near Haworth, West Yorkshire.
Proby’s last Top 10 hit was Maria in 1965, after which he veered wildly in burlesque manner through musical genres and long stretches of alcoholically-enhanced anonymity (“P. J. stands for permanently juiced” he once said) while remaining based in a small terraced house in Bolton.
Of particular interest are 1969’s Three Week Hero album, where Proby was backed by the future Led Zeppelin; being jailed for possession of a shotgun; the 1976 collaboration with, of all groups, Dutch prog-rockers Focus, and the 1978 musical Las Vegas Presley, where Proby was fired for ignoring the script and talking to the audience.
Assault, divorce and more firearms charges followed intermittently, at which point Mancunian publishers Savoy Records elaborated on Proby’s outlaw status, getting him to front equally anarchic, electro-rock versions of “classic” tracks, from Love Will Tear Us Apart, Tainted Love and Heroes to Sign Of The Times, Anarchy In The UK and In The Air Tonight.
“There were nine Proby singles in all, and he hated everything we ever did,” David Britton of Savoy recalls. “We got him to sing on click track, then did the music without him. He just wants to sing country stuff and ballads, the old-fashioned kitschy stuff.”
In 1987 he was involved in further shame after recording a fake Madonna duet called M97002: Hardcore which, The Star claimed, “glorifies sex with young girls”. The track opened with the jaw-dropping line: “There ain’t no such thing as rape/When you’re wearing a Superman cape”.
He resurfaced in 1997 with the single Yesterday Has Gone, a collaboration with Marc Almond, followed by a solo album, Legend. In the same year, Blur‘s Country Sad Ballad Man detailed his earlier lifestyle of reclusive dissolution.