Ugly Things
PJ Proby on the Edge of Decadence...Revisited

b y   M i k a e l   E k s t r o m

Ugly Things, #25, Summer 2007

THE STORY SO FAR.... PJ Proby was born in Houston in 1938 as James Marcus Smith. His parents divorced when he was young and he was sent away to different military schools. When he was 18 he travelled to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune.

The closest thing he came to "making it" was when he played touchdown football with Elvis Presley during some weekends. He started to sing and released two singles under the name Jett Powers, but nobody seemed to care, until 1964 when Brian Epstein gave him a call and asked James, who now had changed his name to PJ Proby, to jump on the first plane to Great Britain to participate in the TV special Around the Beatles.

Proby made the night and went down a storm when the TV special was aired later that year. His voice was truly one of a kind. He got a British recording contract with Decca, which released the hit singles Hold Me and Together, before winding up on Liberty (who had signed him back in the States) with a smash version of Somewhere.

Proby was now the next big thing in Britain, but he was not easy to work with: moody, erratic, drunk—he didn't trust one single person. The managers came and went and Proby's fall began big time in 1935 when he split his pants onstage one too many limes. He was thrown off the tour and replaced by Tom Jones. Since that incident Proby's career never recovered. He still released some great albums and his singing was amazing, but he was trouble. He had a hard time getting gigs and when he did he didn't always show up. And he drank far, far too much. Proby has always had a great fear of success, which always made him fuck up so that no one else would make him fail. He was, and has always been, his own worst enemy. When his contract with Liberty expired in 1970 he was declared bankrupt and went into oblivion in the 70's. He released an odd single, did some gigs here and there for people who really didn't care, and made appearances in different musicals in England. But he had trouble keeping a job since he had turned himself into a full-blown alcoholic.

This takes us up to 1985, when the two masterminds behind the publishing company Savoy, David Britton and Michael Butterworth, learned that Proby was living outside of Manchester. They decided to write a book about him, but after numerous interviews it was clear that the singer was in such a bad shape that the project was going to be impossible. Proby had become a caretaker of his own myth and told every story of his life with the greatest empathy. Unfortunately, half of what he said was exaggerations and the other half plain lies. His long time boozing had also taken its toll. He was depressed, didn't give a damn about anything and talked a lot about dying. Proby definitely had a hellhound on his trail.

During this period he was surviving on social security payments and on the rare occasion he was offered a gig. He made the contract so much in his own favour that nobody would hire him. The celebrated star he had once been had been replaced by a sad and broken man. PJ Proby was more or less forgotten, his old records sold close to nothing, and whenever a newspaper like the News of the World interviewed him, usually for cash in hand, he said the most outrageous things. His singing was never the subject of the conversation. The media was more interested in asking him about his job as a janitor, why he shot at his wife or why he ran off with a 14-year-old girl. Proby had always been untamed, but now he was acting like an animal locked in a cage. It wasn't on purpose, it was not a career move; he just didn't care anymore.

David and Michael then decided to try and record Proby, who in spite of his drinking had his voice pretty much intact. The first song they got down was Tainted Love, but the result was not too impressive. Proby couldn't care less. But they were on to something very interesting. During the next few years, Savoy recorded Proby on different occasions and released some brilliant singles. They tore apart songs like In the Air Tonight, Love Will Tear Us Apart and I'm On Fire. It sounded like the devil himself was sitting in the control booth; never had songs sounded so hellish on record before. Proby put all his wrecked soul into the songs, probably without even knowing it. All the songs he sang were excellent death-wish versions, but the crown jewel was David Bowie's Heroes. Shit, that song should have earned Proby some kind of reward, if there would be any justice in this world. At the time when the vocal was recorded Proby's much too young girlfriend had left him and he was devastated, which really shows in his performance. It's impossible to listen to Heroes sung by Bowie after hearing Proby pouring out his heart on this one.

The recording sessions were, of course, far from smooth. Working with Proby was never easy. Fuelled with Carlsberg Special Brew, his behaviour was erratic and he really had no desire to actually sing. The Savoy songs went, of course, nowhere. So, why not take these sessions as far as they could go? Why settle for less? That said and done, Proby, Britton, Butterworth and Paul Temple started to write the most offensive. shocking and deranged song ever. The result was called Hardcore: M97002. They didn't limit themselves with such things as ethics or morals, the lyric was a piece of art in the most obscene way, and Proby sang the song like there was no tomorrow—and for Proby at that time, there probably was none. The 15-minute song is a must hear for everyone. Trust me, you haven't heard a thing like it.

Britton and Butterworth did a terrific job in making Proby perform the songs for Savoy. They helped Proby financially, paid his rent and got him recorded for the first time in years. But Proby never cared for the songs and to this day he thinks they're crap. David Britton and Michael Butterworth did exactly the same thing for PJ Proby as Rick Rubin later did for Johnny Cash. It's a shame the recordings didn't get the recognition they deserved.

Proby pulled himself together and got off the booze in the early 90s. He lives in England and at the time of writing is in good health. He is also touring Great Britain from time to time, singing his hits from the 60s. He still has a great voice and I think he is happy. And, by the way, no, he doesn't sing any of the Savoy songs today.

Main Records Page | Artist Index | Singles | Albums | Record Articles | Music Links