P. J. Proby

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P. J. Proby (born James Marcus Smith, 6 November 1938) is a Texan-born singer and actor, who scored many Top 10 singles throughout the 1960s, most notably in the United Kingdom. Proby is also a noted stage actor appearing as both Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison in musicals; and he was the first artist Led Zeppelin recorded with.

Career

James Marcus Smith was born in Houston, Texas, United States. After graduating from a military school, James Smith moved to Hollywood in 1957 and changed his name to Jett Powers. Under this guise he released a handful of singles in the United States and was signed to Liberty Records as a songwriter. His compositions were recorded by such artists as the Dalton Brothers, the Ribbons, Jack Scott, Ricky Nelson and Johnny Burnette ('Clown Shoes'). In 1961, Powers changed his name to P. J. Proby (the name originally belonged to a friend of songwriter Sharon Sheeley) and recorded his first singles for Liberty. After several uncharting songs he wrote 'Wicked Woman' and recorded it under the name Orville Woods.

The watershed in Proby's career came when singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon introduced him to Jack Good, creator of British television shows 6.5 Special and Oh Boy!. Good had been commissioned by Brian Epstein to make a TV special starring the Beatles. He brought Proby to the United Kingdom in 1964 to take part in it. Good, who had earlier been inspired by Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' to dress Gene Vincent in black leather, put Proby in velvet knee breeches, burlap smock and buckled shoes, with a pony tail to complete the image of an eighteenth century dandy. His performance in Around the Beatles and Good's backing helped secure a recording deal with Decca Records. In 1964, the British charts were dominated by home-grown beat groups and Proby's first two singles were frenetic, raucous revivals of old love songs. 'Hold Me' and 'Together' both made the UK Top 10. As he was still contracted to Liberty, the label took out a court action to secure his services and his subsequent releases appeared on Liberty.

His first record for them turned out to be the song he is best remembered for. 'Somewhere' was an outrageous over-the-top rendition of Leonard Bernstein's song from West Side Story. The song peaked at Number 6 in December of 1964. Flavour of the month with three Top 10 hits behind him, it seemed his career was about to blossom, but then he ran foul of the British censors. In January 1965, Proby headlined a package tour over Cilla Black and Tommy Roe which opened at Croydon's ABC Theatre. During the first night Proby's trousers infamously split from knee to crotch. When the same thing happened the following night, the guardians of public decency deemed it an act of rampant exhibitionism rather than faulty tailoring and he was replaced on the bill by Tom Jones.

Barred from the ABC circuit and from television, his next single was the appropriately titled 'I Apologise'; despite the furore over the trouser-splitting incidents (or maybe because of them) the song climbed to Number 11. Over the next eighteen months he released another half a dozen singles which, despite having the press on his back, all made the British charts, although only 'Maria', another song from West Side Story, reached the UK Top 10. In September 1968, Proby recorded the album Three Week Hero, which was released in 1969. A collection of rock, blues and country-style ballads, the album is notable more for its association with the New Yardbirds, his studio band, who would soon become Led Zeppelin.[1]

Notes

  1. Welch, Chris (2002). Peter Grant: The Man Who Led Zeppelin, 1st. London: Omnibus Press, 62. ISBN 0-7119-9195-2.