It took some doing, but the Independent’s Robert Chalmers managed to wrangle an interview out of PJ Proby, the Texan rocker whose staggering rise and fall in the UK is best typified by the following incident, “in the late 1980s: Proby left the stage after half an hour, telling the audience: ‘I’m sorry. I cannot go on. I am suffering from gonorrhoea, more popularly known as the clap.’”
If he’d died when he might have done “ in the mid-1960s, when he was ordering Jack Daniels for breakfast and hosting nightly parties where he’d discharge his .45 more often than some would deem prudent “ PJ Proby would need no introduction. Early death, as his former associates Ritchie Valens, Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley might testify, is the one foolproof way to cement a reputation in popular music.
But Proby survived, and there is probably no star whose profile has plummeted so rapidly and from such a height. He had top 10 hits in the mid-1960s with songs like “Hold Me” and “Somewhere”, but his greatest talent was for performance. He developed increasingly exaggerated stage mannerisms, one hand cupped behind his ear, the other reaching out as though attempting to adjust an invisible side-mirror. ‘
He was the first white singer to introduce an unambiguously direct sexual element to his act. If Presley’s choreography could be likened to the trouble-free eroticism of a chorus girl, PJ Proby’s instincts were closer to those of a low-life stripper. “Am I clean?” Proby would scream. ” Am I clean? Am I pure?”, massaging his thighs as he executed pelvic thrusts whose coarse vigour appalled the parents of his young female audience, especially on his first tour of Britain.
“I am an artist,” Proby announced at the time, “and I should be exempt from shit.”
This proclamation went sadly unheeded in the UK where he was banned from every major theatre, and by BBC and ITV; a fever of prohibition that began after his velvet trousers split on stage at Croydon in January 1965. To his irritation, censorship is what he tends to be remembered for.
“My trousers split across the knees,” he says. “Never to the crotch. These days Iggy Pop gets his tackle out on television and nobody pays any attention.”
His last steady partner, singer Billie Davis, moved out of this house years ago, making a succession of withering observations in the popular press. (” In the time that we dated,” Davis complained, “he had one erection. It lasted three hours. He was so pleased that he spent the whole night smiling at it. I didn’t get a look in.”)
Producer Jack Good flew PJ Proby to London to appear on the Beatles’ first UK television special, where he was introduced by Paul McCartney as an established American star. Proby says that he boarded the plane wearing garments pilfered from Hollywood sets. “I took Paul Newman’s shirt from Left Handed Gun. I stole Russ Tamblyn’s boots from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.”
The singer believes every detail of this story, though the details sometimes change. Still, it can’t have been easy to have been plucked from obscurity only to have his priapic live performances halted by what he still claims to be a conspiracy orchestrated by the late guardian of British morals, Mary Whitehouse. (The manager of the ABC Luton brought the curtain down on Proby on 1 February 1965; three weeks later, following in-depth scrutiny of his ripped trousers in the Daily Mail, he was barred from every major venue in Britain.)
“Were you tearing your clothes deliberately?”
“No,” Proby says. “And I don’t blame the tailor. They’d never experienced anything like me in England. Adam Faith and Cliff Richard? They were momma’s boys. I was Britain’s Errol Flynn, the rough mother of pop. I was Jimmy Dean all busted up. I was Marlon Brando. They wanted rid of me.”