It was a cruel joke. P.J.Proby had his run of hits and had wrecked his career by ripping his velvet trousers, perhaps deliberately, on stage. By 1969, he was reaching the end of his fiveyear contract with Liberty Records and the new album was called 'Three Week Hero'. It opens with a blues riff, rather like Chris Smither now, and then P.J. in a cod country voice sings, "I'm a three week hero, I started with a zero, And I sold a million records on my own." Surprisingly, no-one has written a book on P.J.Proby although his colourful life could make a best-selling book, a play and a film.
He was born James Marcus Smith in Houston, Texas on 6th November 1938 and he attributes his wild behaviour as a reaction to the discipline he endured in a military school. He moved to Hollywood and hung out with Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson and Eddie Cochran. He cut scores of demos and wrote 'Ain't Gonna Kiss Ya', which was the lead track on a hit EP by the Searchers, and 'Clown Shoes' for Johnny Burnette. He had had problems with the police and the Revenue in the US and he was gratified when Jack Good offered him a guest spot in his UK TV spectacular, 'Around The Beatles', which was screened in May 1964. Eddie Cochran's fiancee, Sharon Sheeley, gave him a new name for the show - P.J.Proby, but apart from that, "I created P.J.Proby totally alone.
The ponytail, the buckle shoes, the big-sleeved shirts were all me and if I'd had good management, I'd have taken out copyright on them." The TV special drew 8 millions viewers and “Hold Me” wich Proby had cut in the UK with noted sessionman Jimmy Page on lead Guitar , soared to N.3. Page played a distinctive Guitar solo on his follow-up hit, “Together” and he can be heard on several other Proby recordings – “Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart', 'Stagger Lee’, 'Linda Lu', 'Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu', 'Let The Water Run Down' and 'Hanging From Your Loving Tree'.
Proby's Billy Eckstine-inspired but mickey-taking 'Somewhere' was another Top 10 hit and then came the problems with his skin-tight trousers. Proby says that the campaign against him was spearheaded by Mary Whitehouse and that showbusiness moguls _ wanted him deported as he was an American earning good English money. P.J.Proby's conspiracy theories are second only to those following Kennedy's assassination.
Whatever, he continued to have hits and what could be more appropriate than 'I Apologise'? 'Maria', from Back Side Story (?), made the Top 10 but his sales tailed off because he recorded a tuneless Ben E.King B side, 'Let The Water Run Down', a lacklustre Lennon and McCartney song 'That Means A Lot' and some middle-of-the-road schlock, 'It's Your Day Today'. 'Niki Hoeky', a fabulous slice of cajun rock'n'roll, was too strange for the UK market. It became his only Top 30 hit in America. Tom Jones, who took much from Proby, was becoming a millionaire superstar and Proby was drinking hard to alleviate the boredom of performing on the chicken-in-a-basket circuit.
In 1967 he was declared a bankrupt in America and in February 1968 he was a UK bankrupt with liabilities of £84,309 against assets of 12 shillings. Jimmy Page cut down on his session work to become a Yardbird and he befriended bassist John Paul Jones. By October 1968, the Yardbirds were in disarray but Page and Jones wanted to continue together and invited vocalist Terry Reid to join them.
He couldn't escape from a contract but he recommended Robert Plant who was singing with Alexis Korner's blues band. B.J.Wilson wanted to continue as a drummer with Procol Harum and so they accepted Plant's recommendation of John Bonham. This was the personnel of Led Zeppelin: the name came when Keith Moon joked they would go down like a lead Zeppelin. Steve Rowland was an actor, singer and producer, having hits with Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick And Tich and the Herd. He formed a group with session singers and musicians including Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood and called them the Family Dogg.
They had a Top 10 hit in 1969 with 'A Way Of Life'. Rowland, an American in England like Proby, became friendly with him and agreed to produce his next album, a daunting task as his albums had veered from straight rock'n'roll to standards. He asked the Family Dogg to be backing vocalists (excellent on the gospel-slanted 'Won't Be Long' and 'I Have A Dream') and two members of the group, Hammond and Hazelwood, wrote 'Empty Bottles' and 'New Directions'. Steve Rowland recruited Jimmy Page (lead guitar), John Paul Jones (bass, piano, organ) and their new friends, Robert Plant (harmonica) and John Bonham (drums, congas) to accompany him.
Sometimes though the drums are played by Clem Cattini of the Tornados. John Paul Jones wrote most of the arrangements. Although the album is now regarded as P.J.Proby backed by Led Zeppelin, the only track on which they really sound like that is 'Jim's Blues'. 'Three Week Hero' is a schizophrenic, even quadrophrenic, album. It has no idea of its market, which is what makes it so interesting. One minute Jim is singing about a dead dog ('Little Friend'), the next he's lamenting the death of a soldier (Today I Killed A Man') and what did anyone in 1969 make of 'It's So Hard To Be A Nigger'? (Proby has since recorded 'I Was Born A Poor White Boy In Niggertown' and 'Elvis Was Not The White Nigger - I Was', but I don't know whether he is intending to shock or whether this is a product of his Southern upbringing.)
The best song on the album is Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway's Today I Killed A Man'. Although it is ostensibly about the Civil War, the implication is that it is really about Vietnam. It was issued as a single with 'It's Too Good To Last'. 'Empty Bottles' was used as B-side of another single, while 'The Day That Lorraine Came Down' was tried as a single. The B-side of that single was an informal studio jam, 'Mery Hopkins Never Had Days Like This', which parodied the Bonzo Dog Band's 'The Intro And The Outro' and included namechecks for Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.
Three Week Hero' was released in October 1969 and sold miserably. So much so that original copies now pass hands at £60. Led Zeppelin became the heavy metal band of the 70s, which Proby takes credit for: "I told them to go to the hippies in America and that's what they did." In 1970 P.J.Proby was featured in Jack Good's West End production of 'Othello', now called 'Catch My Soul', but it wasn't long before the gremlins got to work and he was sacked from the production.
The 70s and 80s are a long, drunken haze with occasional highlights, such as another West End show, 'Elvis', in 1977. In recent years, he has given up drinking, had success in further West End musicals and recorded with Marc Almond. When I met P.J.Proby in 1994. I asked him to sign a copy of Three Week Hero'. He looked at the title and wrote across it, 'Wanta bet'. There's still a place for Jim somewhere.
by Spencer Leigh, Presenter, BBC Radio Merseyside
1. Three Week Hero (John Stewart) - 2:56
2. The Day That Lorraine Came Down (Young) - 3:15
3. Little Friend (Robin Gair, Peter Mason) - 4:01
4. Empty Bottles (Albert Hammond, Mike Hazlewood) - 2:53
5. Reflections (Of Your Face) (Amory Kane) - 5:14
6. Won't Be Long (J. Leslie McFarland) - 3:41
7. Sugar Mama (Woodley, Young) - 2:50
8. I Have A Dream (Terry Hensley, Alec Wilder) - 4:45
9. It's Too Good To Last (Baker, Stephens) - 3:14
10.New Directions (Albert Hammond, Mike Hazlewood) - 3:46
11.Today I Killed A Man (Roger Cook, Roger Greenaway) - 3:24
12.Medley: It's So Hard To Be A Nigger/Jim's Blues/George Wallace Is Rollin' In This Mornin' (Hillery/Traditional) - 7:38
*P.J. Proby - Vocals
*John Paul Jones - Bass, Piano, Organ
*Jimmy Page - Electric Guitar
*Clem Cattini - Drums
*Alan 'The Hawk' Hawkshaw - Piano, Organ
*Alan Parker - Guitars
*Robert Plant - Harmonica
*Dennis Lopez, Stan Barrett - Various Percussion
*John Bonham - Drums, Congas
*Amory Kane - Acoustic Guitar, Strings
*The Family Dogg & Bob Henry Alias The Jericho - Backing Vocal
the Free Text