How P.J. Proby's life is falling apart at the seams
By GLENYS ROBERTS
Last updated at 00:17 01 March 2008
Last updated at 00:17 01 March 2008
Not many people would choose to live between two thundering trunk roads in the Midlands with articulated lorries rattling by on both sides, but that is where P.J. Proby can be found these days.
Remember P.J.? He is the Texan-born rock star who is famous above all for being run out of Britain in the Sixties for splitting his too-tight trousers repeatedly on stage.
But music insiders also thought he had more potential than Elvis, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
"The most bloody talented rock and roll singer in the world," said one.
"More electrifying than James Brown," said another, 'his ballads outclass Sinatra."
As he is today: Rocker P.J. Proby aged 59
Everyone thought he had so much talent he should be outselling all the greats.
And he did for a while. At the height of his fame, when everyone agreed that his raw rendition of Somewhere, from West Side Story, was the best ever, he owned three houses in Beverly Hills and one in London's Chelsea.
He had three Rolls-Royces, his own Learjet and a luxury yacht.
But he also had a taste for drink-fuelled fights and under-age sex.
"He has two personalities, fighting for control of him," said one friend.
"The demon wants to destroy him and, unfortunately, the demon usually wins."
P.J. squandered several fortunes on his unsavoury habits and after multiple bankruptcies the ageing rocker, now 69, is back in Britain and living on benefits.
And there lies the problem, because he is also about to embark on a tour of small venues, including ones in Rhyl, Worthing, South Shields and Blackpool.
P.J., who has a brilliant talent for mimicry, can do all your all-time favourites and is particularly good at Johnny Cash and his old friend Elvis - who once dated his sister.
It brings him in some much-needed income, but it has also brought him to the attention of the Department of Work and Pensions.
They are now investigating him on suspicion of pocketing £50,000 worth of benefits while being paid for his gigs.
I last met P.J. in his glory days when he was living in Los Angeles.
He had just bought himself one of those spectacular hillside houses with a picture window overlooking the whole city.
A former athlete who had once won a football scholarship to college, he was wearing a tight top which showed him to be in fine condition.
However even then there were warning signs of what was to come.
It should have been paradise. But the glorious view was obscured by unsightly black plastic rubbish bags stacked several feet high against the panes of glass. P.J. says he used to sit in the gloom surrounded by teenage graduates of his so-called Hollywood Nymphets' school.
Believe it or not, parents in those days were actually willing to bring their underage daughters over to his house so he could babysit them while they went out.
P.J. says he taught the girls Texan manners. "Hygiene, etiquette, how to avoid the worst designs of men" - which, of course, does not seem to have included himself.
There were no nymphets in sight when I caught up with him last week in Worcestershire, but his slovenliness has not improved.
His small rented house sits in the middle of five glorious acres of orchard, yet the property resembles a junkyard.
In front of the kitchen door are parked several old cars, including his favourite vintage Cadillac and the Winnebago tourer that he takes on the road.
The windows of the house are completely obscured by a collection of scruffy potted palms shivering in the British winter.
On one side lived the legendary Katharine Hepburn, on the other the crooner Johnnie Ray.
This was prime Beverly Hills real estate and P.J., rolling in money from his successful British appearances, had bought himself the sort of luxury dwelling to which everyone in California aspires, complete with obligatory swimming pool.
The rock star, his dark, shoulderlength hair worn in a pony tail, was looking his best.
Unrepentant rocker: P.J., in his earlier days,
says he is 'Britain's Errol Flynn'
But it is inside that you realise what an unedifying figure he has become - justice, many would say, for a life of unrestrained dissolute decadence.
Silver-haired P.J., dressed all in black with matching black cowboy boots and shivering, is hunched over a small electric fire while his dachshund Tilly does exactly what she likes, including fouling the carpeted floor.
Meanwhile her master looks on proudly.
"I don't believe in training animals," he explains.
"I can't even bring myself to kill the mice who nibble through the wires of my computer.
"I've just had to learn to become an electrician and join the cables up again."
Though he lives alone, the phone rings constantly with girls inquiring about his well-being.
His last girlfriend, singer Billie Davis, was only too happy to move out complaining publicly that he became sexually aroused only once in all the time they were together.
"He was so pleased he spent the whole night smiling at himself," she says.
"I didn't get a look-in."
P.J. smiles philosophically. "Young girls all want to move in with me," he volunteers, "but then they leave me when they realise that P.J. Proby, the wild person they idolise on stage, is really James Marcus Smith (P.J.'s real name) and is too dull and just wants to hold hands with them in front of the television.
"I can't stay wild enough. They want wild 24 hours a day. So they get married to someone else and have a couple of children and then they want to come back.
"But I don't want them. I can't go to bed with someone of my own age because it would be like going to bed with my grandmother.
"And I can't tolerate anyone living with me because no woman can keep a house clean better than I do.
"I learned that at military college. If our quarters were not spotless we were whacked with a belt till the blood spurted through the holes."
He cannot be serious. Apart from the dog mess and the junk food on the floor, there is not a single surface without some piece of undustable clutter.
P.J. explains it away by saying he has had to cram the entire contents of his grand London house into this small farm worker's dwelling.
Colonial figurines, Ormolu clocks, watercolours and antiques from every known period jostle for space next to family pictures and, rather alarmingly, an arsenal of guns of all sorts.
There are six-shooters in the living room next to the sofa, a Lee Enfield rifle in the study and upstairs, incongruously next to his grand four-poster bed which would not be out of place in Hampton Court, a bank of hunting rifles.
"They are all replicas," P.J. says reassuringly.
Well, that's a relief, because real guns have been a big factor in his downfall.
As he says: "My idea of fun is what puts most people in jail."
He grew up on a ranch near Houston where his family breeds polo ponies.
His "great-grandaddy" was an outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, his grandaddy the governor of the state penitentiary.
Daddy was a banker who despaired of Jimmy ever passing an exam and sent him to military college at the age of nine.
"I was only interested in sport, girls, art and athletics - and my music."
He learned it at the knee of his black nanny who used to sing wonderful gospel songs to him.
At 17 he went off to Los Angeles to become a star, getting by at first by doing odd jobs.
He was a motorcycle delivery boy and a bodyguard for the gay pianist Liberace, which gave him every opportunity to get into the fights he loved.
"Gaybashers would wait for Liberace's mother to come out of his house and they would beat the hell out of her at 87 years old," he says - adding with relish: "I would just jump out of the bushes and break their arms and legs."
He even made a bit of money singing first under the stage name of Jett Powers. Then a friend came up with the winning name P.J. Proby.
By the mid-Sixties, after a disastrous first marriage which ended, he says, when he discovered his teenage bride having sex with two Los Angeles police officers at once, he had become famous enough to be invited to Britain to play on The Beatles' first TV special.
P.J.'s theatrical personality, his swashbuckling pirate shirts, his romantic hair tied back with a ribbon in a pony tail, his skintight brightly-coloured velvet suits and that fabulous Southern voice made him an instant teen idol.
His first hit was Hold Me and a string of top tens followed.
Then came those velvet trousers which always seemed to split so dramatically onstage.
The first time it happened, he claimed, was an accident. Then it happened again and again.
P.J.'s Elvisstyle gyrations were just too much for the flimsy skin-tight material. Soon, no matter how much he protested innocence, no one believed he wasn't doing it on purpose.
He was barred from every major venue in Britain for indecency and returned briefly to America.
"They'd never experienced anything like me in England," he says.
"Adam Faith and Cliff Richard? They were mummy'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."
Britain was soon yearning again for his bad boy ways, and for the next few years P.J. shuttled backwards and forwards across the Atlantic acquiring fortunes and losing them again.
Because what he still liked doing best of all was getting drunk and picking a fight.
He bought the LA house where I visited him after having been thrown out by the owner, one of Howard Hughes's girlfriends, for ruining her party.
"This big football star was harassingthe young ladies, so I asked him to stop and then I knocked him through a plate-glass door," P.J. explains.
By the time he had walked all the way home to the other side of town he had made a vow that one day that house would be his.
It was, indeed, and he ended up having an affair with the woman who had thrown him out.
The memory prompts him to embark on another of his many extraordinary stories which may or may not be fantasy.
"Did you notice the meathooks in the ceiling?" he asks.
He says the house had belonged to a famous actor who must remain nameless.
"His wife installed the hooks so she could indulge in one of her favourite pursuits.
She liked to string naked young boys up by the wrists and swing them backwards and forwards while she painted them gold."
P.J.'s life was nothing if not eventful. Soon he had fallen in love with wealthy heiress Judy Howard, whose family owned the worldfamous racehorse Seabiscuit.
Together they started building a house in Hawaii - he has the palms in Worcestershire to remind him of the islands.
To say the marriage was not a success is an understatement. He spent most of his time trying to stop her overdosing on pills.
Finally, when he was away from home, she managed to kill herself.
His next romance seemed to have been made in heaven. Back in Los Angeles he met up with Claudia, daughter of crooner Dean Martin.
It was love at first sight and P.J. immediately moved her into his pad.
Dean, along with his pal Frank Sinatra, taught P.J. how to improve his relationship with alcohol.
"You sip. You have a glass in your hand all day - but you never get drunk," he explains.
Then he says he got wind of something going on between Claudia and his car mechanic.
He picked up a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey and his six-shooter and when he found the happy couple walking down the street hand in hand, he started discharging the gun into the air.
"Suddenly I had a .48 in one ear, a shotgun under my chin and a .45 on the other side.
"I was surrounded by the entire sheriff's department and was up on attempted murder one."
Soon he found himself spending three months in a holding jail, where most of the other prisoners were destined for San Quentin and death row.
P.J. fell out of love with America and returned to Britain for a starring role in the 1978 West End show Elvis The Musical - only to be fired for not sticking to the script.
He remained in Britain, but his behaviour did not improve.
He was drinking five fists of Jack Daniel's a day - whiskey is normally measured in fingers.
A third marriage to a croupier from Manchester foundered quickly along with his career which now took place, if at all, in working men's clubs. But P.J. was still raising hell and proud of it.
His career in freefall, he was reduced to muckspreading on a Yorkshire farm, where he says he developed a serious relationship with the farmer's 14-year-old daughter.
Today he lays claim to several other "marriages" to girls as young as 11, if you believe him.
"That's what we do in the American South. Elvis's wife moved in with him when she was 11, not 14 as everyone says.
"He used to take her to school. My marriages were no different."
Rehabilitation started in 1992 after a near-death experience.
While on holiday in Florida with another girlfriend he had a heart attack and was taken to hospital where he nearly died. He sobered up for good on doctor's orders.
He had yet another brief comeback in Britain and was given a record contract.
But even though he wasn't drinking, he turned on his studio engineer and said: "I've got a hand grenade, I'm going to take it to the record company building and blow them up."
That sealed his professional fate and, jobless, he finally moved to his current house in Evesham eight years ago when it was found for him by one of his girl backing singers.
He pays £650 a month for it and is happy leading a quiet life because the surrounding countryside reminds him of Texas.
"I can't attract very young girls any more. I can't do any of the things I used to do.
"I can't get drunk, so I can't get into fights. And I don't have a social life any more seeing as I can't drink."
And so to the thorny subject of those benefits.
"I am entitled to be on benefits," he tells me, insisting that his investigation is a bureaucratic error, "because of my asthma, because I have a separated shoulder from American football and because of my alcoholism.
"But doctors have always told me I should work to keep me from getting depression.
"Until I was 65 I got a doctor's note giving me permission to work despite my disability.
"But when you get to 65, they don't accept the doctor's notes any more because you are supposed to be retired.
"So if you have bad health after retirement age they don't see they should pay you the disability allowance because you shouldn't be working anyway.
"It sounds a tangle, but P.J. is determined he is right.
"The Government's always been against me," he says.
"They come after me when they are bored. I will win this case, but then it really doesn't matter to me what the outcome is.
"They don't have to kick me out of this country, because I'll gladly leave.
"England now is not the England I used to love. When I first came here it looked as if it had been designed by Disney.
"Now they've taken all the romance out of it and I won't live in a place with no romance."
It sounds as if he has mellowed with age - but the demon is not finished with him yet.
"If I knew I had a terminal illness, you know what I would do?" he says.
"I'd take a plane to Nashville, Tennessee, and I'd ask the cab driver to take me to the sleaziest, dirtiest bar in town and I'd pick on the biggest and toughest guy in the place and knee him between the legs.
"I'd make him really mad and then I'd say have a drink - and then I'd say come outside and fight."
The incorrigible P.J. Proby intends to go out fighting.