PJ Proby

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By Jeremy Miles

Trouser-splitting sixties pop legend PJ Proby used to drink quite a bit. So much in fact that he boozed himself to death. 

But Proby wasn’t going to let a little medical problem, like his heart stopping five times, mess things up. So he just came straight back to life again.

 The flamboyant Texan loves telling this story. He was telling it when I first ran into him three years ago and he’s still telling it today.

It comes complete with a flurry of name-dropping that  includes old drinking buddies ranging from Frank Sinatra to Jerry  Lee Lewis and George Best even Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.

Six times married Proby originally found fame in Britain back in 1965 when he tore his trousers during a show in Croydon.

 The incident caused clean-up campaigner Mary Whitehouse to denounce him as obscene and demand his deportation. 

Proby, an exceptionally fine raconteur, loves telling that story too. He says all that was exposed by the rip in his velvet strides was a small expanse of kneecap. It didn’t stop him getting thrown off the tour and banned from a string of theatres though.

“ I wouldn’t have minded if I’d had something worth looking at,” he reasons.  “If I  had I’d have gone straight back to Hollywood and made a whole lot of money in porno pictures.” 

Not that Proby’s complaining. “The publicity that episode generated was extraordinary. You couldn’t buy something like that,” he told me.

I caught up with the 68-year-old singer as he prepared for his latest stint as special guest on the Solid Silver Sixties Tour. The popular nostalgia package which plays the Pavilion Theatre in Bournemouth tomorrow night (Sunday March 19) is headlined by his old mate Gerry Marsden and his rather embarrassingly named band The Pacemakers.

 For Gerry had his own brush with the cardiac ward a couple of years back when he underwent a triple heart by-pass operation. 

Proby clearly thinks that the decidedly moderate Marsden was dealt a bit of a tough hand whereas his own dance with death, which came in Florida back in 1992, was an inevitability.

“I used to drink five fists of Jack Daniels a day - two before 12 noon. It was the first thing I’d drink when I woke up in the morning and the last thing I drank at night.  It was always on the cards that I was going to have a heart attack. 

“But I guess I got lucky. There are very few people who drink like I did and survive.”

Amazingly Proby - who hasn’t touched a drop since -  did survive although he went to the very brink before finally cleaning up his act. 

He still sounds genuinely  astonished when he talks about the day when, having run out of booze and  tranquillisers, he dragged himself to  hospital suffering terrible withdrawal.

The medics  said he should be admitted. “I didn’t like the sound of that at all.  I told them I needed to get to a  bar and prepare myself. 

“Later they told me that I climbed off the examination table, took three steps and dropped dead. They had to call the paramedics to get my heart going again. Apparently it  stopped five times.

“I remember waking up in the emergency room and saying to my girlfriend of the time ‘Don’t go away honey. I’ll be right back’ and boomph... I died again.”

When Proby finally regained consciousness he was strapped to a padded bed and “stuck full of needles and tubes.”

It was five weeks before he eventually checked himself out. Terribly frail and weighing little more than seven stone, he headed back to the UK - his home for a decade.

But there was more trouble on  the horizon.  “They wouldn’t let me back into England because I didn’t look like myself on my passport.”

Proby was given 14 days to prove his identity. 

In desperation he called theatre producer Bill Kenwright who had employed him in the West End back in 1982 in Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.

It was a long shot. Years of heavy drinking and bad behaviour meant that Proby had fallen out with most of his one-time friends. Kenwright was no exception. 

 “One night I’d  had so much to drink that I wrote in lipstick all over my dressing room mirror ‘I Do Not Work with Homosexual Dancers’ and walked out on the show.  Bill hadn’t spoken to me since.”

WIth a contrite Proby insisting that the mirror incident was “Jack (Daniels) talking, not me” Kenwright was prepared to forgive and forget and not only vouched for the errant performer but signed him up for an eight month contract in a tour of the  musical Good Rockin’ Tonight.

Proby, who says he used the  show as therapy, gradually gaining confidence and building his strength, is eternally grateful.

“It was horribly tough. I was going through awful withdrawal and there were times when it felt like I  could hardly walk but the audience gave me standing ovations and it really gave me strength.”

In his new, booze-free world Proby was also learning to look after himself for the first time in years.

“I learnt to ride trains, pack my own bags, book my own digs, make sure I was in the same place as everybody else. It was very strange. I’d  always had road managers and wives to do that kind of thing for me.” 

Before long he was playing his one-time friend Elvis Presley in a West End show and had also landed a recording contract with EMI. He cut an album with Marc Almond as producer.

Not surprisingly perhaps the  unlikely pairing of Proby with the super-camp former Soft Cell singer found the tabloids raising  the spectre of his apparently homophobic past.   

The big Texan was incensed, pointing out that many of his friends were gay and that he had even been employed to protect famous gay actors. “Back in the 50s I used to work as a bodyguard in Hollywood. I worked for Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter and Liberace and it was my job to  break peoples’ feet and kneecaps if ever anything was said about  those boys being homosexuals.

 “You have to remember that  people were really  sensitive about things like that back then. You could  lose your job in those days even if your marriage was on the rocks.” 

Proby also worked as chauffeur for the young  Paul Newman. His job he says consisted of driving the then unmarried actor up and down Hollywood Boulevard in his two -seater ‘55 Thunderbird looking for girls. 

Over the years he has enjoyed encounters with countless big names including the young Elvis, who for a while dated his sister.

He was engaged for a time to Dean Martin’s daughter Claudia but, like so many of his relationships, it ended in booze-sodden disaster. In fact  Proby wound up behind bars for brandishing a firearm in a public place.

 It happened when he confronted Claudia for cheating on him with another man. Trouble was he happened to be outside a Los Angeles police office at the time.

“It was incredible. All I wanted to do was make her listen. I had this gun and wham, there was .38 in my ear, a .45 in my back and a shotgun levelled at my head.“

Worse still the arresting officers opened the trunk of Proby’s car and found 16 baseball bats. “I was running this local team at the time but the police didn’t seem too impressed. I was horribly drunk, I had a gun and the contents of my car looked like I was about to start a war. I reckon they didn’t think I looked too much like a sportsman.”

After months in jail Proby was finally released only to  find his home boarded up. He jemmied the door open and smashed his way through into the backyard.

“All the furniture, everything was gone, but I remembered I’d stashed this gallon flagon of whisky out in the back, behind the rabbit hutch, for emergencies. I can’t tell you the joy when I found it was still there. 

“i just lay back and sucked on that big old jar of booze and had myself some thinking time.”

Against all odds PJ Proby is still with us.  During his long and eventful life he has made and lost several fortunes. Today he lives in “modest circumstances” in the UK. Wives have come and gone but he says few have proved as loyal as his present constant female companion - a Jack Russell/Dachshund cross called Tilly.

 Together PJ and Tilly rattle round the country in their trusty Winnebago - “I like it better than staying in hotels” - playing the nostalgia circuit and greeting friends old and new.

And, given half the chance, PJ will regale them with the incredible  story of how he boozed himself to death but came back to life again.

© Jeremy Miles 2017