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P J Proby Interview

Picture Copyright Manja Dolan

Introduction by Jim Liddane
P J Proby, whom I have been lucky enough to see perform on several spell-binding occasions, is a multifaceted and dynamic performer whose work as a singer and songwriter has significantly influenced the music landscape. With a career spanning several decades, he is renowned for his powerful voice, charismatic stage presence, and his ability to blend various musical styles, making him a unique and enduring figure in the entertainment world.

He first gained widespread attention in the 1960s, a time when the music industry was undergoing rapid transformation. His early hits like "Hold Me", "Together", "Somewhere", "I Apologise" and "Maria" showcased his remarkable vocal range and his talent for interpreting songs with emotional depth and dramatic flair.

His ability to take classic songs and infuse them with his own distinctive style set him apart from his contemporaries. Proby's versions of these songs not only highlighted his vocal prowess but also demonstrated his skill in bringing new life to well-known standards.

One of his notable contributions to the music industry has been his work as a songwriter. He has penned numerous songs that reflect his versatility and creativity. His songwriting often blends elements of pop, rock, and soul, showcasing his ability to cross genres and appeal to a broad audience. This genre-blending approach is part of what has kept his music relevant over the years, resonating with both older fans and new listeners, and has enabled him to have songs covered by everybody from The Searchers to Jack Scott, and from Ricky Nelson to Johnny Burnette.

In addition to his musical talents, P J's stage presence and charisma have made him a compelling live performer. His theatrical style and bold fashion choices, including his long hair and flamboyant outfits, were ahead of their time and influenced later generations of performers. Proby's willingness to take risks and push boundaries in his performances contributed to his reputation as a trailblazer in the music industry. Despite facing various challenges throughout his career, including periods of controversy and changing musical trends, Proby's resilience and dedication to his craft have kept him active and influential.

His ability to reinvent himself and adapt to new musical landscapes speaks to his enduring talent and passion for music. P J Proby's legacy is one of innovation, versatility, and remarkable vocal talent. His contributions as both a singer and a songwriter have left a lasting impact on the music world. Through his powerful performances and creative songwriting, he has carved out a unique place in music history, inspiring countless artists and entertaining fans across generations.

Debbie Rial interviewed P J Proby on behalf of "Songwriter Magazine".

P J Proby has to be the embodiment of all that is rock ‘n’ roll. He has seen it all and done it all. The exuberance of his stage performances is only matched perhaps by his colourful private life.

Born James Marcus Smith in 1938 in Huntsville near Houston Texas he had several incarnations before emerging as the enigmatic P J Proby. Aged 18, he ran away to Hollywood, quickly earning a writing contract with Metric Music (the publishing branch of Liberty Records) with the help of friend Sharon Sheeley. He quickly made a name for himself as a songwriter, having songs recorded by The Searchers, Johnny Burnette, Ricky Nelson and Jackie De Shannon to name but a few.

Under the name Jett Powers, he wrote and recorded a number of songs including “Go Girl Go“ and "Loud Perfume", and was also hired to do demos of new Elvis Presley songs, even becaming friends with the man himself, and of course P J has been favourably compared to the iconic star and has played him in Jack Good’s “Elvis: The Musical” on the West End.

In the 1960s, P J travelled to London where he signed with Decca Records, going on to score top 10 hits with his versions of “Somewhere” and “Hold Me”.

More recently, P J had chart success in the form of a duet with Marc Almond titled “Yesterday Has Gone” and while he continues to thrill audiences with his energetic performances, songwriting has also been a passion which he continues to this day.

At what age did you realise that music was important to you and that you wanted to be involved in it?
About two. My mother had me singing harmonies with her while the radio was going.

What music did you listen to growing up and who were your influences?
In the early beginning: Sinatra, Crosby, Country & Western and Swing - then Country & Western and Blues. Then around the age of 12 or 13 - I realised I could do it all, I could sing from Sinatra to Hank Williams to Leadbelly & Howling Wolf. So I started doing all types of music.

When did you write your first song?
When I wrote my first love note to a girl; that must have been when I was ten years old. All my early songs come from love notes I sent to girls. When I was sixteen I stopped writing notes, I just wrote about the experiences of heartbreak.

How do you approach songwriting? Do you think of a lyric and try to put it to a tune or vice versa?
Whichever comes first.

You used to do demos for Elvis. Did you ever offer him any of your own songs?
Yes I did. I offered him one song called “In My Dreams”, that I wrote with Dotty Harmony, his ex-girlfriend, and he accepted it, but one of his boys stepped in – I can’t name names - so I gave it to Ricky Nelson and he did it on one of his albums.

Where were you when you heard he had died?
I was living in Huddersfield and there’s a big story behind that, which you will find in my book when it comes out!

You’ve met everyone from Elvis and the Beatles to the members of Led Zeppelin who were session musicians for you. Who, of all the legends you’ve met, had the most impact on you and why?
I think probably Gene Pitney, because he had such a strong, powerful voice. And Elvis, because we sounded so much alike, coming from country roots and country background. But the one that had the biggest influence on me when growing up was Gordon MacRae, when I heard him sing in the musicals that had the most influence on me, "Carousel" and "Oklahoma".

Who had the most impact on your career?
Meeting Sharon Sheeley and Eddie Cochran. From there everything happened that led to every other success.

When you were signed by Metric Music (Liberty Records publishing arm) as part of the inhouse songwriting team, did you work individually or as a team and were you allocated individual assignments?
We did everything as a team. Our demo team included Randy Newman and Brian Wilson. In our particular group we all wrote the music and the words and then gave them to David Gates to arrange them to take them into the studio. We always did our own demos, with Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, David Gates, Hal Blaine, the Crickets’ drummer Jerry Allison and Herb Alpert on trumpet. The vocal backings were us as well: Me, Glen Campbell, Sharon Sheeley, Dotty Harmony, Dick Glasser (our producer) and Darlene Love.

Would they come to you and say we need songs for such and such a performer or would you write songs and they would see who it might suit?
I would write them and they would submit them. I would tell them who I would like to do the numbers and they would try them first. But if they didn’t want them they would try someone else. For example, I wrote "Ain’t Gonna Kiss Ya" for The Shirelles and The Ribbons did it.

It must be flattering to have your songs so widely covered. For example “I Only Came To Dance With You” and “Ain’t Gonna Kiss Ya” have each had over ten covers. What do you think it is that makes these in particular so versatile?
I don’t know. They were just good songs.

Of all the covers, which was your favourite?
I haven’t heard all the covers. I’ve heard The Dalton Brothers, The Searchers etc. I’ve only heard the original artists’ versions.

What makes you decide to give a song to another performer? Do you write with them in mind?
Yes, I write with them in mind, hoping they will do it. If they don’t, I’ll find someone else.

What song are you most proud of?
The ones I’m most proud of haven’t even been recorded.

Looking back, of all your achievements, what do you regard as your most significant work?
My demo years. And the work with Les Reed.

Are you still songwriting?
Every day.

Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to an apprentice songwriter, what would it be?
Do them yourself! Record them. The way the industry is today the record companies don’t take out-of-house material. And the most important thing is: open your own Publishing Company, that’s where the money is.

Copyright Songwriter Magazine, International Songwriters Association & Debbie Rial: All Rights Reserved


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