It is January 29 1965 at the ABC Croydon, a grim suburb on the edge of south London. The 2,300 theatre is in uproar. The teenage crowd has danced its way through sundry acts promoted by NEMS, Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s company, like The Remo Four, Tommy Quickly and The Fourmost, none of whom would ever enjoy the slightest success, despite their golden patron.
This is the first night of the Cilla Black-PJ Proby Show, visiting the ABCs, Ranks and Granadas in 22 towns and cities up and down the country in little more than a month. Cilla, not yet the Light Entertainment legend she was to become, had a couple of big Number One hits in 1964 , but the hysteria is for one man: PJ Proby, the wild Texan rocker brought over the previous year by the Beatles to guest in their ‘Around The Beatles’ TV special and who never went home. We thought all that over-paid, over-sexed and over here stuff had ended with the war 20 years earlier. Apparently not.
Proby’s act was raunchy for any year, let alone 1965. It was aimed at getting as many people in a tizzy as possible and as quickly as possible. He had a huge and hugely melodramatic voice and there was thrusting and gyrating on a scale we had simply not seen before. If that weren’t enough, he had hair, lots and lots of hair, long even by Beatles and Stones standards, which framed his face completely. And get this: he had a pony tail. In 1965! Blimey!
At his shows the previous year, the teenage girls had thrown their underwear at him and the teenage boys had smashed up the seats and, when there was nothing left to smash, they scrapped it out among themselves, all spurred on by Proby’s incendiary pronouncements like “It’s my job to provoke fights. That’s what rock’n’roll is all about.”
Like many men of Texas he had quite a reputation as a hard drinking, fighting man, a man with the devil himself inside him. Bunny Lewis, a singer, promoter agent once said:
“Proby would run through your booze faster than anyone I ever knew. An evening out with him was an experience you were unlikely ever to forget. You’d run into problems from the moment you started. You’d probably cover about 14 or 15 bars, clubs or bordellos if necessary on the evening. If there was a fight in the offing he’d be ready to go.”
The Establishment was having a hard time getting its head round all this wild rock and roll stuff as well. The Conservative government of Harold Macmillan had just fallen because of a sex scandal, pop stars like the Rolling Stones were becoming millionaires apparently by being as unkempt and rude as possible. Mr Churchill had just died the week before too and the country was going to Hell in a hand basket. The press were in a constant froth about his antics, the Daily Mirror once described him as a “morally insane degenerate”, begging parents – presumably their readers – to keep their children away from his shows.
Something had to give and unfortunately it was his trousers. At the ABC Croydon, 50 years ago this week.
By early 1965 he was probably the most successful male singer in Britain, with some very big hits under his belt, including the throbbing ‘Hold Me’ and a hilariously melodramatic version of ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story. Co-headlining the Cilla Black-PJ Proby package tour was a massive confirmation of his star power, so he had 12 velvet suits, complete with skin-tight bell bottom trousers, specially made for the tour. He even had a bath robe made with the flag of Texas on both sides a la James Brown, which was fitting given how much of JB’s act he had nicked.
As Proby walked out on stage and launched into his first number ‘Hold Me’, the crowd went predictably nuts. He paced the stage as he sang, ran from one side to the other, dropped to his knees, did back flips, front rolls, knee slides and attempts at the splits among unwise leg movements. Halfway through the song, he attempted one movement too many and his pants ripped from knee to crotch, revealing what one newspaper described as, “the most intimate part of Mr Proby’s anatomy.” Other reports say the rip was really just around the knees. Either way you saw flesh which would hitherto have been very well hidden indeed in 1965.
He explained to a frantic press that the velvet just couldn’t take the strain but they had already decided it was a publicity stunt and that his strides were deliberately weakened or held together with studs rather stitches. He managed to stay on the tour but had to promise to clean up his act. Which he did for a couple of nights, but on 1 February in Northampton, his troublesome inseams gave way again and he was arrested right there on stage. The arresting officer and arbiter of Northamptonshire public morals that night was PC Bryn Harris, who as it turns out was the father of Whispering Bob Harris, later ironically to become one of the most famous rock and roll broadcasters in the country.
This time his feet didn’t touch the ground and he was kicked off the tour, but in another ironic twist he was replaced by Tom Jones & The Squires, Tom himself of course no stranger to a snug trouser. His first single ‘It’s Not Unusual’ was racing up the charts at the time. There’s more than a good chance that Tom’s manager and the tour promoter came to, shall we say, an agreement to get Proby kicked off the tour so Tom could get the, ahem, exposure. To the point where money may have allegedly changed hands. The Texan wild man just gave everyone the excuse.
The industry slammed the door on him. The hysterical headline in every newspaper, he was banned from any theatre where teenagers might be in attendance. TV and radio certainly weren’t going to play his records, so without them he was doomed. Not that he stopped the party. He lived in a house at 5 Cheltenham Terrace in Chelsea, decorated with the helm of a sailing-clipper and wildebeest heads, drinking Bourbon like water. His neighbours complained after one many too many wild parties and he had to move out.
He worked up a cabaret act instead, which paid some bills but apparently not those sent by the Inland Revenue. In 1968, a tax bill forced his bankruptcy, with debts of £84,309, against useable assets of 12 shillings (60p). He claimed to have spent his fortune on, “wine, women, yachts, Lear jets and a fleet of Rolls Royces.” By the 1970s, when he couldn’t find stage work, he took menial jobs. He was a shepherd in Bolton, a muckspreader in Huddersfield and most humbling perhaps, the janitor of a mansion block in Hammersmith almost opposite the famous Palais de Danse, which he had once filled. There were many marriages – four or six, no one seems to know – and his third marriage not unreasonably ended when he shot his wife in the face with an air pistol. His fourth wife said in their four years together he got one erection and was so pleased with it he just sat there smiling at it for three hours and it went, er, unused.
The alcohol caught up with him in 1992 when he had a heart attack on holiday at which point he quit drinking. He’s still with us, on the nostalgia circuit. He played 42 dates on a Sixties Gold tour last year and will go out again this year, God willing. He now lives quietly on his own in a cottage in Worcestershire of all places and we talked for three hours last week about his life and times. We’d been talking for two hours and he hadn’t even split his trousers yet.