11 September 2007

Only in Oz (2) P.J. Proby - Mission Bell

Another record that was a hit in Australia but not in its country of origin. For the whole series, see Only in Oz.

2. P.J. Proby - Mission Bell
(William Michael-Jesse Hodges et al)
UK 1965
Liberty album (UK) P.J.Proby, #LBY 1264;

Liberty single (USA, Australia) #55791.
Australian charts: #3 Melbourne, #7 Sydney, #4 Brisbane,
#2 Adelaide #3 Perth.

This 1965 rearrangement of a #7 US hit from 1960 is a jawdropper, especially if you're familiar with the pleasant but unremarkable original by Donnie Brooks. This is the quintessential example of a remake transforming the original and overshadowing it.

An expansive, dramatic recording, with soaring strings and brass orchestration, and an urgent, soulful female chorus, Mission Bell was produced in London by Ron Richards during P.J. Proby's mid-60s sojourn in the UK.

Born James Marcus Smith in Houston in 1938, P.J. Proby was more popular in the UK and Australia than he was back home in the US. In the UK he had ten Top 40 hits 1964-68 (including three in the Top 10), but in the USA Niki Hoeky was his only Billboard Top 40 record, at #23 (1967).

Mission Bell was one of Proby's biggest hits in Australia, but it remained an album track in the UK and the single didn't chart nationally in the US.

P.J. Proby's career was plagued by poor judgment and overexcited media attention of the worst kind: in Australia he became a figure of fun, sent up in Oz Magazine ("Probe me, P.J., probe me!").

Nevertheless, he often had the benefit of top notch producers, arrangers and songwriters, and his rich, idiosyncratically delivered baritone could rise to the occasion and produce the odd pop gem.

As well as Mission Bell, Ron Richards produced some of Proby's better-known records:

  • his mannered hit versions of Maria and Somewhere from West Side Story;
  • That Means A Lot, a Song The Beatles Gave Away, arranged & conducted by George Martin;
and such overlooked delights as:
  • Just Like Him, an exquisite Jacki DeShannon song to be discovered on the B-side of Somewhere; and
  • To Make A Big Man Cry, written by Pete Callander and Les Reed and delivered relatively straight by Proby in the style of the big-production ballad of the day (no surprise that it was also recorded by Tom Jones).
An EMI producer and A&R man, Ron Richards is best known for having signed The Hollies and for producing their biggest hits. He was also in on the earliest Beatles sessions at Abbey Road.

The unsung hero of Proby's Mission Bell is the arranger, who is uncredited on the record. Of all the unsung heroes of pop music, arrangers are even more overlooked than producers and songwriters (at least some of them have become famous names) and yet many a great pop record owes its greatness to its arrangement.

[Update: Having read a bit more about the career of producer Ron Richards, I'm guessing he was also the arranger.]

Naming the writers of Mission Bell isn't straightforward. William Michael is often credited alone as the writer (on the original Donnie Brooks label and on the US copyright), but Jesse Hodges also appears in some places (at BMI, for example) and there were contributions by others along the way.

William Michael
had a day job in stockbroking. He submitted his original version of Mission Bell - then called Wishing Well - to Jesse Hodges, whose speciality was to quickly and economically work up and record songs by semi-professional or amateur writers. (In fact, we're just about into song-poem territory with Mission Bell.)

was a songwriter, producer, arranger and singer, an associate of Donnie Brooks since their days at the Fable label in the late 50s when Donnie was still known as as Johnny Faire.

Quoting Brooks, Greg Adams writes that Mission Bell was an example of how Hodges "would take songs, horrible songs by these amateur writers and rewrite them into something recordable."1

Gary Myers, who interviewed Donnie Brooks in the late 70s, mentions contributions to the rewrite by Dorsey Burnette (whose Tall Oak Tree is alluded to in the final version), guitarist Scotty Turnbull, and probably the songwriter John Marascalco.2 Howard Thomason, at Rockabilly Hall of Fame, has Donnie Brooks and Herb Newman of Era Records also contributing.

William Michael, the stockbroking songwriter, has 24 compositions listed at BMI. Wishing Well was extensively rewritten on its way to becoming Mission Bell but he was keen to have his name on the song, no matter what rewrites and percentages were involved. Can't blame him, really.

One more thing: there was a connection between P.J. Proby and the original version of Mission Bell. Before he was brought to the UK by pop TV producer Jack Good, Proby had worked around Hollywood for years, acting a little, writing songs, recording demos for Elvis, and making records under other names (Jett Powers, Orville Woods). Spencer Leigh, in The Independent's 2007 obituary of Donnie Brooks, writes:
In 1960, Brooks scored with Mission Bell, which included a jokey reference to Dorsey Burnette's hit Tall Oak Tree.
P.J. Proby had first met Brooks two years earlier, on a radio show in Hollywood. "We hung around with the same gang," Proby recalls, "the Hollywood Brat Pack of its day, which included Ricky Nelson, Johnny Burnette, Eddie Cochran and Sharon Sheeley. I liked Mission Bell very much and, when I did it myself, my version got to No 1 in Australia. Donnie said to me, 'How can you do this to me, Jim?' "
Let's not be picky: maybe it wasn't quite a #1 in all of those collections of radio playlists we like to call the Aussie charts, but for some of us down here it's still #1 in our hearts.

Recommended reading:

Nik Cohn devoted a chapter to
P.J. Proby in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (1969):
He was intuitive, fast, hysterical, paranoid, generous, very funny, hugely imaginative, original, self-obsessed, self-destructive, often impossible, just about irresistible and much more besides. Truly, he was complicated. (p.196)
Michael Lane Heath has a Proby appreciation and history at Perfect Sound Forever, Get Hip to My Conflagration:
...take the most outrageous, profligate, American loud-hearted-unto-operatic attitude, pour it into the hip-swing shing-a-ling of a Presley-shaped vessel, dress it up in Errol Flynn/Captain Blood pony-tailed pirate drag, multiply it by a thousand... and you still don't approach the maximum velocity of P.J. Proby.

Chart positions from Gavin Ryan's Australian chart books.

1 Liner notes to Hard To Find 45s on CD, Vol. 10 (Eric, 2007), cited by S.J. Dibai, post to Spectropop Group #40745, 12 September 2007.
2 Gary Myers, post to Spectropop Group #40742, 12 September 2007.
See also post #40773, 14 September 2007 Re: quasi-legit song publishers by Phil Milstein, who has also given me further background on Mission Bell.


Anonymous said...

It is so unfortunate the arranger of Proby's version of "Mission Bell" has never been credited. Whoever it was did a truly incredible job... one of the greatest arrangements I've ever heard.

It just smokes... I think it was probably recorded at EMI Abbey Road Studios and to my ears it sounds like Proby was singing it live with the band and orchestra.

This was recorded 43 years ago. Why the hell isn't rock and pop anywhere near as dynamic and exciting as this anymore?

Lyn Nuttall said...

Spot on comments, Baz, I agree entirely.

Anonymous said...

Pretty cool place you've got here. Thanks for it. I like such themes and everything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

Sincerely yours

Lyn Nuttall said...

Thanks: we clearly like the same things! I haven't written much lately. It's the old neglected blog syndrome.

Anonymous said...

Proby’s version of Mission Bell is a stunning piece of work. There’s not a single bar left unpolished. Thanks for unearthing the producer and perhaps the arranger. The musical personnel are on fire — I especially love the drumming, with some very hard to pull off single stroke rolls.
Many thanks.

Mark from Tasmania.

Lyn Nuttall said...

Thanks Mark. That's the word: stunning. I appreciate your comments. I'm going back to listen especially to the drumming with your words in mind.