by John G. Sutton
I first saw the American born pop singer PJ Proby on the BBC Television show ‘Around The Beatles’ early in the year 1964. Proby was featured alongside John, Paul, George and Ringo with Long John Baldry and Cila Black. There was something about him that I recognised as I watched and heard him sing. Though at the time I was only 14 years of age I knew intuitively that I was seeing someone for the first time that would be in some way significant in my life. It was as if I had been gripped by invisible hands and shaken strongly. At the time I was interested in light opera, Puccini, Gilbert and Sullivan etc. more than pop music. Proby seemed to bridge the two in some mysterious way.
In early 1968 I actually met Proby for the first time, he was performing at The Garrick Theatre Club in the Lancashire town of Leigh. My father, Frank Sutton, was an Inspector in the CID there and knew the club owner so took me in and I was introduced to PJP in his dressing room. My dad clicked our photograph. But by this time Proby’s star had fallen, outrageous antics on stage, splitting his trousers, being banned from all TV appearances and the major theatres had ruined his career. Proby had been declared bankrupt, evicted from his Chelsea flat and was now singing for his supper on the Northern club circuit. Yet his voice was absolutely brilliant almost operatic in its range and tonality as he sang ‘Maria’ and ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story.
Years passed and in the mid 1980s I suffered the amputation of my right leg following an embolism that became gangrenous and suddenly I was on the edge of death. It was whilst hovering between this world and the next that I had a Near Death Experience. I could see my body in the hospital bed and walked away from it through the walls of the ward into what appeared to me to be an airport lounge. There I was surrounded by people that I did not know, though I felt completely at ease, in no way perturbed. Through high glass fronted walls I could see airplanes outside and this was obviously a departure area.
I recall sitting down and a female stewardess came forward and asked me to follow her. I was taken to a room at the far end of the departure lounge and inside was introduced to three people seated behind a long office desk. They were all male, middle aged and smiled at me in a gentle way as if to put me at ease. Then the gentleman in the centre said ‘you do know that you are no longer in your body don’t you?’ For a brief moment I struggled with this thought but then replied that yes I did realise that. Then, one by one the three people began to ask me about my life and what I had done with it. We talked about my time as a soldier, as a nurse in the secure units within HM Prisons and how I was a husband and father. I told how I had cared for my grandparent, done all I could do and I explained that it was not my time to die as I had responsibilities, my wife and people needed me to help them. I clearly recall the three gentlemen looking at me and one said ‘that is what everyone who comes in here says. so if you say you want to return tell us what you intend to do?’ I knew then that this was the moment that would decide my fate.
The three kindly gentleman behind the office desk looked at me waiting for an answer. Thinking as quickly as I could I replied ‘I would like to help adults with disabilities and learning difficulties’ I looked and saw them smile ‘do go on as we know there is something else that you could do’ said the gentleman on my left. ‘Yes, I will resurrect the 60s pop singer PJ Proby’ I said, though why I said it at that time I did not know. That got a response though and I watched as the three talked briefly and then the man in the centre said ‘we are very interested in that idea and may decide to send you back on a mission, but you must realise that you will be severely physically handicapped’ I agreed then that I understood. ‘Take a seat outside and we will discuss this further and let you know’. With that I left the room and sat down on a chair in the departure lounge waiting for their decision. I watched the others around go into the room I had just left and when they came out they walked through the lounge and onto a plane on the tarmac beyond the glass walls. Then I was alone, the only person left in the departure lounge. As I waited a voice came over the speaker system saying in a loud and commanding voice ‘Would Mr. John Sutton please take his seat on the plane as we are waiting to depart’. I sat still, I was not going anywhere until I knew what the decision of the three gentlemen was and I wanted to know about my mission.
My wife Mary and brother Martin were by my side in the hospital when I regained consciousness. I vaguely recall asking my brother to take care of Mary as I was about to go to America on business, then I was again unconscious. The agony of those first few months following the amputation is hard to describe. I had developed a form of fungicide infection in my blood and was on kidney dialysis with total failure and given just days to live. My mother was flown over from Canada to attend my funeral and the consultant at the hospital told my wife that the chances of survival were less than twenty percent. The kidney specialist said I had but a few days as if my system did not show at least some signs of life then he would have to switch me off. Through all this I was intermittently awake and the pain was excruciating.
It took me a long time to get my strength back and I was a physical wreck when I left hospital weighing less than seven stone and confined to a wheelchair. The specialists told my wife I would never walk or work again. But I knew different, I just had to survive. The recollection of my interview in the departure lounge of the airport to infinity was not then clear in my consciousness but I was quietly certain that I was going to be a viable human being again. I just had to be. You know the toughest thing at the time was seeing people that had known me for years turning away rather than come and speak to me in my wheelchair and even when they did they spoke to my wife Mary and not to me, I was an invalid, a none person, but not for long.
In the year 1990 I was employed by Lancashire Social Services as a teacher/trainer of adults with learning difficulties at a day centre. I had retrained myself, been to college, taken a special-needs teaching certificate and was enjoying my job. It was April when one day my old school pal from Leigh, Kenny Greenhalgh, telephoned to say that he had heard something of potential interest to me. Kenny said that there was a pop singer we had both liked many years ago who was now living in the Lancashire town of Bolton. That singer was PJ Proby.
Following my discovery in April 1990 that the sixties pop singer PJ Proby was living in the town of Bolton, Lancashire, just a few miles from my home, I knew that the time for action had arrived. The memory of my interview in the airport lounge during my near death experience returned and suddenly I was aware that in some way I had to resurrect the career of that fallen star. Proby had been a big hit in the early sixties appearing with The Beatles and enjoying numerous top twenty pop chart hit records, such as ‘Hold Me’, ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Maria’. However he had dropped out of sight during the last twenty years and was now a desperate down and out drunk existing on social services benefits and living as a free lodger in a small terraced house on a rather bleak back street. I had an idea to write a song for him, but would he still be able to sing that was the question.
I had written poetry all my adult life and knew that if I put my mind to it I could create a song about the life of Proby that would, with a little bit of luck and a lot of determination, maybe get him started again. At my typewriter I sat down and the idea came to me from the Shakespearian tragedy ‘King Lear’ which I had studied at ‘A’ level years before. The play tells the story of how King Lear throws away all of his kingdom, all his gifts, throws away everything and he says: When we are born, we cry, that we have come to this great stage of fools’. That was exactly what PJ Proby had done, thrown it all away. The words seemed to write themselves and I saw the song appear before me as if I were the instrument of a forceful intelligence from beyond. As I typed I kept hearing a discarnate voice calling my name from the empty room next door. ‘John!……John!’ it called, I looked but there was no one there, no one but myself and a song called ‘Stage of Fools’.
When I had completed writing the song I had it made into a demo record by my friend Jeff Greenhalgh who once won on ITV’s ‘Stars In Their Eyes’ playing the part of Paul McCartney. I sent the demo on a cassette to PJ Proby and when he heard this he called me from his lodgings in Bolton to say he was interested in singing it but wanted cash in his hand. We agreed terms over the telephone and on 27th June 1990 I collected PJ Proby from Bolton and drove him to a recording studio I had hired in Preston.
Proby was swilling Carlsberg Special Brew from a can sitting beside me as we headed down the M61 to Preston. He looked a real mess, prematurely aged with white hair and extremely thin with a grey unhealthy palor to his skin, he reeked of alcohol. As we approached the junction of the M61 and M6 the traffic came to a halt, we stopped in the middle lane and the outer lane was empty. We were there for around tem minutes not moving when in my side mirror I saw a white car approaching in the outer lane. I looked through the window and noted that it was a white American Stretched Limo with blacked out windows. As it drew alongside us I heard music coming from within from the car’s stereo, the song playing was the 1964 recording of PJ Proby singing his big hit from West Side Story ‘Somewhere’. The man himself was sitting beside me. As I stared in absolute amazement the limo continued ahead, though all else was standing still, until it seemed to just vanish into nothing. I turned to PJ Proby and asked him what he made of that: ‘Never believe me if I tell ‘em’ he said. But I noticed he looked even paler than he had before.
When we finally arrived at the recording studio the sound engineer told me that there had been a serious car accident on the M6 with three people killed. That evening PJ Proby recorded his own first version of ‘Stage of Fools’ and he sang exactly as he had done so all those years ago, with the same deep tenor voice he had used to record ‘Somewhere’. I knew then that I could make this work for him, he had the magic that was needed, he still had the voice. Proby really could sing.
In August of 1990 I decided to invest some more money in this project with PJ Proby and agreed with a studio in Chester-le-Street to record there. Again Proby demanded money up front, but he then refused to get into my brand new VW Golf as he said he would only go that distance if he got an helicopter. No get in car no money I said, he soon changed his mind and I got him to sign a contract then I paid him and he got into my car, we drove to The Holiday Inn at Newcastle.
The next morning at 09:30 I went to collect Proby from his room, it took a while for him to answer the door. Then when I went in he was back on the bed watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. I remonstrated with him, time was passing and we were due at the studio to start recording. I recall he was flopped out on the bed wearing his cowboy boots and Stetson hat ‘Too early for me’ he said and continued watching the TV. Suddenly the cartoons stopped and a News-Flash came on it was a local announcement stating that at Newcastle Airport there had just been an accident when a helicopter, a Jet Ranger, had collided with over head power lines killing both the pilot and the passenger. Proby jumped off the bed, pulled on his coat and said to me: ‘Time to go to the studio John’. He gave me a really weird look as if he had been waiting for something to happen and now it had.
That incident really shook me up as I recalled that before we had set off the day before Proby had demanded that he needed a helicopter or he would not go. Now there had been a helicopter crash. What was also strange was the name of the helicopter it was a Jet Ranger and the collision had been with power lines. In 1960 when PJ Proby was signed to EMI in Hollywood USA his stage name was Jet Powers.
So far, in my quest to resurrect the faded career of sixties pop singer PJ Proby I had achieved a great deal with radio, press and television featuring what I termed ‘The Greatest Comeback In The History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’. The man still had his voice, he certainly could sing. His name was well known, albeit for many of the wrong reasons, such as ripping his pants on stage and getting banned in 1965 from all TV performances etc. Now, following the release of the CD Album ‘THANKS’ with PJ Proby in all the record shops in Europe the man himself began to display the kind of prima-donna behaviour for which he was infamous. He was also hitting the booze big time. I had signed him for a summer season to a Blackpool hotel called The Landsdowne and persuaded the owner to provide PJP with a house to live in during the term of the contract (PJP wrecked the place). The man lent Proby a Rolls Royce with a Mr. T. lookalike minder to drive him around and suddenly Jim Proby thought he was back in the major league. So sure of himself was PJP that he decided he no longer needed my help and instructed lawyers to issue proceedings against me to halt the sale and distribution of the recordings I had made and paid him for. When he told me what he had done, in the front lounge of my home, I physically assisted him out of the front door via a direct encounter with the wall. That was the last time we met, no wonder really!
At this time there began a new phase of my life. A long time friend (now sadly deceased) Pete Lally, had been on holiday recently to Gambia where, he told me, he had been into the jungle on a safari trip. He said that during this he had been into a tribal village where a witch-doctor had given him a message. Pete told me that this little old man in a mud hut, somewhere in a remote part of Gambia had told him that in England there lived a man that he knew named John, this man had a leg missing and the world of spirit had a serious message for him. Pete was told he must go and see John when he returned to the UK and advise him that the time was Now, the spirits needed him to consult with them. Pete Lally was the Managing Director of a contract flooring company, he was not at all familiar with mediums or psychics so when he came back from Gambia and told me this he did so with some degree of reluctance. I recall well how nervous Pete looked in telling me this weird story, but he said the witch-doctor was adamant that I had to consult with the spirit world.
It was shortly after the visit to me by Pete Lally that the Bolton born psychic-medium James Byrne came to my home and said that he had been directed by spirits to see me. James explained that he was a professional psychic and that his guides had sent him to see me as they had told him that John was to become his personal manager and take the message of life after death to the world. Within just a few months of meeting James he and I were on Lancashire’s biggest independent radio station Red Rose in Preston and broadcasting what was promoted as the first fully audience interactive psychic ‘phone in programme. At the time this was big news and made many of the national papers including a feature in ‘The Sun’. Outside the radio studios there was a group of ‘Born Again’ Christians demonstrating against us. The Lancashire Evening Post ran the front page headline ‘Devil Whorshipper Comes To Town’. At the theatres I promoted James Byrne at we experienced virtual attacks by banner waving Pentacostal religious fanatics who seemed determined to halt our presentations. Using my experience in promoting PJ Proby I quickly put this negative aspect to good use and sent all the press cuttings and a synopsis for a book to probably the biggest publishing house in the UK: HarperCollins.
In September of 1992 James Byrne was starring at The London Palladium. His biography ‘The Psychic World Of James Byrne’ had been co-written with me and published by HarperCollins. The James Whale Radio Show on National ITV featured myself and James Byrne conducting a live ‘Psychic-Experiment’ in which James transmitted his incredible paranormal powers over the air and viewers tuned in to these reporting their experiences. It was an incredible success and suddenly James Byrne was on his way to becoming the very best known psychic-medium in the UK.
In 1996 my literary agent Rosemary Bromley, the former representative of the late celebrity TV cook Mrs. Fanny Craddock, arranged a commission for me with the London publishing house Bloomsbury Books. At their offices I met with Mr. Barry Cunningham, (famous for commissioning J K Rowling) the managing director, he explained the ethos of Bloomsbury advising that I would be working with an eminent Cambridge University Literature expert editor called Ingrid-von-Essen. I was then introduced to Ingrid who gently but very firmly explained that in the event that she considered my work to fall below the required standard then she would, without hesitation, reject it. The book I was commissioned to write was titled ‘Psychic Pets’. It went on to be a major international bestseller and was featured by The Sunday Times Children’s Book Club. It was also published in the USA by ‘Beyond Words’ and subsequently by ‘Scholastic’ the biggest publishers in the world. It took me onto the then highly popular TV show ‘This Morning with Richard and Judy’ and beyond to the world stage where Disney Corporation flew me to Florida to appear with their pet experts on ‘The Animal Planet’ channel. In New York USA I was flown in by FOX TV and featured on a special news feature with a live ‘phone in link all across America. In the UK I was on BBC Radio 2, even on the ‘Today’ radio programme on BBC Radio 4 at 08:20 immediately before the prime minister. This was a simply incredible period of my life and all through it I was promoting the message that life was eternal and death but an illusion. Though I was doing it in a most unconventional and, I now believe, entertaining way, making it an acceptable message not at all spooky.
It was around this time, 1997, that the Liverpool born psychic Derek Acorah approached me asking if I would consider managing his career. He was then working from a one room rented office on Paradise Street in Liverpool city centre and had done no serious stage work, never been on the TV or radio. Within a period of months I had Derek on Red Rose Radio and had agreed terms with Granada TV for him to appear on the Granada Breeze channel as a stand up psychic performer. By 1999 I had Derek on stage and TV in Hollywood USA where I had done a deal with the director of the International Society for Paranormal Research to feature Derek as one of their investigators. I also scripted an outline for Psychic Investigation film and arranged for Derek along with ISPR to film at the supposedly haunted museum Belgrave Hall in Leicestershire. In September of 1999 Piatkus Books Ltd. published ‘The Psychic World Of Derek Acorah’ co-written by me and that became a massive bestseller helping to push forward the career of Derek Acorah. Whatever one may say about Acorah, and I am a critic of some of the nonsense, he is funny.
Over twenty five years have passed since I was amputated and underwent the near death experience in which I was interviewed by angels in the airport lounge that exists between this world and the next. I had been told then that the angels were to send me on a mission, though at the time they did not explain exactly what this would entail. I now know what that mission is. I have, since first encountering PJ Proby in the year 1990, gone on to promote the popularity of psychic studies. Any observer of the way the media have treated the paranormal and especially the truth of eternal life will have noted that during the past twenty or so years the subject has become more and more acceptable. I sincerely believe that in some small way my work has helped to do this. It may not yet be mission accomplished but I have tried and have dared to dream.