LONDON, ONTARIO – I invite you to join me in a tearful salute to the great Gary Brooker – the main composer, lead singer and pianist for symphonic rock pioneers, Procol Harum – who died last Saturday in Britain of one boring form of cancer or another at the age of 76. Everyone, of course, remembers Procol Harum’s first and by far biggest hit which took the world and the barely-formed band themselves by storm, A Whiter Shade of Pale.
A massive global hit in the summer of 1967, this magisterial ballad with arrestingly surreal lyrics (“the room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away / when we called out for another drink, the waiter brought a tray”) was delivered in Brooker’s soulful tenor over top of a mesmerizing bed of Bach-inspired organ and piano chords.
It’s interesting to consider that unlike, say, Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park with its mystifying refrain about a cake that someone left out in the rain, A Whiter Shade of Pale never received much criticism for the gobbledegookery of its lyrics. The credit for this entirely redounds to Keith Reid, Procol Harum’s full time lyricist. Reid played no instrument and never sang with the band but on occasion (as in the epic suite, In Held ‘Twas in I that concluded their second album, Shine On Brightly) could be persuaded to give a recitation. Like some love child of Edward Lear and Ira Gershwin, Reid was a purveyor of wonderfully playful gobbledegook that disregarded the more pedestrian demands of sense so that he could frolic unencumbered in dazzling fields of allusion and metaphor and fantasy.
Brooker and Procol’s guitarist, Robin Trower, and drummer, B.J. Wilson had beavered away for several years in an R&B cover band called the Paramounts which garnered lots of respect and opened for both the Rolling Stones and The Beatles on their UK tours. But the band couldn’t make any sort of imprint on a larger public consciousness because – for all the cleverness of their arrangements and the proficiency of their playing – The Paramounts weren’t cranking out original songs. As the world would see soon enough, Brooker was a composer of rare gifts and daring but he knew his attempts at writing lyrics were not up to scratch.
So The Paramounts packed it in and Brooker hung out his shingle as a composer-at-large in search of a worthy lyricist. Through the urging of a friend of a friend, Keith Reid soon drifted into his orbit with a packet of otherworldly verse that Brooker immediately responded to and the two of them went to work, early on crafting A Whiter Shade of Pale. They knew the song was something special and shopped it around through various publishing and talent agencies and found no takers. (Later on, of course, every big voice in the world from Percy Sledge to Annie Lennox would cover the song and – not being able to navigate those lyrics with half the intelligence of Brooker – invariably produced what might be called a paler shade of A Whiter Shade of Pale.)
Determined that this song deserved a hearing, Brooker assembled a party of musical friends and session men and recorded the song himself as a single, hastily borrowing the name of a friend’s cat (which was an incorrect Latin translation that was supposed to mean “Beyond These Things”) for a group that didn’t actually exist yet. No unknown band had ever sailed into such broad prominence on a vessel so stately as this signature song. Within weeks of its composition, it had soared to the top of the charts in country after country. And maddeningly enough, in that Sgt. Pepper summer when albums mattered like never before or since, there was no LP to back it up and wouldn’t be for more than half a year (which is forever in the pop music biz) . . . until January of 1968. Even though Procul Harum put together their first album quite quickly, its release was held up as their production company hammered out the details for a record contract that also involved Joe Cocker (on whose first album Procol's organist and drummer provided backing) and a few other acts as well.
Wrong-footed from the get-go by that delayed first album, you would have to say that, commercially, this one-of-a-kind band never did catch up with themselves. But artistically they soldiered on, always exploring new territory and never fashioning lesser iterations of what had worked before. While there are dozens of covers of A Whiter Shade of Pale, only serious musicians’ musicians ever seemed to plunder the rest of their catalogue. Two of the more distinguished Procol interpretations I've encountered are guitar god Leo Kotke’s rip-snorting cover of Power Failure off Broken Barricades and pianist George Winston’s purely instrumental take on what I regard as Procol Harum’s most exquisite ballad of all, Too Much Between Us from A Salty Dog.
That first single was a brilliant debut, a popular success that Procol Harum would never equal even though the ten albums they would release over the next ten years were studded with gems every bit as good and better. Their original organist and second most prolific songwriter, Matthew Fisher, set off on a not terribly productive solo career after Procol's third album. Guitarist Robin Trower bailed after their fifth album and certainly carved out a more substantial solo career than Fisher but I never found his own work half so impressive as the richly multifaceted stylings he contributed to the vastly more interesting songs produced by Procol Harum. And though he never struck out on his own, B.J. Wilson (who died in 1990) was one of the tastiest drummers of his day, sitting behind his kit at such a low altitude that Brooker once described him as an "octopus in the bathtub"; an inspired description for the way in which his two hands seemed to be everywhere at once as he maneuvered his sticks in rapid-fire bursts all over his drums. Incapable of pandering or hopping on bandwagons, Procol Harum eventually called it a day in 1977 when the world was suddenly awash in disco and punk and they knew their chances of getting a fair hearing for such idiosyncratic and inventive music had just cratered to a new low.
And sometimes, it must be admitted that, image-wise at least, they didn’t exactly help themselves when it came to generating the kind of buzz and excitement that can keep a pop music career buoyant. My childhood pal and ace organist Bill Myles loved Procol Harum as much as anyone and I remember tossing him my copy of their just-released album in the spring of 1974; entitled Exotic Birds and Fruit which featured a cover painting by Jacob Bogdani (1670–1724) of . . . well . . . a parrot, a pheasant and some peaches and grapes . . . that looked like it belonged on a box of chocolates.
“My God,” said Bill, raising a hand to massage his brow while sadly shaking his head. “Do these guys even want to sell records?”
“There’s some brilliant stuff on here,” I assured him.
“Of course there is,” he moaned. “That’s why it drives me so crazy.”
While they were never exactly rolling in the really big bucks, Procol Harum toured the world and were always able to conduct their career on their very own terms. Much to our credit, I think, Canada was always one of their solider bases of support. And even in those dark old days before London had a decent-sized concert venue, Procol Harum played here. Or tried to.
In 1969, promoting perhaps their single greatest album, A Salty Dog, they were booked to play Centennial Hall. Bill and I were there within ecstatic earshot as they tore through Shine on Brightly in a note-perfect pre-show sound-check and also caught a glimpse through a briefly opened auditorium door of all the band’s gear onstage, including B.J. Wilson’s bass drum, the front skin of which was painted with a charming pastoral landscape (which probably wasn't rendered by Jacob Bogdani). But frustratingly enough, the promoter didn’t have the moolah which the band had been promised and Procol Harum didn’t go on.
Thirty-two years later I did finally get to hear (if not exactly see) Gary Brooker in London as he performed (of course) A Whiter Shade of Pale as he was sitting in with Bill Wyman and the Rhythm Kings at an outdoor concert in Harris Park.
Other Canadian cities treated Procol Harum considerably better than London and the band’s second biggest hit, a live recording of Conquistador (originally the opening cut from their very first album) was plucked from their 1972 album, Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Other than The Who Live at Leeds (which revealed a whole different side of a much-loved band) I’ve never had much use for live albums. But revisiting Procol’s Edmonton opus this week, I was impressed at the rare integration of orchestra and band that they achieved on that platter. So often such efforts (not mentioning any names, Deep Purple) feel quite clumsily glued together.
As an example of the kind of thing I mean, I invite you to check out these two videos from a concert which Procol Harum gave in Denmark in 2006 with a full orchestra and choir. Also, pretty darn good pipes, wouldn’t you say, on that sixty year-old Gary Brooker?
First up – A Whiter Shade of Pale
And here – A Salty Dog
And while there’s no flashy visuals to go with this one (just a lovely album jacket) here’s my old favourite – Too Much Between Us
In addition to touring with the likes of Bill Wyman and Ringo Starr’s All Stars, Brooker did oodles of session work for other artists over the years, earned an MBE in 2003 for his tireless work in organizing charity fundraising concerts and got the band back together to put out four reunion albums between 1991’s The Prodigal Stranger and 2017’s Novum. There were also a few solo albums along the way, the best of which I’d say is Lead Me to the Water, featuring a song called The Angler, which gave a little glimpse into the patient soul of this unflashiest of rock stars who always said that his idea of a great holiday was to stand in a river just about anywhere and quietly cast his line.
While none of those later records set the world on fire, they did not besmirch the good name of Brooker nor the remarkable band which he directed throughout his career. Fittingly enough, the very last track Gary Brooker recorded on Procol Harum's very last album was Somewhen, a tribute to his wife of fifty-four years who took the photo at the head of this essay last October.
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