Late May 1967. Beatles Manager Brian Epstein is throwing a big party to mark the official release of the band’s epic new album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Everyone in the London music industry is there including the Beatles themselves, toasting each other in a festive atmosphere of congratulations. But someone’s missing. Where is John Lennon?
It turns out he kept slipping away from the gathering, sneaking out to his well-appointed Rolls-Royce, equipped with a state-of-the-art sound system, so he could sit in solitude to play over and over the new song that had completely blown his mind: Procol Harum‘s astonishing “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
I can’t think of a greater endorsement of how transformative this song was. Inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air on a G String,” co-writers Gary Brooker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher had found a way to ingeniously merge elements of classical music with rock underpinnings, topped with a trippy, mysterious lyric and bathed in organ riffs. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” became the #1 song in England that month and reached #5 on the U.S. charts a few weeks later. It was the first shot off the bow for a new genre known loosely as “progressive rock” that dozens of bands would emulate and expand upon over the next decade.
This week, we learned that Brooker, Procol Harum’s superb lead singer and pianist, has died of cancer at age 76. It was Brooker’s vocals, songwriting prowess and piano talents that defined the group’s music, which, while not as commercially successful as such later prog rock groups as The Moody Blues, Genesis, Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, has earned the respect and adoration of many critics and fans of the challenging, innovative genre and classic rock in general.
Membership in the group lineup changed multiple times, but Brooker was the constant presence from their founding in 1966 through the 2010s. His captivating voice, powerfully gruff in places and serenely melodic elsewhere, took the band’s material to new heights over 13 studio albums.
Procol Harum’s official website issued a statement in the wake of Brooker’s death, praising his talents and leadership. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” remains a masterpiece, it said, “but he and the group never sought to replicate it, preferring to forge a restlessly progressive path, committed to looking forward, and making each record a ‘unique entertainment’.”
Brooker grew up in London and, at age 17, he formed his first group, The Paramounts, with a young guitarist whose name some readers will recognize: Robin Trower. The Paramounts enjoyed some success on the club circuit but their recordings went nowhere on the charts, and they disbanded in 1966. Disheartened by that experience, Brooker was planning to focus solely on songwriting instead, forming a bond with poet/lyricist Reid. When they couldn’t interest other artists in recording their songs, they decided to form a band after all, choosing the name Procol Harum, which, loosely translated from Latin, means “beyond these things.”
Brooker, a big fan of classical music and the works of Bach and Handel, loved the idea of bringing complex classical arrangements with repeated themes into the songs he was writing. While his use of classical motifs was more subtle and nuanced than the more overt and bombastic pieces of Yes and ELP, he continued to look for new ways to give Procol Harum’s rock music a classical edge.
It’s interesting to note that, soon after the immediate success of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the group’s original guitarist and drummer were replaced, at Brooker’s insistence, with Trower and former Paramounts drummer B.J. Wilson for the follow-up single, “Homburg,” which reached #6 in the U.K. but only #34 in the U.S. Curiously, their British fan base began dissipating, but Procol Harum built momentum in America through constant touring. Their 1969 LP “A Salty Dog,” especially the haunting title track, was played often on emerging FM stations, again carried by Brooker’s stunning vocals.
Organist Fisher left at that point, replaced by former Paramounts keyboardist Chris Copping. This lineup recorded “Home” (1970) and “Broken Barricades” (1971), both Top 40 albums in the U.S., but the creative differences between Brooker and Trower proved insurmountable, and Trower headed off to form a power trio and establish an enviable reputation as one of the supreme guitarists of his era.
In 1972, Brooker led Procol Harum through a second commercial peak with a foray into a more symphonic rock sound, captured on “Procol Harum Live: In Concert With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.” A live version of “Conquistador,” a tune from their 1967 debut album, found itself peaking at #16 on the U.S. Top 40 chart that summer. The group’s 1973 LP, “Grand Hotel,” ended up their highest charting LP in the U.S., reaching #21.
Three more LPs in the ’70s racked up increasingly disappointing sales numbers, and when 1977’s “Something Magic” stiffed at #150, the band called it quits.
I can’t claim to have been much of a Procol Harum fan in the Seventies, but as I have often done with bands from that period, I developed a newfound appreciation for their repertoire once I immersed myself in their catalog in recent “expeditions.” As is customary, I have assembled a Spotify playlist (found at the end of this essay) of the tracks that most impress me.
Brooker’s attempt at a solo LP stiffed in 1979, but he enjoyed collaborating with other artists on their albums and tours, most notably Eric Clapton. Brooker’s work can be heard on Clapton’s “Another Ticket” studio LP and his “Just One Night” double live album in 1980.
Alan Parsons, who produced “Dark Side of the Moon” for Pink Floyd before forming his own collective, The Alan Parsons Project, recruited Brooker in 1986 to sing lead vocals on “Limelight,” a majestic track on APP’s “Stereotomy” album. “His performance on that song is one of my all-time favorites,” said Parsons last week.
In 1991, against all odds, Brooker, Fisher, Trower and Reid reunited to record “The Prodigal Stranger,” a great album that got attention and sparked a resurgence of touring in the U.K. and the U.S. Brooker took a break from Procol Harum in 1997 and 1999 when he accepted a slot in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band for a couple of high-profile tours. In 2003, Brooker was a visible, welcome presence at “Concert for George,” the tribute show at Albert Hall honoring the work of George Harrison, who had died the previous year. Brooker added some spirited piano throughout the show, and was the featured vocalist on the deep Beatles tune “Old Brown Shoe.”
Procol Harum, always with Brooker at the helm, toured often in the 2000s, focusing on European cities and Australia. I was pleasantly surprised to discover several strong songs on “Novum,” a 2017 LP that was Procol Harum’s first new album in nearly 20 years.
In 2005, things got ugly when Fisher chose to sue Brooker, claiming his organ playing amounted to co-writing “A Whiter Shade of Pale” that should have earned him royalties. He ultimately won rights to future royalties (but not the past royalties he sought), but the experience left Brooker bitter. “Today may prove to be ‘A Darker Shade of Black’ for creativity in the music industry,” Brooker said after the court ruled. “No longer will songwriters, bands, and musicians be able to go into a studio to give their best in a recording without the possibility of one of them, at any future point, claiming a share of the publishing copyright.”
I think if you listen to the playlist, you’ll appreciate how good Brooker’s voice is, if you’re not already aware. His peers in the music business certainly enjoyed his work, as evidenced by their words of praise last week. He is survived by his wife, Franky, to whom he was married for 54 years.
Rest in peace, Mr. Brooker. You left us a sizable legacy of great music.
For posterity, I wanted to include Reid’s lyrics to “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which actually consists of four very literary verses (and a chorus) that tell the evocative story of a man who pursues a young woman for a sexual encounter. The limitations of pop music in 1967 meant the song was edited down to just two verses (they used verses 1 and 3), but my playlist includes a live version of the tune that includes the second verse as well:
“We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor, /I was feeling kinda seasick, but the crowd called out for more, /The room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away, /When we called out for another drink, the waiter brought a tray
(Chorus) And so it was that later, as the miller told his tale, that her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale
She said, ‘I’m home on shore leave,’ though, in truth, we were at sea, /So I took her by the looking glass and forced her to agree, /Saying, ‘You must be the mermaid who took Neptune for a ride,’ /But she smiled at me so sadly that my anger straightway died
She said, ‘There is no reason and the truth is plain to see,’ /But I wandered through my playing cards and would not let her be, /One of sixteen vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast, /And although my eyes were open, they might have just as well’ve been closed
If music be the food of love, then laughter is its queen, /And likewise, if behind is in front, then dirt in truth is clean, /My mouth, by then like cardboard, seemed to slip straight through my head, /So we crash-dived straightway quickly and attacked the ocean bed”