Procol followed ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ with over a dozen great albums, remaining one of rock music’s most imaginative and progressive bands. Mr Brooker was its heart and soul throughout.
Photo: Gary Brooker 1976 Photo: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images
23 February 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News
What can one say about Mr Brooker. The first time you hear his voice, no matter the song, you are almost mesmerized by the voice, the phrasing, the joy of it all.
Each of us may have heard a dozen covers of Whiter Shade, but in your head, the only voice you can hear is Brooker. So much so that there is an immediate urge to pull out the album and listen to the real thing. And so you do. Over and over again.
And what I liked the most is his ability to convincingly, emphatically, cover so many styles, be it a ballad, an all-out rocker or one of Mr Reid’s cosmic adventures.
And today, pulling together the videos and photos for this item, I could not resist the tempation to stop and listen to each track in full.
And each time, every time, it was like hearing it for the first time.
It really was a remakable career, for him and the band. We are lucky to have been around to be a part of it.
James Porteous / Clipper Media News
I pulled most of these videos and photos from a variety of sources. They are interspersed in no particular order. James
With the deepest regret we must announce the death on 19 February 2022 of Gary Brooker MBE, singer, pianist and composer of Procol Harum, and a brightly-shining, irreplaceable light in the music industry. Aged 76, he had been receiving treatment for cancer, but died peacefully at home.
From his earliest onstage duets with his musician father, through his youthful recording career with Southend’s The Paramounts, Gary exhibited and developed a highly-individual talent. His first single with Procol Harum, 1967’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, is widely regarded as defining ‘The Summer of Love’, yet it could scarcely have been more different from the characteristic records of that era.
Nor was it characteristic of his own writing. Over thirteen albums Procol Harum never sought to replicate it, preferring to forge a restlessly progressive path, committed to looking forward, and making each record a ‘unique entertainment’. Gary’s voice and piano were the single defining constant of Procol’s fifty-year international concert career. Without any stage antics or other gimmicks he was invariably the most watchable musician in the show (he played several other instruments in the studio).
Though sometimes regarded as ‘classical’, his roots were in the blues, Ray Charles and Little Richard. His voice was soulful, without vibrato, and his piano-playing robustly inventive.
Blessed with hungry ears, he enjoyed and absorbed all kinds of musical styles, taking a Postmodernist’s delight in weaving unexpected threads into the fabric of his own compositions. Never prolific, he did not care to write to order, preferring to wait for inspiration to strike.
His masterpiece, 1969’s A Salty Dog, derived its instantly-recognisable opening chord from a Swiss locomotive siren; yet as with all his finest pieces its harmonic structure evolves with intriguing, unpredictable logic, and carries its listeners on a thrilling emotional voyage.
His influence far exceeds his output. Procol’s long suite, 1968’s In Held ’Twas in I, is an acknowledged inspiration to many artists, not least The Who and Queen. Procol was the first rock band to perform live with its own choral and orchestral arrangements.
Entirely self-taught, Brooker’s beguiling scores bristle with melodic interest, always serving the songs and never – as with so many later imitators – treating the contrasting resources as oppositional.
The last of some forty Procol gigs involving the world’s most renowned orchestras and concert-halls was at the London Palladium; its predecessor was a notable live BBC Radio presentation. It was intriguing, as Gary pointed out, how Procol Harum’s popularity, across the world, kept on growing. But music not written at the dictates of fashion has no cause to fall from favour.
Brooker was much in demand as a collaborator: he played, wrote and sang for Eric Clapton’s band and with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. He toured with Ringo’s All-Starrs, and contributed to solo projects for Paul McCartney and for George Harrison, who guested on one of Gary’s four solo albums.
Gary played and sang at the Albert Hall in 2003’s Concert for George. He also accepted commissions – a Danish Royal Ballet score, a piece for massed brass bands in Switzerland – and sang by invitation in Sir Alan Parker’s Evita film.
Musical celebrities from Gary’s bulging address book flocked to play at his own all-star presentations, always raising money for charity (work recognised by his 2003 MBE). He also fundraised with ‘No Stiletto Shoes’, a high-energy side-band that delivered the music of his earliest influences with raucous commitment. His last charity project raised over a million pounds for the Royal Marsden Hospital with a single concert – days before 2020’s first Covid lockdown – at London’s O2 arena.
Gary’s charisma was by no means confined to the stage. He lit up any room he entered, and his kindness to a multilingual family of fans was legendary. He was notable for his individuality, integrity, and occasionally stubborn eccentricity. His mordant wit, and appetite for the ridiculous, made him a priceless raconteur (and his surreal inter-song banter made a fascinating contrast with the gravitas of Procol Harum’s performances).
But for all his other interests and skills – prize-winning angler, pub-owner, lyricist, painter, inventor – he was above all a devoted and loyal husband to Franky, whom he met in 1965 and married in 1968. Our thoughts must be with her, their families and friends at this extremely sad time.
23 February 2022 | Jon Pareles | New York Times
Gary Brooker, the singer and pianist of the early progressive rock group Procol Harum, who co-wrote songs including “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the improbable but overpowering hit during the 1967 Summer of Love, died on Saturday at his home in Surrey, England. He was 76.
Mr. Brooker had been receiving treatment for cancer, the band said in a statement confirming his death.
With his grainy, weathered-sounding voice and a piano style steeped in gospel, classical music, blues and the British music hall, Mr. Brooker led Procol Harum in songs that mixed pomp and whimsy, orchestral grandeur and rock drive.
Mr. Brooker composed nearly all of Procol Harum’s music; Keith Reid, who did not perform with the band, provided lyrics that invoked literary and historical allusions and spun tall tales, sometimes at the same time.
Although “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was both its first and biggest hit, and the band steadfastly avoided showmanship, Procol Harum sustained a five-decade career. It recorded and toured steadily until 1977, and it regrouped sporadically in lineups led by Mr. Brooker to continue making albums until 2017.
Mr. Brooker, the band’s statement said, “was notable for his individuality, integrity, and occasionally stubborn eccentricity. His mordant wit, and appetite for the ridiculous, made him a priceless raconteur (and his surreal inter-song banter made a fascinating contrast with the gravitas of Procol Harum’s performances).”
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” drew on Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air on a G String” for its chord progression; Matthew Fisher’s organ opened with a stately melody and Mr. Brooker sang a countermelody, somberly offering the surreal paradoxes of Mr. Reid’s lyrics. In 2009, Mr. Fisher successfully sued to receive a shared credit for composing the song.
Procol Harum’s combination of classical influences, elaborately poetic lyrics and extended compositions made it a progenitor of progressive rock, but Mr. Brooker habitually shrugged off that category. “Prog — it was not invented when we started,” he told Goldmine magazine in 2021. “We always try to be progressive in what we do. So, we made our first album and then we tried to move on, to progress.”
Gary Brooker was born on May 29, 1945, in London. His father, Harry Brooker, was a musician; Gary learned piano, cornet, trombone, guitar and banjo while growing up. Harry Brooker died when Gary was 11 and his mother, Violet May Brooker, found work on a factory assembly line.
Mr. Brooker dropped out of college to work as a musician, and at the end of the 1950s he began playing in the Paramounts, which largely performed American R&B songs. By the time the Paramounts broke up in 1966, they had shared bills with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles; later, Mr. Brooker would play studio sessions and concerts with the former Beatles.
Mr. Brooker started a new band, which included Mr. Fisher, to play the songs that he had begun writing with Mr. Reid: the Pinewoods, which were soon renamed Procol Harum, fractured Latin for “beyond these things.” The new band’s combination of piano and organ was uncommon in British rock, though American gospel groups used it, as did the rock group the Band. Mr. Brooker described his initial idea for the band as “a bit of classical, a bit of Bob Dylan, a bit of Ray Charles.”
Procol Harum’s first recording session, working with studio musicians, yielded “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” When it became a hit, the guitarist Robin Trower and the drummer B.J. Wilson, who had been in the Paramounts, joined Procol Harum to record its self-titled 1967 debut album. Its structural ambitions expanded on its 1968 album, “Shine On Brightly,” which included the five-part, 18-minute suite “In Held ’Twas in I.”
Mr. Brooker married Françoise Riedo in 1968. She survives him.
The title track of Procol Harum’s 1969 album “A Salty Dog” featured a dramatic orchestral arrangement by Mr. Brooker, and Procol Harum soon began performing with orchestras. Its 1971 album, “Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra,” brought it an American hit with an expansive remake of “Conquistador,” from Procol Harum’s debut album.
By then, both Mr. Fisher and Mr. Trower had left Procol Harum and Mr. Brooker was the band’s clear leader. Its 1973 album, “Grand Hotel,” reveled in orchestration; its 1974 “Exotic Birds and Fruit” emphatically rejected it. The songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller produced “Procol’s Ninth” in 1975.
In 1977, Mr. Brooker decided that “For the time being, Procol Harum had nothing more to say.” He joined Eric Clapton’s band in the late 1970s, touring and recording, and he made solo albums. Mr. Brooker’s 1985 album, “Echoes in the Night,” was produced by Mr. Fisher and included contributions from Mr. Reid and Mr. Wilson.
Mr. Brooker, left, with Jack Bruce of Cream, Peter Frampton and Simon Kirke of Bad Company. They were honored at RockWalk in Los Angeles in 1997.Credit…Fred Prouser/Reuters
Mr. Brooker restarted Procol Harum in 1990 with Mr. Fisher, Mr. Trower and Mr. Reid to record “The Prodigal Stranger.” During the long gaps between Procol Harum’s studio albums — the band released “The Well’s on Fire” in 2003 and “Novum” in 2017, for which Pete Brown replaced Mr. Reid as the lyricist — Mr. Brooker toured with Procol Harum, performed with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, and organized charity concerts that brought him recognition as a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2013. In 2021, Procol Harum released “Missing Persons” and “War Is Not Healthy,” a final pair of reflective Brooker-Reid songs.
Mr. Brooker soberly assessed his band in 2021.
“We don’t do a lot of grooves, but we do a good bit of rock,” Mr. Brooker told Goldmine. “Down in the core, though, there’s the music where I’m trying to reach the people and to make them feel something that’s right. And I don’t mean they’re going to jump up and down and want to dance. Fine if they’re going to. But I mean, if I saw a tear roll down their face that would be a good reaction — to reach people in their emotions, in the inside somewhere, not just on the surface.”
Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. @JonPareles
22 February 2022 | Andy Green | Rolling Stone
Procol Harum frontman Gary Brooker, who led the band throughout their 55-year history and co-wrote and sang their 1967 classic “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” died at his home from cancer on Saturday, Feb. 19. He was 76.
“His first single with Procol Harum, 1967’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’ is widely regarded as defining ‘The Summer of Love’, yet it could scarcely have been more different from the characteristic records of that era,” Procol Harum said in a group statement. “Nor was it characteristic of his own writing. Over thirteen albums Procol Harum never sought to replicate it, preferring to forge a restlessly progressive path, committed to looking forward, and making each record a ‘unique entertainment’.”
“He lit up any room he entered, and his kindness to a multilingual family of fans was legendary,” they continued. “He was notable for his individuality, integrity, and occasionally stubborn eccentricity. His mordant wit, and appetite for the ridiculous, made him a priceless raconteur (and his surreal inter-song banter made a fascinating contrast with the gravitas of Procol Harum’s performances).”
Brooker grew up in London and formed the Paramounts with guitarist Robin Trower when he was just 17. They gained a large following on the London club scene and even shared bills with the Rolling Stones on several occasions; but the group found little success with their studio recordings outside of a 1964 cover of “Poison Ivy” that became a minor hit in England.
The Paramounts split in 1966, and while Brooker originally planned to retire from performing to work as a songwriter, he met lyricist Keith Reid and forged such a tight working relationship that the pair started a new group: Procol Harum. Their first single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” was inspired by Brooker’s love of classical musicians like Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.
“About that time, the Jacques Louissier Trio — which had a pianist, bass player and drummer — made an album called Play Bach,” Brooker told Songwriter Universe in 2020. “They were a jazz trio, and they’d start off with a piece of Bach, and they would improvise around it. Louissier had done a fabulous version of what was called ‘Air On a G String’ which was also used in a set of good adverts in Britain. And all those things came together one morning [on ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’] … a bit of Bach and ‘Air On a G String’ going through my head.”
Once he added in Reid’s lyrics, Brooker had a masterpiece on his hands that would reach Number One all over the world and turn Procol Harum in a major band almost overnight.
Although the band never managed to land another hit of that magnitude, they maintained a large cult audience and worked steadily throughout the Sixties and Seventies, scoring occasional hits like “Conquistador” and “A Salty Dog.” In 1972, they cut the live album Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra that helped bring the band back into the public eye.
While Procol Harum was often referred to as a progressive rock band, Brooker never felt comfortable with that label. “I’ve always rejected the idea of labeling groups or types of music,” he told Vintage Rock in 2019. “I don’t think Procol has ever fit into a particular pigeonhole, as we call them here, you know, in the filing cabinet. You don’t really know what to put them under. They come under ‘P’ — ‘Progressive?’ ‘Psychedelic?’ — and I say, ‘They come under ‘P’ and ‘P’ is for ‘Procol’.”
Procol Harum broke up in 1977, after which Brooker launched a solo career and began touring and recording with his longtime buddy Eric Clapton. His work can be heard on Clapton’s 1981 LP Another Ticket. He also played piano on George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” and had a memorable appearance in the 1996 film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita as Argentine labor lawyer Juan Atilio Bramuglia.
A new version of Procol Harum was assembled in 1991 that recorded and toured up until 2019, though they took a pause in 1997 and 1999 so Brooker could tour with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band. He also toured as a member of Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings and played at the 2003 Concert For George.
In 2005, former Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher sued Brooker over a claim that he co-wrote “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and never received proper credit. The lawsuit dragged on for four years and Fisher was ultimately given the rights to future royalties from the song.
“Today may prove to be ‘A Darker Shade of Black’ for creativity in the music industry,” Brooker said after one of the initial judgements came down. “No longer will songwriters, bands, and musicians be able to go into a studio to give of their best in a recording without the spectre of one of them, at any future point, claiming a share of the publishing copyright.”
Brooker was a tireless promoter of charities and in 2003 was given an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his work. “But for all his other interests and skills — prize-winning angler, pub-owner, lyricist, painter, inventor — he was above all a devoted and loyal husband to Franky, whom he met in 1965 and married in 1968,” Procol Harum said in their statement. “Our thoughts must be with her, their families and friends at this extremely sad time.”
This is one of those oh-so-typical ‘yes, they had a huge hit and they never did better than that but here are the 150 other things I liked about them. Music reviews in the modern world, I’m afraid. James
Recorded in 1967 and instantly acknowledged as a classic, Procol Harum’s strange masterpiece was an unrepeatable piece of popular magic
Pop music moved at high speed in the 1960s, but even so the story behind the song for which Gary Brooker was always going to be remembered almost beggars belief. It was taped in April 1967, the same month that the band who recorded it formed: they hadn’t even got around to recruiting a drummer yet and had to use a jazz player moonlighting as a session musician.
Thought by many to be the best live version of this song
A couple of weeks later, Paul McCartney was interrupting his first date with his future wife Linda in order to rush to the DJ booth at Soho’s Bag O’Nails club, demanding to know what the hell he was playing (“God, what an incredible record,” he subsequently enthused) and John Lennon was informing a journalist friend that all current pop music was “crap” except for “that dope song, A Whiter Shade of Pale – you hear it when you take some acid and wooooh!”
A few weeks after that, it was No 1, a position it held until the middle of July. You do wonder how incredulous Brooker must have felt. He had only started Procol Harum as a last resort. He had left the minor R&B band the Paramounts with the intention of becoming a full-time songwriter, only to discover that no one wanted to buy the songs he had written with lyricist Keith Reid, so he would have to sing them himself.
And now here he was less than two months later, on Top of the Pops and feted by the Beatles as the vanguard of pop. A Whiter Shade of Pale caused so much commotion that the effect was discombobulating: Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher once recalled being mortified after they were parachuted into a headlining slot over the Jimi Hendrix Experience when “we weren’t one 10th as good as him”.
Perhaps it was just as well he didn’t know that on the other side of the Atlantic, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys – in the throes of mental collapse and on the verge of abandoning his latest opus, Smile – had taken A Whiter Shade of Pale as another signal that he was finished: “I was so sensitive for the dramatic organ sound that I thought it was my funeral tune,” Wilson later recalled.
It was one of rock history’s great lightning-in-a-bottle moments. A Whiter Shade of Pale was completely of the moment – the psychedelic era was all about opening new vistas in pop music, and if there’s one thing everyone agreed on, it was that they had never heard anything like it before – while also harking to pop’s recent past and pointing towards its future.
Brooker’s vocal spoke loudly of the hours he had put in touring the R&B clubs, belting out covers of Solomon Burke and the Impressions for the nation’s mods; the tune’s allusions to Bach and its dense, elusive lyrics – open to wild interpretation – presaged the arrival of progressive rock.
It spawned hundreds of covers by everyone from Joe Cocker to Jackie Mittoo – soul versions, reggae versions, jazz interpretations, disco versions, mock-Gregorian chant versions – as well as a little subgenre of British psychedelia populated by obscure bands trying to make records that sounded like it: Meditations by Felius Andromeda and Reputation by Shy Limbs are two examples prized by psych collectors.
The chances of a band walking into a studio for the first time and immediately recording one of rock’s impermeable classics – 10m copies sold – are incredibly slim: the chances of them subsequently repeating that feat are almost nonexistent.
Procol Harum certainly didn’t, which isn’t to say that the rest of their oeuvre – sorry – pales in comparison. Their follow-up Homburg was a fantastic song in its own right, which pulled being audibly cut from similar cloth to their first hit – stately paced, similarly haunting, more imponderable lyrics – without sounding like a craven imitation.
Their eponymous debut album was impressively varied, leaping from the southern soul-infused Something Following Me to the epic closer Repent Walpurgis: if they had included its accompanying singles in place of some more whimsical filler tracks, it might have been more regularly hailed as one of the great albums of the psychedelic era.
Shine on Brightly, from 1968 was patchier – if the side-long suite In Held ’Twas in I saw them pressing relentlessly forward into the prog rock era, its faux-music hall interludes, bass solos and ridiculous sitar-accompanied spoken word passes suggested a band trying a bit too hard – and it failed to even make the UK charts.
But the following year’s A Salty Dog was fantastic. Prog that kept its pretensions in check, it was filled with superb songs, not least the beautiful title track.
They proved surprisingly adaptable: Matthew Fisher’s organ was obviously a key part of their sound, but when he left the band – he subsequently sued for a songwriting credit on A Whiter Shade of Pale – they pivoted to a tougher, harder rock sound, leaning more on the talents of guitarist Robin Trower.
It was a move that suited Brooker’s voice: on Whiskey Train or Memorial Drive, Procol Harum were unrecognisable as the band who made A Whiter Shade of Pale.
When Trower left, they pivoted back to ornate grandeur: their last consistently great album, 1973’s Grand Hotel, was a heavily orchestrated exploration of decay and ennui. Thereafter, diminishing returns set in, although Brooker and Reid were still perfectly capable of writing genuinely striking songs: As Strong as Sampson, from 1974’s Exotic Birds and Fruit; 1975’s late period hit Pandora’s Box.
But they didn’t seem to know what to do when the musical climate changed with the advent of punk. Whatever the answer was, it definitely wasn’t Brooker’s idea to resurrect the spirit of Held ’Twas in I and record a side-long, three-part poetry recitation set to music called The Worm and the Tree on 1977’s Something Magic. Procol Harum broke up shortly after its release.
That said, the changing musical climate didn’t do much to dent Brooker’s musical career. His playing had always been revered by fellow musicians – a pre-fame Elton John never missed an appearance by the Paramounts at his local venue in Harrow Weald, gawping at Brooker’s prowess on the electric piano; George Harrison got him to contribute to a succession of his post-Beatles albums – and he shifted neatly into a career as a blue-chip sideman, playing with Eric Clapton and Kate Bush, Ringo Starr and Bill Wyman. He reformed Procol Harum in 1991 and toured with them until 2019, releasing three warmly received reunion albums.
Throughout it all, Brooker never escaped A Whiter Shade of Pale. No matter how loudly aficionados rightly pointed out the greatness of less well-known Procol Harum songs, it never quite drowned out the sound of Brooker skipping the light fandango and watching vestal virgins catch the last train for the coast.
At one point, Procol Harum stopped performing it altogether – it’s noticeably absent from their 1972 live album – but that did no good whatsoever: the same year said live album was released, a reissue of A Whiter Shade Of Pale was back in the Top 20. Nor did splitting up. Months after announcing their dissolution, Procol Harum had to reform specifically in order to play it: A Whiter Shade of Pale had been voted the best British pop single of all time at the inaugural Brit awards.
Perhaps A Whiter Shade captured its era so perfectly that it succeeded in transcending it. None of 1967’s other big songs, not even All You Need Is Love or Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play, feels quite so evocative of a mythic, idealised version of the British Summer of Love – of what the press took to calling “the beautiful people” drifting through London on a warm evening in a stoned, optimistic haze – which meant that whenever a film director or a radio DJ wanted a surefire burst of beatific nostalgia, they invariably reached for it. It turned up on umpteen soundtracks – everywhere from The Big Chill to Breaking the Waves – and in 2004 was named the most-played song on British radio over the last 70 years.
Or maybe it was just a completely fantastic song, of the kind that takes an inordinate combination of talent and luck to come up with even once in a career. You could argue it’s unfair that Gary Brooker’s musical legacy hinges on one song in the popular imagination. On the other hand, if you’re going to be largely remembered for one song, it might as well be one like that.