“A Whiter Shade Of Pale hit people’s ears and rang some sort of bell… it’s always been a great mystery why it did that”: The life and times of Gary Brooker

Gary Brooker
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Gary Brooker – one third of the writing team behind Procol Harum’s seminal Summer of Love anthem A Whiter Shade Of Pale – also worked with the likes of Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Kate Bush, as well as creating solo work. In 2017 – five years before his death at 76 – he fronted a new Procol Harum album, as well as a deluxe anthology to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary. The following year he discussed his career to date with Prog.

Back in 1966, Southend-based group The Paramounts split. They’d scored a hit single in 1964 with their version of Poison Ivy while they were still all teenagers, but time was showing that was likely to be a one-off and that they’d achieved all they could playing R&B covers.

Vocalist and pianist Gary Brooker hadn’t written songs before, but had some ideas and decided to simply “give it a go.” He was pleased to find that the process came naturally, and began working with lyricist Keith Reid – with whom he would forge an enduring songwriting partnership – and organist Matthew Fisher.

The first recorded effort produced by this trio could not have been more spectacular – the epochal single A Whiter Shade Of Pale, released in May 1967 under the name Procol Harum. The song became part of the soundtrack to the Summer of Love, and one of the defining songs of psychedelia.

It inhabited its own world, courtesy of Reid’s striking, surreal lyrics, but also had a majestic vocal melody and memorable organ line by Fisher. It was a No.1 hit in the UK and has gone on to be one of the top-selling singles of all time.

For their debut album they drafted in former Paramounts guitarist Robin Trower and drummer BJ Wilson. An exploratory group, they were in the vanguard of prog rock, although their music has always erred towards songs – mostly composed by Brooker and Reid – with a subtle inner complexity rather than overt displays of instrumental flash. In the 1970s their work with orchestras produced some particularly successful results.

Although Procol Harum have been out of operation for long spells since their initial split in 1977 – during which time Brooker has enjoyed a solo career and collaborations with other artists – in 2017 they released their first new studio album in 14 years, Novum, their 12th in total. A box set and anthology, both titled Still There’ll Be More, have just arrived to mark a belated 50th birthday celebration for the group.

Looking back to A Whiter Shade Of Pale, can you describe the atmosphere of the time?

I think the public were up for as much of a change as the people creating things

The psychedelic era was really an expanding out and a realisation that you could, in that point in British music, do whatever you wanted. There didn’t seem to be any boundaries – and if there were, you completely ignored them.

A Whiter Shade Of Pale fitted into our idea at the time, which was to do something different. It was a long single. It was, in fact, longer to start with, because it had three verses. I think it was probably about seven minutes. Somebody told me they were playing nothing over 2:47 on the radio. I remember the figure! It wasn’t true: I think the public were up for as much of a change as the people creating things.

You followed it with Homburg, which went to No.5 in the UK, but your chart success tailed off after. Was there pressure to produce more hits?

There was enormous pressure. Because A Whiter Shade Of Pale was so big on a world stage, people wanted another one, which was nigh-on impossible as it came at a time when it just hit people’s ears and rang some sort of bell. And it’s always been a great mystery why it did that.

Peter Hammill has said that one of the songs that most influenced him was the 17-and-a-half-minute In Held ’Twas In I from Procol’s 1968 album Shine On Brightly. He realised then that it was okay to write something of that kind of length and ambition. How did it come about?

If you throw yourself back then there was a lot more freedom. I mean, it was a forward-thinking idea but it was perfectly acceptable. You talk about Hammill – well, Pete Townshend heard that and felt the same. He told us once that he got the idea of Tommy from that piece.

Might I even say that it was ‘progressive’ – the word existed, but it was not a pigeonhole that you could put bands into. In Held ’Twas In I, you certainly couldn’t call it pop; it would be hard to call it rock. There’s only one pigeonhole that we ever fitted into and that’s Procol Harum.

Music to me is about conveying an emotion; you get that from having grown up with Ray Charles, Little Richard and Sam Cooke

It’s got a lot of strange pieces that we knitted together, but you can get some kind of story out of it. It starts off with the beginning of the universe, really, if that’s possible. There’s some of a Buddhist chant and it ends up going to Heaven. It’s even got drug addiction in the middle.

The style that most people associate with the group was established in 1969 with A Salty Dog – that mix of bluesy earthiness with a grand, dramatic sweep.

It gets somewhere, doesn’t it? Well, that did kind of cement us, in our own minds as well. Strings had often been used on record, but it combined a song with an orchestral setting. We play the title track today and it’s as big as A Whiter Shade Of Pale to the audience.

When people talk about what fed into 70s progressive rock, very few mention the influences of R&B and soul, although many of the musicians grew up playing that music. But in Procol Harum’s music, that influence is overt. Would you agree?

I see what you’re saying there. Music to me is about conveying an emotion and you get that from having grown up with Ray Charles and Little Richard and Sam Cooke. That thread runs through; and as you say, it’s not always identified. But what’s often not at the front of these prog rock bands is first-class vocals. You might, overall, get a good recording with marvellous, clever playing, but at the end of the day the vocalist has got away with quite a bit. You got it with Traffic because Steve Winwood followed that path and had grown up with those same influences; and, if you like, he can be a soul singer when he wants to.

We were selling albums in America, not here. Here, they pretty much lost it around the time of Shine On Brightly

Your 1971 album Broken Barricades features a lot of Robin Trower’s flamboyant lead guitar playing. It was also his last album with the group before he embarked on a solo career. Did he let himself off the leash, or was he proving a point, perhaps?

I think it just happened organically. On A Salty Dog we let the organist, Matthew Fisher, be in charge of the production, and he did a good job. Then he left; and if you listen to Broken Barricades, there’s hardly any organ on it at all. And that bit more space allowed Trower to come to the fore.

Robin Trower got involved in the writing a bit more. He did at least three on Broken Barricades. He was always a great guitarist but he had to invent a different way of playing for the music that I’d written for Procol’s first, second and third albums. It wasn’t an easy twang-along; the easy part of it was that he had to play a blues solo and it sounded right.

But when he couldn’t figure out the chord, or if it’s in E Flat, which guitarists don’t like, he would just find a good low guitar note that would vibrate through it all. Brian May does it all the time with Queen – but Trower invented that.

Your former manager Chris Wright has stated that the live album Procol Harum recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, released in 1972, “completely regenerated” your career. Is that accurate?

Robin Trower had to have a tiny little amp the size of a radio…it was not his idea of what a group should be doing

At the end of the day, yes. We were selling albums in America, not here. Here, they pretty much lost it around the time of Shine On Brightly. With Trower we did play once with an orchestra and choir in Stratford, Ontario, which was the first time we’d done it live. We didn’t play much, just In Held ’Twas In I and A Salty Dog, I think. But it was a tumultuous reception and a lot of people were there, and that led on to an invite from the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

We just did it at the end of the tour. I wrote out the orchestrations and Trower did what he did on the recorded versions. But he never really liked the idea. You couldn’t play loud when you’re with an orchestra, so he had to have a tiny little amp the size of a radio. He did it, fair enough, and it was very impressive, but it was not his idea of what a group should be doing. So he left and we got in a new guitarist, Dave Ball.

And that was when Edmonton said, “Would you like to come and play?” and Chris Wright said, “Yes.” Everyone said, “Yes, we’d like to do it.” It was done wholeheartedly. 

With 1973’s Grand Hotel you carried on with an expansive sound.

I had a lot of song ideas in my head. Most of the Grand Hotel songs are quite split personality things that change mood. There are almost two songs in every song, like Robert’s Box.

We thought we’d have that big, lush sound. It wasn’t all done with orchestra but there was quite a bit. We did use some outside influences like Christiane Legrand on Fires (Which Burn Brightly) – she was a French jazz improviser but was also from The Swingle Singers, who had done a lot of classical interpretations. But after that we thought, “Let’s get back to being a five-piece band.”

Leiber and Stoller said, ‘We’re going for dinner,’ so we said, ‘Oh, what time will you be back?’ They said, ‘We’re not coming back’

How did you get to work with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller on Procol’s Ninth?

The one after Grand Hotel was Exotic Birds And Fruit, which was produced by Chris Thomas – as he had produced us since Home – and we were always in AIR Studios. So we all fancied a change.

Leiber and Stoller came about because I’ve always had great admiration for them as songwriters and producers. And also, they had just produced Stealers Wheel. And we thought, “Oh, they do come out of New York and do English groups.” We went to The Who’s Ramport Studio; and on the first day at eight o’clock, Mike and Jerry said, “We’re going for dinner,” so we said, “Oh, what time will you be back?” They said, “We’re not coming back.” That was a shock because we were normally there until four in the morning.

We had a constant battle with them because they had a catalogue of new songs that they wanted us to record. It was strange because it had nothing to do with what we all should have been there for. It was all very disruptive.

And after we’d recorded most of the album we finally got to do a Leiber and Stoller song. Chuck Jackson did it originally – I Keep Forgettin.’ They also put a little bit of brass on it, which we’d never had before. But the best thing they did was Pandora’s Box, which had strange instrumentation with a marimba. The way they had drawn out the instruments, and made them weave in and out of each other, was magnificent. In fact, they made a hit out of it.

After 10 years we had another 18-minute piece. We’d gone full circle… you thought, ‘Wait a minute, we might have lost touch here’

You’ve said you were surprised that Procol’s last 1970s album, Something Magic, ever got made.

I don’t think we were up for doing it with Leiber and Stoller again, nice guys as they were. We made it at the end of 1976 in Miami with another set of producers – brothers Ron and Howie Albert, who had been making a name for themselves.

We went from London straight to the studio and played through something like 14 or 16 songs. They said, “Look, Gary, you can take a piece of dogshit and you can cover it with chocolate. But when you bite into it, what have you got?”

We should have gone home then. I think we were shocked more than anything. If we’d been more mercenary and sensible, we would have turned round and said, “You guys can fuck off too.” They said shortly after that, “We wouldn’t even be here but our boat’s broken!”

They liked some of the songs. In the end it was a co-production, so we weren’t doing everything they’d say. Keith Reid had written a long story called The Worm And The Tree and I’d always envisaged it as being fairytale-like with melodies and instruments depicting the characters. So I played it to them and they said, “That’s interesting.” I’d not thought about singing it and it ended up being spoken. I orchestrated it and we got a few guys in playing strings and woodwinds, beefing it up, and then there was an album.

We had always been at it – periods of writing, periods of recording and then out on the road. And suddenly, after 10 years, and with our 10th album, we had another 18-minute piece. We’d gone full circle. And when you were looking around comparing that with what else was going on, you thought, “Wait a minute, we might have lost touch here.” We did an American tour in 1977 and then everyone said goodbye.

It was a high point being in Eric Clapton’s band. To be playing when he’s playing a solo is something else

Outside of Procol Harum, as well as your solo albums, you’ve played on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Kate Bush’s Aerial, done sessions with Bill Wyman and Ringo Starr, and even made an appearance in the 1996 film Evita. Is there a particular non-Procol Harum moment that stands out for you?

I immediately started up doing some other things that I’d not really been able to do because I was in Procol Harum. You didn’t mention Kate Bush’s The Red Shoes – I played on that as well, and sang one for The Alan Parsons Project. I ended up playing on lots of people’s records, and of course also playing live with bands. As far as high points go, it’s all been a high point.

It was a high point being in Eric Clapton’s band. To be playing when he’s playing a solo is something else, I can tell you. Bill Wyman’s band, playing with some of the great British musicians – I’m thinking Georgie Fame and Albert Lee. Also with Ringo’s All-Starrs – I was with them for three years with Jack Bruce, Todd Rundgren, Peter Frampton, Simon Kirke and Ringo, of course. So they’re all high points as they’re all extremely different.

Keith Reid’s lyrics for Procol Harum have been a crucial part of the group’s identity. Was there ever an obligation to use a particular lyric for a particular song?

No, not at all. I always had a whole folder of Reid’s lyrics that didn’t get used. Sometimes the idea was too brief and I couldn’t fit it into something, or it didn’t spur an idea. Now and again there would be something I liked, but there would be some words in it that I just couldn’t sing. Sometimes Reid just said, “Oh, okay,” and didn’t try to change it.

There was some epic sea story which had a line, ‘And so he walked the plank.’ And I can’t remember what rhymed with it now, but ‘plank’ is unsingable. I did try, but you cannot sing ‘plank!’ So it never got done, that one.

You have to have a certain kind of lyric if it’s going to be a Procol song

Procol Harum’s most recent album, 2017’s Novum, is the first where you didn’t collaborate with Reid, but instead worked with Pete Brown. Why is that?

The previous album to that, The Well’s On Fire, came out in 2003 and that’s a long time ago. There were other things going on – personal things, people being ill, court cases – so the atmosphere didn’t inspire you to go and do Procol. I think Reid lost interest quite a long time ago.

I spoke to Pete Brown about it two years ago. I knew Pete from when he was doing Cream and he just said, “If you’re ever thinking of doing something bear me in mind. I’d love to contribute.” He does what he wants to do, but admires Keith Reid and knew that you have to have a certain kind of lyric if it’s going to be a Procol song. He’d change a line if it was too long, without changing the meaning of what he had written. He would have changed ‘plank!’

You could have continued in a solo career, but you revived Procol Harum. Does it have its own identity?

We all have to be in Procol Harum. It’s not like we’re five blokes who play whatever we want: we’re Procol Harum and that’s the mothership. After our last exploit, the Novum album, we thought the recording went very smoothly, so we just want to go and do it again.

There’s a Facebook campaign to get Procol Harum inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. How important is that to you?

I can sing better today than I did 50 years ago

I hadn’t really thought about it. If they said that Procol Harum are being inducted in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, I might say, “So what?” or, “It’s about time after 50-odd years.” I don’t know what you have to do to be in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

I would have thought that if you’re still doing it with class and integrity and quality, you might qualify. I can sing better today than I did 50 years ago, and 50 years later we have made an album that I stand by with great pride, so I’m doing my bit.

Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes is the author of Captain Beefheart - The Biography (Omnibus Press, 2011) and A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & the 1970s (2020). He was a regular contributor to Select magazine and his work regularly appears in Prog, Mojo and Wire. He also plays the drums.