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The story behind Procol Harum's A White Shade Of Pale

Procol Harum
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s a single with almost incomprehensible lyrics, has been the subject of drawn-out legal proceedings, and is the most played record by British broadcasting over the past 70 years or so.

The single is A Whiter Shade Of Pale, the debut release from Procol Harum that not only topped the UK charts for six weeks, but also made it to Number Five in America.

“Keith Reid [Procol Harum lyricist] had written the lyrics and posted them to me,” recalls pianist/singer Gary Brooker. “I’d been working on a musical idea, which until then had been purely instrumental, when I opened the post and A Whiter Shade Of Pale was on the top of other lyrics. I was immediately taken with the immense length of the original four verses with a chorus on each, and the narrative form it took, with its mysterious characters and goings-on.”

Brooker had been working on melody inspired by classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach, saying: “Throughout 1966 I had followed with interest the work of the Jacques Loussier Trio and the Swingle Singers, who had made an art of adapting Bach pieces. Air On A G String was the starting point but the rest was invention, with constant reference to Bach-like breaks and atmosphere.”

Released in May 1967, it debuted at Number 11 in the UK, reaching the top a week later. But despite the instant success, Brooker wasn’t about to get carried away by pop stardom.

“When it was at Number One, a Rolls Royce appeared at my flat to pick me up for Top Of The Pops. I asked who had booked it, the driver said, ‘Your manager.’ We sacked him and I took the bus!”

In recent times, the song has been the subject of a protracted court case, with organist Matthew Fisher claiming he co-wrote the music with Brooker. But what is it about A Whiter Shade Of Pale that has made it so enduring and iconic?

“It came along at just the right moment, and meant so much to so many people at a formative time,” considers Brooker. “Now, younger people hear it and it still sounds full of atmosphere. It reflects an era that, perhaps, they wish they could have experienced.”