Gary Brooker and the Enduring Glow From ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’
Gary Brooker quit school to become a musician and a musician he was, for more than 60 years.
So after the sad news that he had died Sunday of cancer, age 76, it seems mildly disrespectful, or at least reductive, to remember him almost entirely for one song.
But when that song was Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” it feels more like a genuflection, something between gratitude and awe.
Some songs that define a time, regardless of their quality, don’t need to be played forever. “Satisfaction,” for instance. “Light My Fire.”
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” does. It’s a great radio record and a great record, period, and if that soaring organ owes to Johann Sebastian Bach, well, Bach probably got it from somewhere, too.
I’ve never felt less than exhilarated by its opening chords, and my appreciation deepened further a couple of years ago when a friend directed me to Youtube and a live version that Brooker and Procol Harum recorded in 2006 with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and choir at Ledreborg Castle in Denmark. The gorgeous tree-lined setting makes the performance feel transcendent, and Brooker delivers it as strongly as he did 39 years earlier. Not by accident does the clip have 73 million views.
Brooker also wrote the music, with the aforementioned help from Bach and also, per a 2006 court ruling, additional help from bandmate Matthew Fisher. Fisher played the organ on the original recording.
The lyrics were written by Keith Reid, who didn’t play in the band, but was considered part of it. On tour he was more like a road manager and overseer. He’s still around and he has spent his life writing lyrics, lots of lyrics. Two nifty fun facts about Reid are that his songs have been recorded by Willie Nelson, whose own songs are famous for being simple, spare and direct, and that Reid’s favorite song by another artist is Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”
As for the lyrics to “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” I have no idea what they mean. Naturally they have inspired endless speculation, including the suggestion that they’re all a metaphor for sex. That may or may not be true, but when in doubt about the real meaning of any popular song, sex is probably the highest-percentage guess.
In an interview a few years ago, Reid said that Brooker had never asked him what the song meant. Good for him. If untroubled ignorance worked for Gary, it’s good enough for me.
Rock ’n’ roll is accommodating that way. We accept that a girl could be named Rama-Lama-Ding-Dong. And then there’s Bob Dylan.
One of the funny things about “Whiter Shade of Pale” lyrics is that while Procol Harum’s studio version had two verses, Reid wrote four — the last two of which make nothing clearer. Sample: “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.”
Over the years Brooker would sometimes sing the third and even the fourth verse in concert. I found out about their existence in 1967 when they sang the third verse at New York’s Village Theater, predecessor to the Fillmore East. I remember scrambling for a piece of scrap paper on which to write down the words. I remember catching only fragments.
If you go by the top-40 charts, Procol Harum was a one-hit wonder, a modest score with “Conquistador” notwithstanding. But Reid wasn’t writing and they weren’t playing for a top-40 audience. They were sometimes called classical rock or prog-rock, a term Brooker waved off. Sometimes they played the mystical, atmospheric stuff, sometimes they played harder guitar rock.
Brooker was the cornerstone, and possibly the reason the band didn’t make more noise. Through multiple incarnations and directions it reflected his style: not flashy on stage, not particularly controversial off-stage. Musicianship first.
Brooker himself was born in Britain and like every other British kid who knew a guitar from an oboe in the early 1960s, he started a band. His friend Robin Trower played guitar, they added drums and a bass and they called themselves the Paramounts.
They played mostly their own versions of American R&B hits, and while it might seem like every U.K. band cracked the American charts during the British Invasion years, the Paramounts did not. Still, they were well-regarded in the Brit music world, playing on bills with the likes of the Animals and the Rolling Stones.
The Paramounts broke up in 1966 and Brooker, who had decided to focus on songwriting, met Reid. They couldn’t find anyone to record their songs — there’s a surprise — so they formed Procol Harum, a name Reid said was borrowed from a friend’s Siamese cat.
Brooker played with other artists here and there over the years, appearing on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass set and working with, among others, Eric Clapton, the Hollies and Kate Bush.
If Gary Brooker didn’t introduce the organ to rock ’n’ roll — Procol Harum followed the Animals and Dylan, to name a couple — he carved out a distinctive trail. It doesn’t minimize his other work when someone like me keeps coming back to “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
It’s just that good.