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.”