February 19, 2022 – Gary Brooker founding lead singer of the late 1960’s musical sensation Procol Harum was born on May 29, 1945, in London’s Metropolitan Borough of Hackney. His father was a professional musician and Gary followed in his footsteps learning to play piano, cornet and trombone as a child. But his most awesome instrument over the years became his voice.
After high school, he went on to Southend Municipal College to study zoology and botany but dropped out to become a professional musician.In 1962 he founded the Paramounts with his guitarist friend Robin Trower. The band gained respect within the burgeoning 1960s British R&B scene, which yielded the Beatles, the Animals, the Spencer Davis Group, the Rolling Stones, and many others. The Rolling Stones, in particular, were Paramounts fans, giving them guest billing on several shows in the early 1960s.
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. Guided by an immense musicality of Brooker, Fisher, Trower and Reid their worldhit “A Whiter Shade of Pale” became one of the anthems of 1967’s Summer of Love. “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’.”
A Whiter Shade of Pale was issued as their debut record on 12 May 1967. and became one of the most commercially successful singles in history, having sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. In the years since, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” has become an enduring classic, with more than 1000 known cover versions by other artists, none of them ever matching Brooker’s version. With its Bach-derived instrumental melody, soulful vocals, and unusual lyrics, the music of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was composed by Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher, while the lyrics were written by Keith Reid.
Brooker’s melancholic vocals and emotive, eclectic piano playing were a key part of Procol’s musical mix for the entire course of the band’s career. In the early years Brooker, Hammond organist Matthew Fisher and Trower were the guiding musical forces behind the band, but after disparities in style became too much and Fisher and Trower left, Brooker was the clear leader until the band broke up in 1977. Brooker started a solo career and released the album No More Fear of Flying in 1979.
Gifted with a voice that stood out in a massive crowd, it is interesting to realize that Gary Brooker became essential a journeyman, who occasionally came “home” to his roots. After Procol Harum broke up, Brooker first launched his solo career but then began touring and recording with his longtime buddy Eric Clapton. His work can be heard on Clapton’s 1981 LP Another Ticket. Clapton fired the entire band in 1981, but he and Brooker remained good friends afterwards, and were for many years neighbours in the Surrey Hills. Brooker joined Clapton for several one-off benefit gigs over the years. Brooker sang lead vocal on the Alan Parsons Project song “Limelight”, on their 1985 album, Stereotomy. Brooker sang the lead vocal of the song “No News from the Western Frontier”, a single taken from the album Hi-Tec Heroes by the Dutch performer Ad Visser.
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 on three of their albums.
On 28 September 1996, as the Gary Brooker Ensemble, he organized a charity concert to raise funds for his local church, St Mary and All Saints, in Surrey. The resulting live CD of the concert, Within Our House, originally released on a fan club CD in a limited run of 1000 units, later became a collectable recording. His guests and supporting artists included Dave Bronze, Michael Bywater, Mark Brzezicki and Robbie McIntosh.
Also in 1996, Brooker appeared in the Alan Parker film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s Evita starring Madonna, Jonathan Pryce and Antonio Banderas. Playing the part of Juan Atilio Bramuglia, he sang the song “Rainbow Tour” with Peter Polycarpou and Antonio Banderas. Brooker said that his greatest single earning in his career was from his appearance in the film.
On 29 November 2002, he was among musicians and singers participating in the George Harrison tribute concert, Concert for George, at which he sang lead vocals on their version of “Old Brown Shoe”. Brooker contributed to Harrison’s albums All Things Must Pass, Somewhere in England and Gone Troppo.
In April 2005, as the Gary Brooker Ensemble, he played a sell-out charity concert at Guildford Cathedral in aid of the tsunami appeal, playing a mixture of Procol Harum and solo songs and arrangements of classical and spiritual songs. His guests and supporting artists included Andy Fairweather Low and Paul Jones (ex-Manfred Mann).
A new incarnation of Procol Harum, led by Brooker, continued touring the world, celebrating its 40th anniversary in July 2007 with two days of musical revels at St John’s, Smith Square in London.
On 28 October 2009, Brooker was presented with a BASCA in recognition of his unique contribution to music.
In May 2012, Procol Harum were forced to cancel the remainder of their dates in South Africa after Brooker fractured his skull following a fall in his hotel room in Cape Town. The fall came on Brooker’s 67th birthday. The band was part of the British Invasion Tour of South Africa along with the Moody Blues and 10cc. However, they continued touring until 2019, playing their final gig in Switzerland.
Shine on brightly, Gary, you made us quite insane, AND WE LOVED IT! RIP February 19, 2022