Click the link to read an article on The Guardian (Alexis Petridis). Here’s an excerpt:
Gary Brooker, lead singer of English band Procol Harum, dies aged 76
Pop music moved at high speed in the 1960s, but even so the story behind the song for which Gary Brooker was always going to be remembered almost beggars belief. It was taped in April 1967, the same month that the band who recorded it formed: they hadn’t even got around to recruiting a drummer yet and had to use a jazz player moonlighting as a session musician. A couple of weeks later, Paul McCartney was interrupting his first date with his future wife Linda in order to rush to the DJ booth at Soho’s Bag O’Nails club, demanding to know what the hell he was playing (“God, what an incredible record,” he subsequently enthused) and John Lennon was informing a journalist friend that all current pop music was “crap” except for “that dope song, A Whiter Shade of Pale – you hear it when you take some acid and wooooh!”
A few weeks after that, it was No 1, a position it held until the middle of July. You do wonder how incredulous Brooker must have felt. He had only started Procol Harum as a last resort. He had left the minor R&B band the Paramounts with the intention of becoming a full-time songwriter, only to discover that no one wanted to buy the songs he had written with lyricist Keith Reid, so he would have to sing them himself. And now here he was less than two months later, on Top of the Pops and feted by the Beatles as the vanguard of pop. A Whiter Shade of Pale caused so much commotion that the effect was discombobulating: Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher once recalled being mortified after they were parachuted into a headlining slot over the Jimi Hendrix Experience when “we weren’t one 10th as good as him”. Perhaps it was just as well he didn’t know that on the other side of the Atlantic, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys – in the throes of mental collapse and on the verge of abandoning his latest opus, Smile – had taken A Whiter Shade of Pale as another signal that he was finished: “I was so sensitive for the dramatic organ sound that I thought it was my funeral tune,” Wilson later recalled.
It was one of rock history’s great lightning-in-a-bottle moments. A Whiter Shade of Pale was completely of the moment – the psychedelic era was all about opening new vistas in pop music, and if there’s one thing everyone agreed on, it was that they had never heard anything like it before – while also harking to pop’s recent past and pointing towards its future. Brooker’s vocal spoke loudly of the hours he had put in touring the R&B clubs, belting out covers of Solomon Burke and the Impressions for the nation’s mods; the tune’s allusions to Bach and its dense, elusive lyrics – open to wild interpretation – presaged the arrival of progressive rock. It spawned hundreds of covers by everyone from Joe Cocker to Jackie Mittoo – soul versions, reggae versions, jazz interpretations, disco versions, mock-Gregorian chant versions – as well as a little subgenre of British psychedelia populated by obscure bands trying to make records that sounded like it: Meditations by Felius Andromeda and Reputation by Shy Limbs are two examples prized by psych collectors.
The chances of a band walking into a studio for the first time and immediately recording one of rock’s impermeable classics – 10m copies sold – are incredibly slim…
Perhaps A Whiter Shade captured its era so perfectly that it succeeded in transcending it. None of 1967’s other big songs, not even All You Need Is Love or Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play, feels quite so evocative of a mythic, idealised version of the British Summer of Love – of what the press took to calling “the beautiful people” drifting through London on a warm evening in a stoned, optimistic haze – which meant that whenever a film director or a radio DJ wanted a surefire burst of beatific nostalgia, they invariably reached for it. It turned up on umpteen soundtracks – everywhere from The Big Chill to Breaking the Waves – and in 2004 was named the most-played song on British radio over the last 70 years.
Or maybe it was just a completely fantastic song, of the kind that takes an inordinate combination of talent and luck to come up with even once in a career. You could argue it’s unfair that Gary Brooker’s musical legacy hinges on one song in the popular imagination. On the other hand, if you’re going to be largely remembered for one song, it might as well be one like that.