It's a song we have all heard. It's been played at weddings, at funerals and in shopping malls. It has turned up on countless film soundtracks and was recently recognised as the most-played song of the past seventy years. It is said that, when John Lennon first heard it on the day the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album was released, he sat in a limo and played it a hundred times in a row. It seems that, no matter how many times you've heard it, Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale remains a very special song and one that people never seem to tire of: "We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels across the floor, I was feeling kind of seasick, the crowd called out for more." There's something about the song that gets under the skin of everyone who hears it.
For its singer and composer, Gary Brooker, it has been a constant companion since becoming a hit in 1967.
"My attitude towards it has ebbed and flowed over the years, " he admits. "At times I've been very happy to be associated with it, at other times, well ... You can pick anybody on the street and they know it. It's opened a lot of doors – it's been like a huge passport for us – but at the same time there's a lot more to Procol Harum than A Whiter Shade of Pale. But no matter what, I've always enjoyed singing and playing it."
Although A Whiter Shade of Pale was not only their biggest hit but also their first song, Procol Harum went on to record a number of successful albums in the late Sixties and the Seventies, a number of which (such as 1969's A Salty Dog) still sound remarkably fresh. So fresh, in fact, that they're now being rediscovered by a new generation of listeners.
"What's been really encouraging at our recent shows, " laughs Brooker, "is looking out and seeing fans with full heads of hair. There's a younger audience for our music now, particularly in Europe. I think a lot of modern music refuses to challenge the audience. It's bland and predictable and the lyrics are banal. I think we offer something more."
While Procol Harum were one of the first bands to suffer the musical backlash that punk instigated in the late Seventies and disbanded in 1977, by 1991 they back together and were recording and performing with renewed vigour. Key to their continuing success has been Brooker's voice, which is still one of the finest soul instruments the UK has ever produced. Listen to A Whiter Shade of Pale (or indeed, many of their other songs) and it's the strange, emotional timbre of his vocals that lend the songs a lot of their mystery and power.
"I'm happy with the way my voice still holds up," he says. "I actually think it's improving and maturing. I listen to the recordings I made in the late Sixties and I think I still sound like a boy."
Although Procol Harum is still a large part of his life, for the past twenty-five years Brooker has been composing, releasing solo work and playing charity gigs. His next, on April 16 in Guildford Cathedral, will be a fundraiser for survivors of the Christmas tsunami. "This isn't a disaster gig – it's a gig for survivors, " he says. "When I give, I really like to see where the money is going and all the money we raise at this concert will be going to one village in India called Thanthri that got wiped out by the tsunami.
"We're hoping to rebuild the whole village, which means about sixty homes and a new fleet of boats. It's going to be very exciting to see some concrete results."
In the meantime, he has six weeks to put together all the arrangements, write some new material and rehearse. He's confident, however, that everything will come together.
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