Personal opinion byJoan May
Joan May is a Procol Harum fan from the USA who contributed the following opinions to this website some seven years before the authorship of A Whiter Shade of Pale became the subject of a legal claim (see here). The team that runs this site wishes to express no opinion about the lawsuit; our publication of Joan's piece doesn't constitute an endorsement of its contents.
JM: I should preface this by saying that I don't know any of the members of Procol Harum (PH). I've based the following on written and taped interviews, discussions with fans, and of course my appreciation of this magnificent song. The things I'm certain about include my love for the music and the identities of the song's composers. I've speculated a bit about motivations, and those are best-guesses. If I'm mistaken in any of my speculations, I hope the band members will offer corrections.
I've been enchanted with A Whiter Shade Of Pale (AWSoP) since first hearing it in 1967, when I assumed it to be a black soul singer recorded over a complete piece by Bach. I soon found out the truth about the singer, but believed the Bach story until last year. Were it not for online fan-communication, I'd probably still be in the dark about that – not crediting the right composer for one of my favorite instrumental melodies. Sadly, I remain in the vast minority in this knowledge.
AWSoP is unusual for a Rock song (and I believe it's not just Rock but Classical as well) in that it contains 2 equally important melodies: the R&B Vocal Melody, composed by Gary Brooker prior to Matthew Fisher's joining him and Keith Reid to form PH, and the Classical Instrumental-Organ Melody, composed by Matthew Fisher. The fact that the Organ Melody of AWSoP was composed by Fisher is well established among those familiar with PH, though not with the general public or the press. In a BBC interview in 1992, Fisher delineated the elements of the two Bach pieces (Air on a G String and Sleepers Awake) that influenced the Organ Melody of AWSoP, and explained how he transformed those snippets of Bach and added mostly his own music, to create a new, original melody.
Gary Brooker has now – for the first time? – provided an extensive statement about the creation of AWSoP – in a 5 / 97 interview, printed in the 8 / 97 issue of Shine On. He explained that he used the bass line and chord structure of Air On A G String (which he heard in a cigar ad) as underpinnings for his composition of the Vocal Melody of the song. But this isn't what one hears as 'seeming Bach' when listening to AWSoP. In fact, similar underpinnings existed in Rock and R&B songs – not just in Bach – prior to AWSoP. Let's let Mike Bloomfield tell us about that (from his posthumous 1983 Biography by Ed Ward):
'Man, the cycle of chord changes that he [Bob Dylan] introduced, that became so widely imitated and used – those were the chord changes that later became When a Man Loves a Woman and Whiter Shade of Pale.'
In keeping with Bloomfield's observations, Brooker said in the 1/95 Record Collector that the original vision for PH was a hybrid of R&B and Bob Dylan. They must have wanted a Hammond organ in addition to piano because of the latter. But when they got their organist, it turned out that he wasn't a Booker T or Al Kooper clone, but rather
'...a classicist who early on divined the elusive place where Bach fugues and rock and roll could not only co-exist but truly thrive.' (Jim Bickhart, 1987, liner notes to PH Classics V.17).
And THAT made All the Difference – not only to AWSoP but also to the entire magnificent musical entity known as Procol Harum.
The 'Seeming Bach' that one hears in AWSoP is, of course, Matthew Fisher's Organ Melody, not the chord / bass structure that Gary Brooker adapted from Air On a G String. The Organ Melody includes the melodic organ lines that run in counterpoint to the Vocal Melody, and the famous 8-bar solo that begins, ends, and appears between verses of the song. The 8 bar solo was influenced most strongly by Sleepers Awake, which Brooker did not cite as an influence. The Sleepers Awake source is not obvious because Fisher transformed the tempo, rhythm and context of a brief sequence from Sleepers to become an integral component of his unique and cohesive 8 bar solo, rendering the Sleepers sequence virtually unrecognizable in the process.
Fisher cogently explained this, including Singing (!) a measure of Sleepers Awake, on the BBC. In his recent interview, Brooker credited Fisher for composing the organ lines by saying that Fisher 'refined' his (Brooker's) use of Bach. But Fisher's 'refinement' is in fact a carefully-constructed original melody and an essential part of the song's musical identity.
I understand that when AWSoP was first released in 1967, Brooker, Fisher and Reid were very young, and too busy making beautiful music and marvelling at their early success to realize what a Masterpiece they had created or that the composer credits were incomplete. But over the last 30 years, the longevity of AWSoP and especially the importance of Fisher's contributions have become crystal clear.
Excerpt from the 1991 Film – THE COMMITMENTS:
Scene is in a church with 'Steven' playing opening strains of AWSoP on the organ. 'Jimmy' walks in. Steven continues to play while they talk: [They mumble a phrase I couldn't get – designated as '-??>']
Steven: Hi Jimmy. Father Malloy should be along soon...
J: Great Sound!! .................<what an er – ??
S: Wish me granny had one of these we could borrow.
[Didn't MF borrow the $$ from his granny to buy his first Hammond? Could this be an Inside Reference?? – jm]
(Steven smiles, enraptured by his own playing)....... Great intro, 'uh
J: They nicked it from Marvin Gaye.
S: HE nicked it from Bach!!
[these 2 aren't much more confused than most of the music press – jm]
J: AH, it's BEA -U-TIFUL!!
S (singing): We Skipped the light Fantastic...
J (singing): Skipped the light Fandango
S&J (singing): Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor. I was feeling kind of seasick, the crowd called out for more.
J: (As Steven continues to play): Poxiest Bleedin' Lyrics ever written!
S: (speaking as he plays): Sixteen vestal virgins leaving for the coast – What's THAT mean??
Father Malloy (walking down aisle toward the organ): I never understood that either
(Steven abruptly stops playing)
Father Malloy (smiling): It's a Very peculiar lyric.
What elements of the song are those three blokes so enchanted with? Matthew's Melody and Keith's Lyrics – the former for its BEA-U-TY and the latter for their poxy strangeness. This led me to examine all the commentary on AWSoP that I had collected over the years. The same elements as The Commitments were raving about were singled out in almost all of them. I think this represents how the Majority of the Masses hear the song – all those people who have made/are continuing to make it Immortal – generation after generation.
Another example: The video of AWSoP with Royer and Harrison in that old castle was part of a TV show on Classic Rock from MTV, 1986 – narrated by Karla DeVito (remember her – lip-synching [and body-synching?] to Ellen Foley's vocals in those Meatloaf videos?). She introduced AWSoP thusly (all caps mine):
'Procol Harum came together in London in 1966. LYRICIST KEITH REID'S IMAGES WERE COMBINED WITH GARY BROOKER'S ADAPTATION OF BACH'S SLEEPERS AWAKE to create the classic composition of Whiter Shade of Pale which rose to the top of the charts worldwide.'
Other recent examples are in the 2/92 issue of Q Magazine, the 4/92 Keyboard Review article on MF, and Entertainment Weekly, 8/96, where they named AWSoP one of the 100 greatest Summer Songs (it came in an easy-to-remember Number 69). All say the same thing:
AWSoP is notable for Matthew's Music (Falsely Attributed) and Keith's lyrics...
The majority – probably the Unanimity – of commentators about AWSoP over the last 30 years have marvelled at the song's Organ Melody, and I believe they represent the opinions of the majority of fans as well. Their writings appear to be based on years of experience talking to many people about what elements of AWSoP stand out. And not only commentators have singled out Matthew's music. The hit TV show Third Rock From the Sun used just his First 8 bars to end one if its episodes. During Al Kooper's 1995 gig at Mountain Stage a young audience cheered his playing of Matthew's Melody in an organ medley. The same thing happened at a larger Kooper gig in Boston on Earth Day the same year. He played other well known pieces in his medley – Green Onions, Chest Fever – no applause.. I think those young Kooper audiences were akin to 'focus groups' representing a consensus of fans' opinions about Matthew's music. Of course most or all of them probably had no idea whom they were applauding.
I have a slightly different opinion about the song's greatness: I think the Real beauty of AWSoP – not mentioned by many commentators unfortunately – is in the INTERACTION between the 2 melodic lines – the Classical (Matthew) and the R&B (Gary). Gary's part includes his distinctive soulful vocals as well as his written melody. My love for the song also includes Matthew's music alone – where it solos at beginning, end and between verses. (I object to those 8 bars being called an 'intro' – they permeate the entire song, as does Matthew's continuing melody under Gary's vocal). Keith's lyrics are great but not as crucial to me as the music.
Imagine you're Matthew Fisher and you watch that song get more and more popular over the years – realize it's going to be Immortal – and that the portion that you've composed is singled out for commentary and praise whenever the song is described. But you're never credited as the composer – it's always falsely attributed to Bach or Brooker / Bach. And when sheet music of the song is published, your work is all over it, but not your name. You try to set the record straight by writing to Melody Maker (a fan told me he did this in 1973) and in British interviews, but no one listens. (Possibly because most of your fans are in the USA! Why didn't you write to Rolling Stone? I – and a few million others – might have found out about this 21 years sooner! grrr...) ... What a horrific experience that must be for an artist ...
I believe that the lack of credit for AWSoP, however that came about – I hope via an oversight that will soon be corrected – led to Matthew Fisher's leaving PH in 1969, and aversively conditioned him against writing or playing any more music in that style. He refused to play AWSoP on at least one occasion when he was asked to record it with the British Invasion All Stars. (He finally did agree to play it on David Lanz's album, as an instrumental, in 1988, and the portions where Matthew is playing his composition are lovely, including some nice piano stylings by Lanz in counterpoint to Matthew's melody. Much less musically interesting, in my opinion, are the parts of the piece in which Lanz plays Gary's melody on the piano – Gary's naked melody – without his beautiful vocals, without Keith's words, without Matthew's music).
When Gary proposed the PH reunion around 1989, Matthew must've known that they were going to go on tour and play AWSoP night after night, year after year. I think he rejoined the band – despite the low pay, despite the continuing hurt over the credits – because he felt that if PH were going to play that song Live again, that He should be on the organ, playing his (uncredited) composition. He 'defined that role' as he said in Mojo Magazine – about playing organ with PH in general – but I have a feeling it was mainly about how his work helped to define AWSoP. That's the song on the 90s tours that he played most enthusiastically and most beautifully.
I think the above is also the reason Matthew agreed so readily to play at Redhill – the 30th Anniversary Celebration of AWSoP, as well as PH. No one should formally celebrate AWSoP without the participation of all three of its composers.
Surprising triple authorship-credit for A Whiter Shade of Pale on the BGO two-for-one reissue of 'The Black Album' and Shine on Brightly
I believe that Gary has not yet realized that Matthew's Melody is an integral part of AWSoP, the part in fact that makes it such an enchanting and immortal song. I think that he would realize this, and add Matthew's name to the composer credits, if the true nature of the song were called to his attention, enabling him to listen to it objectively.
Joan May 3 July 1997 (last revised 27 July 1998)