Procol Harum

the Pale

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BJ Wilson

Silvio Sirias

The Man Who Would Be Zeppelin—Barrie James (B J) Wilson: March 18, 1947 to October 8, 1990

(I’m posting this piece [originally online here] while on the campus of the University of California in Irvine, where later today my novel Meet Me Under the Ceiba will receive the 33rd Annual Chicano/Latino Literary Prize. The posting has nothing to do with my being here. Instead, I’d like to pay tribute to one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard: BJ Wilson. Normally, I don’t pay much attention to drummers, as most of them, I believe, are not much more than glorified timekeepers. But BJ Wilson is an exception. His playing is often unpredictable, yet it fits a song’s time-signature beautifully. Moreover, the way in which BJ leaves gaps, or fills them, helps make the work of Procol Harum adventurous to listen to, even today. His death, at the early age of forty-three, went largely unnoticed. But for those of us who loved his drumming, the loss is irreplaceable).

I like to be rude when I play the drums

B J Wilson

I'd never seen a drummer sit so low. The seat of his stool stood only a few inches above the ground. Because of this, he had to extend his arms upward to reach his arsenal of percussive instruments, making him look like a little boy at play. Yet, BJ Wilson, on the last performance in which I saw him and the rest of Procol Harum on stage, was entirely in command as he kept his bandmates and the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra moving forward at a steady pace during their 1973 Hollywood Bowl appearance.

The image engraved in my mind is of B J Wilson often smiling – he was obviously having a terrific time playing for the packed audience.

There are two widely circulated stories about BJ that I find fascinating. The first tale takes place during the recording of Joe Cocker’s classic rendition of With a Little Help from My Friends. Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi, who then formed part of Traffic, had been asked to play guitar and drums respectively on that track. And although they were supremely talented musicians, take after take they failed to get the waltz feel that Joe Cocker and producer Denny Cordell were searching for. Sources close to that recording session say that Capaldi never quite got the ¾ timing.

“I want a mood similar to that of Procol Harum in A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Cordell kept urging the musicians.

But after thirty-five unsuccessful takes, the producer threw his hands up in despair and called off the sessions for the remainder of the day.

As Cordell sat in the control booth, fearing that he would never be able to capture the arrangement he could hear so clearly in his head, someone – whose name sadly remains unrecorded in the annals of rock history – suggested, “If you want the track to sound like A Whiter Shade of Pale, you should ask BJ Wilson to play.”

(The irony is that another drummer played on the studio version of A Whiter Shade of Pale, which had been recorded prior to BJ joining Procol Harum.)

Cordell followed the sage counsel and contacted BJ who, fortunately, was free the next day. Then Cordell called Jimmy Page – who at the time was about to put together a group that would go on to become Led Zeppelin – to play guitar. The following day, after a handful of practice runs, Cordell turned on the tape machine and, after only a couple of takes, had the foundation of what would go on to become a classic recording – made possible, in large part, by BJ Wilson’s drumming.

When listening to Cocker’s version of the Beatles’ song, one needs to pay close attention to the gradual crescendo of the drums during the introduction; then to the great open space BJ makes available for Joe’s magnificent vocals to grasp the listener’s attention fully; and then revel in the orchestrated grand style that BJ’s drumming provides for the remainder of the track.

Not bad for a day’s work.

The second anecdote is a tribute to the high esteem in which one highly regarded musician held BJ’s talent. When Jimmy Page began to assemble Led Zeppelin, he had only one person in mind to sit behind the drums: BJ Wilson. Several times the now legendary guitarist invited BJ to join the new venture, perhaps promising that he could play as rudely as he wished, but well aware that Procol Harum’s drummer would give the music of Page’s nascent group the feeling of grandeur he was after.

But BJ, loyal until the end to the music of Procol Harum, turned down the opportunity of a lifetime. And Led Zeppelin, instead of becoming a progressive, largely cerebral group, became hard-driving thanks to the relentless beat of John Bonham’s drumming.

A question, then, that shall always remain without answer is: what would have Led Zeppelin sounded like if BJ Wilson had been sitting behind the drum kit? The smallest of hints can be found in Cocker’s With a Little Help from My Friends.

But BJ turned down certain fame and fortune to remain with a group he believed in. And BJ was certainly responsible for much of Procol Harum’s sound. His majestic, off-beat punctuations; his percussive flourishes; his rolling reversals of rhythm; and his frequent use of the cowbell – a trademark of BJ's that drummers seldom, if ever, use today – still sound wonderful nearly forty years after they were recorded.

Barrie James Wilson was the combination of power and passion – with an element of surprise around every corner. His drumming has been called “literary.” I like this term, for BJ’s work often provides a song with the ebb and flow of a well-constructed narrative. What’s more, in the stories BJ recorded with Procol Harum from 1967 through 1977, his drumming is responsible, in large part, for making the band’s music timeless, as well as magical.

Silvio Sirias is a U.S. Latino writer living in Latin America: check out his novels Bernardo and the Virgin, the award-winning Meet Me under the Ceiba and the essay collection Love Made Visible: Reflections on Writing, Teaching, and Other Distractions

BJ's page at BtP

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