Gary Brooker: Rock Piano Mainstay with Procol Harum
Steve Rosen, Contemporary Keyboard, July 1978
Gary Brooker was 21 years old in 1967 when he and a group of musician friends released a record titled A Whiter Shade of Pale. It wasnít until after the song began to climb into the hit charts that Brooker and his compatriots finally decided to form a permanent group, adopting the name Procol Harum. Before long, Whiter Shade would sell well over two million copies, and the stately sound of Procol Harum, blending rich Hammond organ lines, strong electric guitar licks, and Brookerís sonorous grand piano fills and vocals, would become familiar to connoisseurs of sophisticated rock throughout the world.
In the eleven years that have passed since then, Procol Harum has developed this style despite numerous personnel changes, which began almost immediately after the group was formed. Only Brooker and Keith Reid, the groupís non-performing lyricist, have remained with the band from the beginning, "working endless variations on a self-contained sound that is timeless," as writer Ken Emerson noted in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock And Roll.
Brooker and Co. have put out ten albums to date, starting with A Whiter Shade Of Pale [A&M, 4373]. On their most recent album, Something Magic [Chrysalis (dist. by Warner Brothers), 1130], a new member of the Harum, Pete Solley, introduces the synthesizer to the bandís instrumentation, but it is still Brookerís acoustic piano and voice which dominate.
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Did you come from a musical family?Yeah. We had a piano at home, and my father was a musician. He was with Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders, who were very popular in England around í49 and in the early Ď50s. Before that he was in a vocal group, the Debonairs, which had the close two-men-and-two-women singing style. My whole childhood was always involved in music in some way; I was always going off with Daddy to one of his gigs. I got sent off to take piano lessons when I was about five. I didnít get on with the practising part; Iíd rather play tunes that I wanted to play instead of Schumannís Humoresque or something like that. I could play the piano all right, but I didnít like the reading bit, and Iíve never much changed from that. I play by ear.
How long did you stick with those lessons?Well, after we moved and my father died, I stopped playing for a good couple of years. In fact, during that period, when I was about 11, Iíd been playing guitar and banjo instead. Then a friend of my fatherís gave me two years of piano lessons as sort of a present, because he didnít like to see me not working on the piano, so off I went again to try and learn. This teacher was much better, though; he taught you to play tunes you wanted to learn. I liked Deep Purple, so heíd write it down and Iíd learn it. You learn more about the song and its chord structure that way, so instead of just learning notes from a piece of paper, I was finding out more about how a song was constructed.
When did you start playing in bands?Just about then, when I started learning chords Ė as soon as I got enough of them. I was just using a regular piano without amplification; I just used to play it as loud as I could.
What kind of songs were you playing?The current hits of the time. I seem to remember doing things like Stagger Lee. We were doing mostly instrumentals, with one or two singing numbers, but it wasnít me singing. I didnít start singing until a couple of years later with the Paramounts, who were mainly just school friends; we got together when I was about 13 or 14. We had a singer named Bud Scott who was a Rick Nelson-type vocalist, so we put together a big Rick Nelson repertoire with lots of other rock numbers by people like [singer] Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis. One night Bud quit by just not showing up for a gig, so we all had to take over the singing; we all sang different numbers, depending on which ones we knew the words to. It seems I turned out the best, and gradually I got to do more and more of the singing.
Was it hard at first for you to coordinate your vocals with your keyboard playing?Well, of course I wasnít thinking about the playing by then. By that time Iíd been playing in that style of piano for a couple of years, and I knew the numbers we were doing, so it wasnít like doing two things at once. It was just a matter of doing something else as well.
What kind of equipment were you using with the Paramounts?At that time we had a Selmer Select-A-Tone amp, which I used to run both the voice and the piano through. I used a contact pickup. It was difficult to find a reasonable enough piano, though, so I moved over to electric piano when the Paramounts turned professional and started making records Ė we released a handful of singles, doing cover versions of Poison Ivy, Further On Up The Road, [bassist] Charlie Mingusís Freedom, and some others. Most of the people I was listening to then were Americans, because we were sort of purists and we scorned any attempt by English record makers to do an American-sounding record, which they never seemed to be able to do.
What kind of electric piano was it?It was a Hohner Pianet, which was the best you could then get, over there. The dream would have been to have a Wurlitzer or something like that.
Did you enjoy moving over to electric piano?I never enjoyed the electric that much. It eventually changed the style of numbers we played; we couldnít really do a Jerry Lee Lewis or a Coasters number with electric piano, for instance, so we started getting R&B numbers in Ė any new ones we played were more R&B-ish than rock-and-rolly.
How did it change your keyboard style?Well, the worst thing I found at first was that you didnít have a pedal to sustain the notes. That immediately changes your style; if you want to hang on to a note, youíve got to hold your fingers there, and thatís a bit limiting. I used to get into using it as a rhythm instrument to create a good chunking backing. I was never keen on it as a solo instrument; I used to play quite a few solos on it, but I never liked it that much.
How long were the Paramounts together?Quite a long time. We finished in 1966, so I would say weíd been going about six or seven years. When the Paramounts broke up I became unemployed, so I started selling off my equipment bit by bit, and I started writing most of the material that showed up on the first Procol album [A Whiter Shade Of Pale]. I had written a little before then; I met [lyricist] Keith Reid while the Paramounts were still going, but I kind of kept our compositions a secret. I wouldnít play them for any other band; theyíd have thought they were silly.
How long was the hiatus between the dissolution of the Paramounts and the birth of Procol Harum?The Paramounts did their final tour in September, and I think we had the idea of forming the new group just before Christmas. I went to Switzerland for Christmas, and when I came back I immediately got in touch with the people who had envisaged Procol Harum. The most important thing was to get people in the lineup who would be able to play the kind of songs Keith and I had written. We wanted an organist to give it that extra scope and power, a blues guitarist, and then bass and drums. [Ed. Note: All four members of the ParamountsóBrooker, guitarist Robin Trower, bass guitarist Chris Copping, and drummer B.J. Wilsonówould eventually play in Procol Harum, and during one two-year period, from 1969 to 1971, these musicians played together, essentially reuniting the Paramounts under the name Procol Harum.]
Had you heard anyone else using piano and organ together?Not really. One or two of the Booker T and the MGs records would have both instruments on them, and there was always the old gospel lineup with piano and organ, but whenever you saw any of those R&B acts live, there was almost always only one keyboard there; very rarely did you see both instruments onstage. Of course we realised straightaway that the reason for this was that nobody had a Hammond organ, and on top of that you had to have a van to take it around, so we realised why a lot of people never started on it.
Did your first album capture the sound you were striving for?Yeah, pretty much so. I loved it when it came out, but it was done quickly, so now I hear that some of the sound on it was a bit erratic. Some tracks had a really good sound, and one or two didnít.
Did you think you were going to have to change your playing style to accommodate the other keyboard?I didnít think about it, really. I thought there would be plenty of space for each person to play his part, which in fact there was. One of the ideas of the band was that there would be three lead instruments, and whenever anybody was taking a solo, there would be a really substantial backing to it. If the organ was playing a solo, there would still be a full group behind it, and the same goes for the other instruments.
What kind of things did you play to back up a solo?Iíve always taken the approach of keeping my piano part nice and solid, and as the solo gets more heated I try to pick up what is being played and play just a few more bits to lift it up. When somebody is soloing you fill in some holes, providing nobody else is filling them in.
Has the piano been the only instrument youíve played with Procol Harum?Yeah, except for electric piano on one or two tracks. I played other instruments on Song For A Dreamer and Memorial Drive [from Broken Barricades, (A&M, CS-4294)]. I played string bass on Barnyard Story [from Home, (A&M, CS-4261)], with chalk marks on the neck to show where the frets would be. And I strummed the acoustic guitar quite a bit on A Salty Dog [A&M, CS-4179], on Home, and thereís guitar on Beyond The Pale [from Exotic Birds And Fruit, (Chrysalis, L5C 1058)]. And there are some balalaika bits. Iíve played rhythm guitar onstage on occasion.
Would you like to play any of these instruments more regularly with the band?No. I just mess around with some of them at home; I just bought an alto saxophone which Iím working on, for example. Thereís still so much to learn about the piano.
Have you played much organ?I played it onstage once; the organist and I used to swap over for a couple of numbers. Keith Reid played it as well for a few months, on Piggy Pig Pig and Wish Me Well. He also played it on record with us, in About To Die [from Home].
Do you plan to try your hand at playing synthesizer?No. That would be difficult because Iím very much restricted by the fact that Iím always singing, so I couldnít surround myself with keyboards. Our organist has taken care of that side of things, anyway.
Are there any keyboards other than the piano that you now use?Well, onstage I play piano and an 88-key stage model Rhodes, which I run through a Mu-Tron Bi-Phase and amplify through the same cabinets as the piano. I use it on Strangers in Space and in a few passages of The Worm and the Tree when we do that.
Do you carry your own piano on the road?No. When we play concerts, our contracts call for a nine-foot Steinway because itís always a good piano and is the most readily available. Recently we did an eight-week tour of Europe and Britain in which I used a different nine-foot Steinway every night, but the quality was so consistently good that it seemed as if it was the same piano at each concert. In certain countries we can get even better instruments, though, like the Bosendorfer that goes down to a bottom C. Iíve also recently decided that the Yamaha is the best of the small pianos. I played a six-foot Yamaha not long ago that sounded as good as a nine-foot Steinway.
Which pianos do you use in the studio?It has varied from album to album. On the new one [Something Magic] we used a very big Baldwin, and on the previous record [Procolís Ninth (Chrysalis, 1080)] we had a Bosendorfer. Before that they were usually Steinways. When weíre about to record, I go down to the studios well before we book them, to see what theyíve got. If it isnít a good piano, we get a different one in, but in fact it always has been good.
How do you amplify the piano in concerts?I use a Countryman pickup, which goes into a Mu-Tron Bi-Phase and then into the Countryman mixer, which has a graphic equalizer on it as well. And I feed that into two big Ampeg amplifiers, one of which goes through a speaker next to me and another speaker next to Mick [Grabham, guitarist]. The bottom Ampeg feeds another speaker over by BJ [Wilson, drummer]. You have to balance each of the five sections of the Countryman, and with the equalizer you have to work on the way the pickup is set every day. It can be off a fraction of an inch, and that does make slight differences, so you have to take out some frequencies or add some.
How do you record the piano in the studio?I just use microphones, which are usually set up according to the characteristics of the piano, the acoustics of the room, and who the engineer is. For regular piano work the signal is run directly into the board, but once or twice Iíve used a pickup and amplifier to get that amplified sound. Once I put the piano through a Uni-Vibe tremolo/vibrato unit, and they recorded that from the amp. We phased the piano on For Liquorice John [from Grand Hotel (Chrysalis, 1037)], and on Souvenir of London [sic] [from Grand Hotel] we put the guitar very slightly out of tune with the piano, then had them play exactly the same thing to cause a tremolo effect. Weíve often used speeded-up tapes of the piano, like in the middle of Simple Sister [from Broken Barricades], and we also used recordings of the piano played backwards on a lot of tracks, so that a crescendo can be accented by the long sustained chord played in reverse; we did that definitely on Wreck of the Hesperus [from A Salty Dog] and The Mark of the Claw [from Something Magic], and maybe on In Held 'Twas in I [from Shine On Brightly (A&M, 4151)]. Sometimes Iíve just used the echo of the piano, but thatís quite a standard recording technique.
Has your playing changed to complement the styles of the various guitarists youíve worked with in Procol Harum, like Robin Trower, Dave Ball, and the bandís current guitar player, Mick Grabham?Of course. Your playing always changes with new people, although you donít alter the basics of your style. I quite often find myself mixing in with what Mick is doing because, besides being able to play solo, he does very good rhythm backing, whereas when Trower was in the group I used to have to fill out a lot more when he wasnít soloing, since he didnít play as much backing.
What restrictions on playing style should a rock musician expect when playing with a full orchestra, as you did when you recorded Procol Harum Live In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra [A&M, 4335]?
The first thing you have to do is to turn right down to practically no volume. Secondly, you have to accept that thereís no improvisation of any sort throughout the length of the thing. And youíve got to keep very strict tempo. These are the primary things.
How did you prepare to communicate your musical intentions to the orchestra?The only way you can communicate with an orchestra is to have your ideas down in dots. Itís much easier for me to write out notes than to read them. I know where a C or a G is on the staff; thatís not difficult. It was the timing bits and the voicings for the different instruments that took a little bit of study, a few books, and a little help from friends who knew more about that side of music.
Do you consistently use certain voicings on your chords?No, I put the notes all over the place. Iíve always been quite a lover of playing the wrong note in the bass to alter the sound of the chord. Iíve never been much of an enthusiast for playing on the top end of the piano keyboard, though; itís all right when you get up there in a rock solo, but Iíve never particularly liked the sound of it in backing, maybe because I might not even be able to play so well up there myself.
How is a typical Gary Brooker solo structured?Iíd probably start off by stabbing around the chords in more of a rhythmic approach, and then Iíd do some little runs, followed by a similar thing higher up. Then Iíd have a few tinkles a bit further up the keyboard, and come down with a final smash to go back into the verse.
Do you ever go back and assess your own performances on records?I usually have a listen to an album two or three years after we make it, because I find I can listen to it without the feeling you have just after finishing it. I think I played better than usual, or at least differently, on Broken Barricades.
What kind of music do you listen to today? Do you enjoy classical music?I listen to some, not a great deal; Bach once in a while, but nothing out of the ordinary.
How about people like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, or the young fusion keyboardists like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock?No, none of those people. I listen to a bit of Stevie Wonder, and for good piano playing Iíll probably get into anything from down around New Orleans, like on Ray Charles records. Iíve never played jazz piano and I have no desire to, but I do like some of the things that jazz players have done. I always liked Charlie Mingus on the piano, as opposed to the bass; Procol used to do a couple of his songs onstage, but we havenít played them for a long time.
After all your years of recording and touring, do you still practise the piano at all to smooth out your own performance?[Long pause.] No. Iím sure I make mistakes when I play live, but if they were somebody elseís songs I might make even more of them. The thing is that I know these tunes very well, and theyíre natural for me to play, so it is in fact very hard for me to make a mistake with them anymore.
Thanks, Pam, for the typing: Pam notes that this interview was published a good year after the Old Testament Procol Harum had gone their separate ways!