Alex Parren • online at This is Southend
Back in the 1960s, Southend was the beating heart of music and dance culture. We had the honour of speaking with global music icon and Southend local Gary Brooker of Procol Harum as he reminisces about legendary acts at Southend music venues, touring with the Rolling Stones and The Beatles, and even meeting Laurel & Hardy at the Palace Hotel.
What are your memories of growing up in Southend?
I moved to Eastwood when I was ten years old. I knew Southend very well as a nipper as my father was the leader of the ‘orchestra’ at the Palace Hotel overlooking the Pier. I spent the holidays in the hotel up until about 1955 when we moved there. It was always a very exciting place with many visitors and the Carnival every summer plus the illuminations. I even met Laurel & Hardy when they stayed at the Palace on a break from a tour!
What were your favourite music and entertainment venues in the area?
In the early days my experiences revolved around the dances at the hotel, but my father died suddenly when I was eleven, and after that the Palace Hotel went into decline and eventually closed as a hotel.
When I was old enough, I would visit all of the venues around town like The Middleton, the London, the Kursaal. I started playing piano with Johnny Short and Brian Gill and we called ourselves The Coasters, an instrumental outfit playing at yacht clubs and other little places around town.
My first solo appearance was at the Saturday Club at Southend Odeon playing guitar and singing a Lonnie Donnegan number. Scary, but I battled through. There were many good visiting bands on these Saturday mornings, and of course The Odeon played host to many big artists of the day on major tours – I never missed one! I even saw Freddie Cannon at the Essoldo up the High Street.
At some point around 1959/1960, the ballroom at the Palace was taken over by a local entrepreneur, Peter Tomlin, renamed The Palace Dance Studio, and became the place to be for all teenagers from miles around – live bands/dancing/hit records and birds. A great venue. The Cricketers and The Studio were among my favourites, and when we opened it ourselves, The Shades Cellar Club. Southend was always full of music from the juke-boxes in the coffee bars to Ella Fitzgerald at the Odeon.
You started your musical career as The Paramounts; what inspired you to form a band and release a single?
Pete Tomlin got the Paramounts together (and named them) after a battle of the bands at the Palace. I came from the Coasters, Robin Trower and Chris Copping from The Raiders, Mick Brownlee from Mickey Law & the Outlaws, and Bob Scott, singer from the Klansmen – a ‘super-group’ of locals raring to go! Pete sent a demo of us playing Poison Ivy and Further on up the Road to EMI, and they signed us to Parlophone at the end of 1963.
You made guest appearances at Rolling Stones shows in the 1960s: what are some of your favourite memories from that era?
By 1964 the Paramounts had a higher profile in Britain after Poison Ivy squeaked into the charts and we’d had many TV appearances. We played at a venue in Deal with the Rolling Stones the day that Come On – their first single – came out. They liked the band and put a lot of work our way, including supporting them on some of their UK tours.
They were the most exciting band I’d seen and to watch them night after night driving audiences crazy was unforgettable. At some time after that we signed with Brian Epstein and got a lot of bookings, including supporting The Beatles on their late 1965 UK tour. Lots of the friendships made in those days last until today.
How did life change when A Whiter Shade of Pale became a worldwide hit?
If you can imagine, one month you’re trying to be a song writer (from late 1966 I had teamed up with Keith Reid, a lyric writer), then when nobody seemed to want the songs we had written, it was decided that I would come out of retirement and sing and play them myself and put a band together with a certain line-up ie me piano/vocals, drums, bass, lead guitar, and Hammond organ – I thought that the three lead instruments would have a lot of potential to provide walls of sound and variable solo ideas.
Whilst still searching for the ideal drummer, we went into the studios at Olympic with an independent company with Denny Cordell producing (he had many hits on his CV including Yeah Yeah (Georgie Fame) and Go Now (The Moody Blues)) and recorded A Whiter Shade of Pale in April 1967. It was released on 11 May, the next week it went straight to No 11 in UK charts and was No 1 the week after – at the same time making No 1 in France and over the next few weeks in most countries around the world that produced vinyl singles.
Suddenly there was money, and you only had to ask and you got it! This was very handy for buying clothes, equipment, and somewhere to live in London (I was still in Eastwood when A Whiter Shade of Pale was No 1). Over the months following, we played gigs in the UK and a few in Europe and started to record the rest of our songs that Keith and I had written. This was eagerly awaited by the public and made a big impression on the youth in America which all gave us a wonderful start – the single had opened up so many doors, which it still does to this day. It gave us a golden chance to prove that we had a lot more to offer than one unforgettable recording.
What has been your proudest moment/achievement?
Across the span of my career, the proudest moments have been the performance with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Canada – my first attempt to write all of the parts for a huge orchestra and choir – and the commercial success of the recording, which was probably the first to join together contemporary rock and symphonic players.
Later, when I stepped on to the stage at the Albert Hall for ‘Concert for George’, I was proud to have known him since 1965 and to still be on that journey with him.
Have you been back to Southend since gaining worldwide fame? Do you ever miss the town?
I have always gone back to Southend at every opportunity, still having family there, and many old mates and musical connections. I’m sorry to say that it’s not as vibrant as it was in the early ’60s, and the days when thousands would flock there for their entertainment every weekend are gone forever – it’s now history, like the lads that joined the Merchant Navy and returned with their tales, the raving pub gigs and Rock Across the Channel, Mods & Rockers and the exotic au pairs who never left.
A lot of successful musicians and creative people have gone on to find fame after growing up in Southend’ would you say there’s something special about the town that would have contributed to this?
The people of Southend, stuck on that cul de sac of the Thames delta, always knew that there was a big world out there and welcomed it with open arms – it is truly a Special Place.