Gary Brooker, writer and singer of the classic Procol Harum track A Whiter Shade of Pale releases a solo album on March 1st, titled Lead Me To The Water.
Brooker who was for years the voice, the grand piano and the tunes of Procol Harum has bided his time since Procol's split – running his own pub in the country where neighbours such as Phil Collins and George Harrison often hang out – and touring the world as a permanent member of Eric Clapton's band; but it remains a measure of his standing as a musician that all these mates joined together with producers Glyn Johns and Tom Dowd to help Gary produce this, his second solo album.
For the first time in his career Gary has been responsible for both the words and music, as well, of course, as all the vocals, and Gary's voice must surely be one of the-most distinctive in British rock; it finds welcome sanctuary in the broad range of tracks on this album. Listening to this album, you're virtually listening to a history of British rock, there are elements of Gary's early R&B, and the Paramounts, Procol and of course his fellow-musicians. There are gritty rockers like Mineral Man and the pastoral The Angler, the reflective Symphathy for the Hard of Hearing and the poignant The Cycle.
Musicians featured include: Phil Collins, Henry Spinetti, Steve Holly, Eric Clapton, Albert Lee, George Harrison, Tim Renwick, Dave Markee, Chris Stainton and Mel Collins.
If one record could be said to epitomise the swirling psychedelia of 1967, it has to be Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale. The voice and music came courtesy of Gary Brooker, which brings us neatly to 1982.
Lead Me To The Water is only Gary Brooker's second solo album since Procol's demise in 1977. But during the intervening years, he's appeared in his own right at music festivals in Poland and Germany (the latter on the widely networked Rockpalast TV show). For the past three years, he's been a full member of Eric Clapton's band, touring the world with the legendary guitarist.
Gary Brooker's musical career began with an R&B group, the Paramounts, who reached number 35 in January 1963 with a cover of the Coasters' Poison Ivy. The Paramounts played the British beat circuit for a couple of years, even supporting the Beatles during their final British tour in 1965.
It was a chance meeting in 1966 with lyricist Keith Reid that led to the formation of Procol Harum. It was fortunate. that he met with Gary Brooker, as the latter was torn between joining IBM or Dusty Springfield's backing group, the Echoes. Shortly afterwards, Keith came up with the words for A Whiter Shade of Pale, and Gary, inspired by Bach, wrote the music. The rest, as they frequently say (and in Procol's case it's true) is history.
Whiter Shade was a worldwide number one for many months and Procol consolidated their position with an excellent follow-up, Homburg. During their rich, ten-year career, Procol did achieve chart successes after 1967, with singles like Conquistador and Pandora's Box. When you talk about Procol Harum, you're basically talking about Keith Reid's lyrics and singer / pianist / composer Gary Brooker. It was Gary Brooker the cameras honed in on, sitting at his grand piano, singing beneath his mandarin moustache, words which somehow crystallise the capering craziness of the late Sixties.
It was the late Guy Stephens who gave the band their name (a garbled telephone message resulted in the mix- spelling, and Procol Harum in fact turned out to be Latin for 'beyond these things', which perfectly suited the band's slightly mysterious image).
Procol Harum were always dogged by the global success of Whiter Shade, the band achieved a consistency of excellence which was, sadly, never fully reflected in their sales. Their third album, A Salty Dog in 1969, ranks as a classic evocation of rock moving towards classical forms, a move which Procol themselves consolidated with their 1971 live album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Gary Brooker's arrangements of Procol songs were the best example of a classical and rock fusion (ironic when you consider those epic arrangements sprang from a book Gary's father had left him – Arranging Music for a Hot Dance Orchestra')
Procol's ten-album, ten-year career was marked by their refusal to be categorised. There was the maritime mysticism of A Salty Dog, and the decaying gentility of Grand Hotel. Their first, eponymous album, which exercised such a strong influence on The Band at their Woodstock retreat, and the Jerry Leiber / Mike Stoller produced Procol's Ninth. The group also embraced the guitar pyrotechnics of Robin Trower, who left Procol after their Broken Barricades album in 1971. But the one constant during Procol's career was the lyrics of Keith Reid, and the voice, grand piano and melodies of Gary Brooker.
May 1977 saw the end of Procol Harum. Gary and Keith felt the band had achieved all it could, and like old soldiers, Procol didn't die, they simply faded away with the release of their tenth album, Something Magic.
Gary Brooker waited a couple of years before releasing his first solo album, No More Fear of Flying, which was produced by Beatle Svengali, George Martin. That album produced a classic single, Murray Head's Say It Ain't So, Joe which NME's Julie Burchill picked as her single of the week.
The album saw a number of fascinating Gary Brooker collaborations; with his old Procol colleague, Keith Reid; with King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield (last heard of missing in action somewhere over Bucks Fizz ') and right back to Gary's R & B days with his old friend Mickey Jupp's songs, Pilot and Switchboard Susan. The album came out on Chrysalis, the label Gary and Procol had helped to found. A basic band of guitarist Tim Renwick (Quiver, Al Stewart), Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention, Joan Armatrading) on drums and New Zealander, Bruce Lynch on bass.
The ensuing two years saw Gary integrated as a full time member of Eric Clapton's band, as well as solo appearances at music festivals in Poland and Germany (the latter including a spot on the prestigious, widely networked Rockpalast TV show).
Now comes Lead Me To The Water, Gary's debut album for Phonogram. Simply by looking at the sleeve gives an indication of Gary's standing in the music business. There's a sense of debts being repaid, musicians acknowledging Gary's influence and contributions. George Harrison plays guitar (repaying a favour as Gary played on his first post-Beatle album, All Things Must Pass); Phil Collins temporarily deserts the Genesis drum stool, and England's finest guitarists (after Bert Weedon) Eric Clapton and Albert Lee pitch in. Although produced by Gary, the album boasts contributions on the technical side from the legendary Tom Dowd and Glyn Johns.
For the first time, Gary has written both the words and the music, as well, of course, as supplying the distinctive vocals. The album boasts gritty rockers like Mineral Man and the pastoral The Angler, the epic, reflective Sympathy [sic] for the Hard of Hearing and the poignant The Cycle.
For many, Gary's name will be irrevocably linked with that of Procol Harum, but Lead Me To The Water displays Gary's ability to move with the times. He's already proved he's got a past to be proud of. This album assures him of a: future to look forward to. By any standards, Gary Brooker has proved his ability to go 'beyond these things'.
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(Thanks to Dave Lee)