Procol Harum

the Pale

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The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale

Reviewed by John Bobin, November 2012

Way back in the early sixties (when I as a mere whippersnapper) I was a frequent visitor to The Shades, a coffee bar on the Southend sea front. It was here that I first saw The Paramounts, Gary Brooker’s early rock and roll and R’n’B ensemble. 

I was a young and inexperienced bass guitarist and had been playing in a Shadows covers band which had only recently added other songs by The Beatles and other Merseybeat groups to its repertoire. The Paramounts’ exciting sets entranced and bewildered me. Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and The Coasters were all new and something magic!

The Paramounts’ line up I first saw was the Brooker / Trower / Wilson / Derrick one, so I missed the earlier versions of the band; but since then I have seen Gary with many different versions of Procol Harum (with and without orchestras and choirs), with No Stiletto Shoes, Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings and with an (almost) unplugged band in a church.

Henry Scott-Irvine’s magnificent book covers all of these ventures as well as Gary’s interesting side excursions with other well-known musicians such as Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. Gary recorded with other acts, for example he did a beautiful song called Limelight with The Alan Parsons Project and has also recorded with The Hollies and George Harrison. His gigs with No Stiletto Shoes and Band Du Lac have featured a huge array of well known rock luminaries.  

The background to Procol Harum's ground-breaking concerts and recordings with classical orchestras and choirs is also described in meticulous detail in this well-researched offering.

At various points in the life of Procol Harum huge band debts were amassed due to having to pay off old managers and ex-members and their touring at one time became a weary treadmill upon which the then current members had to strain to keep the band afloat.

However they did “run afloat” and the sheer breadth of talent and persistence of their leader, Gary Brooker, has been the absolute mainstay of a long and very varied career. Despite a lay-off (during which Gary recorded some fine solo albums) there has always been a devoted army of Procoholics who wanted to know what was happening, where the band and individual members were heading and where they could see The Commander (Gary) and / or his musical cohorts.

Scott-Irvine wrote interesting fanzines, for the education and delectation of these Procoholics, called: Shine On. The Fanzines were written firstly in 1979 in the wake of Gary Brooker’s brilliant first solo album No More Fear Of Flying and they were revived in 1992 when The Prodigal Stranger, Procol Harum’s so-called comeback album, was released in the UK.

Nowadays there is of course a massive store of information and pictures readily available on this website run by two tireless webmasters, Roland Clare and Jens Anders Ravnaas.    

The author of this book must be congratulated on delivering the best musical biography which I have ever read. He doesn't shy away from covering the bitter court case concerning the composing rights to A Whiter Shade of Pale.

He also writes about the very sad way in which drinking affected the talents and lifestyle of BJ Wilson, Procol Harum’s powerful and dynamic drummer who was also in the line-up of The Paramounts mentioned above. Barrie (BJ) was in a coma due to a drugs overdose for a very long period. Gary immediately went to Barrie’s bedside in 1987 when he heard the bad news and during the course of future visits played electric piano to his long-standing friend and talked to him desperately in an effort to wake him from the coma. Sadly, BJ Wilson passed away in 1990 due to contracting pneumonia after spending three years in an almost vegetative state.

At Procol Harum gigs Gary usually dedicates A Salty Dog (generally reckoned to be their finest song) to Barrie. When performing this mark of respect and fondness for his departed friend Gary Brooker does not always mention Barrie by name. However for those of us who remember him, always smiling and driving the band with his inimitable style, we know to whom Gary refers and this makes every rendition of the song almost heartbreakingly poignant. 

Robin Trower’s après Procol Harum career is also described and there is praise for his hugely successful career (particularly in the USA) where he filled large arenas and had massive legions of fans who adored his emotive and bluesy music.

For anyone that thinks that A Whiter Shade of Pale was the be-all and end-all of Procol Harum, think again. There are too many musical gems to name them all. They include the aforementioned A Salty Dog, As Strong as Samson, Pandora's Box and The Blink of an Eye. The music is impossible to categorise with elements of blues, rock and classical influences, all underpinned by the baffling but beautiful lyrics supplied by Keith Reid.

With interesting insights from Martin Scorsese, Sir Alan Parker, Jimmy Page and Sebastian Faulks this tome is a must for your bookshelf. There is an extensive discography and the book is very well indexed, with the help of Will Birch (ex-Kursaal Flyers, himself an excellent songwriter and author.) There are also many great (and rare) photos.

Finally, although I thought I knew a lot about Procol Harum and Gary Brooker, Henry Scott-Irvine wins hands down. For example, did you know that The Rolling Stones asked Gary Brooker to join their touring band in 1978 as the resident pianist?

Rush out and buy this book right now. You will not regret it.

Thanks, John!

Index page for this biography

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