It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to 'Beyond the Pale' regulars, but in May 1967, a band called Procol Harum appeared – seemingly out of nowhere – with a near-instant number one single A Whiter Shade of Pale. Within a month of release it had sold an estimated 2.5 million copies worldwide. And everybody who heard it wanted to know how that soulful, solemn, even hymnal tune came about. (Stax? Meet Bach.) And wanted to decipher that obscure, bookish, yet playful lyric. (Eng Lit O Level? Meet Bob Dylan. And have a toke on that.)
Most of all, though, they wanted to know how the band came by that name. After a cat, was the answer. But what cat? A cat that no longer sat on the mat, it seemed, but had simply vanished. And thereby hangs a tale. A tortuous and perplexing tale. Welcome to a forty year-old menagerie of fake cats, red herrings, wild goose chases, and much barking up the wrong tree. Little wonder that the true identity of the cat and its owner was recently described as ‘one of the great unsolved mysteries of rock'n'roll’.
||Guy Stevens (rear) with Hapshash and the Coloured Coat in 1967|
Guy Stevens was a former Mod DJ whose keen ear for a great tune meant that just about every early-to-mid Sixties British R&B band from the Rolling Stones to the Who went to him for repertoire suggestions. Later, he worked as an A&R man for Island records, and also as a producer and manager. He lacked staying power when it came to seeing projects through, but his often chemically-enhanced enthusiasm was highly contagious, giving him the well-deserved reputation as one of the key instigators and motivators of the decade. His other undisputable knack was for names and titles. Between 1967 and 1971, Stevens would be responsible for Mott the Hoople, the Heavy Metal Kids, Spooky Tooth, Tons of Sobs, Sticky Fingers, A Whiter Shade of Pale … and Procol Harum.
In autumn 1966, he put the young lyricist Keith Reid and pianist Gary Brooker together as a songwriting team, and, at the beginning of the following year, helped build a band around Brooker to perform their songs. Legend has it that they were considering calling themselves the Pinewoods – a name apparently inspired by guitarist Ray Royer's place of birth, though unfortunately slightly more redolent of coffins or planks – until the excitable Stevens rang up during rehearsals one day and insisted he’d found the perfect new name. ‘Guy explained it came from a friend’s cat whose pedigree name was Procol Harum,’ Gary Brooker told music writer Chris Welch for the sleevenotes to the 1997 reissue of the band’s debut album Procol Harum. ‘It was kind of an ambiguous name and we were writing ambiguous music.’
In spring 1967, the band split with Guy Stevens and signed to Deram, a subsidiary of Decca. Following a warmly received sneak preview on Radio London, A Whiter Shade Of Pale was rush-released. ‘As soon as the single was in the charts, everyone wanted to know where our name came from, and I told everybody about the cat,’ said Brooker. ‘But they wanted to know more than that …’ In response to the bombardment of queries throughout the second half of May, the band’s appropriately-named management team, New Breed, produced what they claimed to be the cat’s pedigree certificate. It revealed that the cat was a male Burmese Blue, and that the band had, in fact, misheard and misspelled its name: Procul Harun. If anything, the error detail made the story of the naming of the band all the more plausible.
Nevertheless, it appeared the media, and even the band themselves, weren’t entirely convinced. There was some debate that Procol Harum (or Procul Harun) was actually dog Latin for ‘beyond these things’ or ‘far from these things’: slightly pretentious, maybe, but in keeping with the spiritual aspirations (or affectations) of the times. This information might have been more fuel for the publicity machine, but it did nothing to clarify matters: did it mean the story about the cat was a put-on or wind-up? The band persevered with the cat yarn, but didn’t always seem to be bothered about getting it straight. Keith Reid would sometimes describe the breed as Siamese, and (years later, admittedly) Gary Brooker would say it was a Burmese Brown.
The original late May 1967 press-release
Tony and Pandora
In late May 1967, New Breed responded to demand by issuing a photograph of the suddenly famous pet … and that really put the cat among the pigeons. The gossip page of the NME, 3 June 1967, stated that ‘Deram’s Tony Hall has a cat with Procol Harum pedigree.’ Hall was Decca’s Head of Promotions, and in charge of the band’s label, Deram. Had the NME got the wrong end of the stick? Whatever happened to Guy Stevens and his friend? Also, the proffered illustration might have satisfied the casual record buyer, but anyone who knew anything about pedigree breeds could see that the cat in the photo wasn’t Burmese Blue, Brown or Siamese.
||Deram’s Tony Hall in 1967|
Tony Hall’s then-wife Mafalda was in charge of New Breed’s press and promotions. A speculative e-mail finds the now-remarried Mafalda Platz at home in France, and happy to confess to a fairly typical bit of mid-to-late Sixties hype. ‘They couldn’t get a photo of the original cat, so I proposed mine and Tony’s. We did a photo session at our flat, and I still have copies of the photos taken for the band. Our cat was Abyssinian, and her name was Pandora.’ The item in the NME’s gossip page was a wink at this deception from someone in the know.
Another photograph of
Procol Harum’s relationship with New Breed came to a sudden and litigious end after a few short weeks in summer 1967. The pedigree certificate seemed to go missing, and the split with Mafalda meant the band could no longer run with the Pandora the Impostor scam. Gary Brooker somewhat obliquely admitted the deception in the press release accompanying the band’s 1969 album A Salty Dog, describing the band’s feline namesake thus: ‘it has magical properties, is uncanny, and no one has ever been able to take its picture.’
Procol Harum wrote a song called Pandora’s Box around the time of the fake photo-call. First recorded on 23 July 1967, it was not released until 1975 (and then in a re-recorded version). Two intriguing questions come to mind. Was the inspiration for the song anything to do with the feline Pandora? And was the delay in its release at least partially due to the can of worms opened up by the scam she was unwittingly party to? When the song did finally become a single, one meaning of the Pandora’s name – ‘she who sends up gifts’ – came true: it became the band’s last British hit single.
The rolling programme of disinformation, contradiction and magical mysteriousness caused Procol Harum’s fans no end of bemusement. Could they actually believe anything they had been told about the band’s name? Speculation has run rife ever since, as even a brief tour of the 'Beyond the Pale' site attests.
In September 1995, Rob Chapman wrote a piece about Procol Harum for Mojo. It was accompanied by the 1967 photo of Mafalda and Tony Hall’s Pandora with the caption ‘Guy Stevens’s cat, the original Procol Harum’, which kicked that particular can right back open again. This version of the picture is reproduced on the 'Beyond the Pale' site along with the intriguing caption, ‘Legend tells that the cat was a Burmese Blue, and that he lived until 1972.’ When I e-mail Rob Chapman to enquire what he knows about this, he replies, ‘I always thought it was common knowledge that the cat belonged to legendary producer and drug fiend Guy Stevens. I know nothing of that caption. Mojo probably got that information off some fan club guy.’ Own up, fan club guy …
Four years later regular 'Beyond the Pale' theorist Sam Cameron correctly deduced that the picture reproduced in Mojo was a hoax, and less correctly asserted that the impostor in the photo was ‘a domestic shorthaired tabby’. By this time, pedigree databases could be searched online, and he and other fans of the band could go surfing for records of the feline Procol Harum. Sam found dozens of cats that incorporated the name or something like it … but many were from the Devon Rex breed, and all of them were born considerably later than 1967. They were clearly either tributes to, or attempts to cash in on, the band and the story of its naming. Sam concluded, ‘There is still no evidence of there ever being any cat bred – with any spelling variant of the name [Procol Harum] whatsoever – back in 1967, after all!’
Keith Reid was unusually forthcoming when interviewed by Adam Dolgins for his 1993 book Rock Names. He said that the cat ‘belonged to a friend of ours, just somebody that we used to hang out with when we were forming the band’. When pushed, he added, ‘It belonged to our dealer. We used to score off him.’
A few years later, a rumour began to circulate that the cat – if it existed – had belonged to an early band roadie named McGreggor. This gained credibility when an unreleased song of that title was included as one of the extras on the 1999 Westside release of A Salty Dog… plus! Actually recorded during the 1968 sessions for the band’s second album, Shine on Brightly, the lyric begins, ‘McGreggor was a soldier brave…’ and tells a traditional-ballad-type tale of a squaddie being denied his freedom after serving forty years, responding by shooting his corporal through the head, and then being ‘taken by the neck’ – nice bit o’detail, there Keith – and hanged from a tree.
It’s hard to see what this might have to do with roadies or dealers, but the two archetypes seem to have been conflated by hardcore Procol Harum fans – including Sam Cameron – into a sort of low-rent music biz version of Goldfinger. You can imagine this McGreggor lurching onstage to tap the microphones and mumble the ‘one-two, one-two’ mantra, pausing only to sell the band a quid deal before driving the Transit back to Mrs Bun’s B&B… to spend the rest of the night plotting world domination while stroking his pedigree pussy.
The Longest Crawl
2006 saw the publication of Ian Marchant’s book The Longest Crawl – released in paperback in July 2007 – one of those humorous travelogues with a quirk: in this case, a month-long trip around the British Isles with no need of a fridge so long as the pubs are open. Marchant writes of meeting someone called Ash in Wales. ‘“I had this cat called Procol Harem [sic],” Ash told [him]. “A Burmese, a sweetie she was. At this time, '66, '67, I was dealing acid to the beautiful people …Gary Brooker was one of my regulars … He was always around mine. ‘What’s your cat called Ash?’ he asked me. ‘Procol Harem,’ I said. So they changed the name of the band.” “But Ash, that's one of the great unsolved mysteries of rock'n'roll…” “What is?” “Who owned that cat that Procol Harem were named after.” “Is it? Well it was me.”’
Time to untangle this ball of wool. Preferably without leaving my desk …
A few e-mails and 'phone calls to Maureen Smith and Margaret Somers at the Burmese Cat Club lead to me being put in touch with that august organisation’s Rosemary Hale. Over the 'phone, and later by letter, she tells me I’m not the first to have asked her about Procol Harum, though the last enquiry she received was a few years ago and didn’t seem to lead anywhere. With considerable patience and good humour, Rosemary explains the history of the Burmese breed in Britain, and provides me with much illuminating anecdotal and documentary information about the subject of my enquiry. The online database is a lengthy work in progress – cats breeding like … well, cats – and it turns out my quarry’s details have simply yet to be added.
‘The band Procol Harum was named after a Blue Burmese male cat named Procul Harun,’ confirms Rosemary, after consulting the registration document and pedigree certificate the Cat Club was bequeathed when the cat’s breeders died in the mid Eighties. So the band did have access to the genuine pedigree certificate, after all … they just didn’t take notes.
Mrs Eleonore Vogt-Chapman and her husband were among the first to breed Burmese in Britain. (Eleonore was of Scandinavian origin, and Vogt was her maiden name.) Different breeders register and claim sole use of a particular prefix, and the Chapmans used Procul for all their cats. Various online dictionaries inform me that it is indeed Latin, and can be translated as ‘far away’ or ‘from a distance’, which is appropriate enough for a breed of cat that had already travelled to Britain from Burma via the USA. Given the wide variety of suffixes afforded the Chapmans’ cats, though, it would be a mistake to impose a Latin interpretation on their full names.
The other kittens in Procul Harun’s litter – his only full siblings – were named Procul Hussein and Procul Lady Sonia. All that the three suffixes have in common is a (very) vague nod to the breed’s Eastern origins and a tendency to flatter. Sonia is originally a Greek name meaning sensible or wise. Hussein is Arabic, meaning good, handsome or fair. Although the name Harun probably originated in Egypt, and – typically for anything associated with Procol Harum – is of unknown derivation, it is the Arabic version of Aaron. As Aaron was the older brother of Moses, the Hebraic interpretations of the name have held sway. Given the familial association with mountains, most are variations on a theme of loftiness and exaltation.
|Procul Harun’s pedigree certificate – click to
Courtesy Rosemary Hale and
the Burmese Cat Club
The exalted one from far away was born on 19 June 1964, at 253 South Avenue, Abingdon in Berkshire. He was registered with the marvellously named Governing Council of the Cat Fancy on 14 October that year, and given the registration number 128858. ‘His sire was a Blue Burmese, Champion Ballard Bilin,’ says Rosemary Hale, ‘and his dam was a Brown Burmese, La-Sun Harmony.’ Harun’s brother Hussein was Brown, his sister Lady Sonia was Blue. It was to be the only Procul litter for which Ballard Bilin was the sire, for purely practical reasons: ‘Ballard Bilin lived down at the bottom of Dorset, and that would have been a very long and tedious journey from Abingdon at that time with a calling queen.’ Followed by a return journey to pick up the hopefully pregnant female a week later …
Breeders were obliged to keep cats for at least three months before selling them. A scrawled note on the back of Harun’s registration document reads: ‘Mrs Coombs. 12a Worsley Road, Hampstead. Olympia. £10.’ From this it’s reasonable to deduce that a Mrs Coombs of that address first saw him at the National Cat Club’s show at London’s Olympia in December 1964, and became his new owner shortly afterwards.
Rosemary Hale finds an annotated programme for the Olympia show among Mrs Vogt-Chapman’s papers. All three kittens from Harun’s litter were indeed shown. Harun himself, number 438, came a not particularly distinguished third in his class of eight kittens. The £10 Mrs Coombs paid for him is roughly equivalent to £140 today. There’s no record that she ever sold him on, so this suggests Mrs Coombs was probably still his official owner when the cat’s name was appropriated by the band in early 1967.
Cat-loving Procol Harum fans should now prepare themselves for a series of disappointments. Although no official records of death are kept, Burmese live for an average of 17 years, and into their early twenties at best. So Harun would have been lucky to see out the Eighties. All three kittens in his litter were sold as pets, rather than to breed. Which means they would probably have been neutered around six months of age, thus dashing any hopes of owning a direct descendent from either Harun or one of his two full siblings. (Harun’s dam did give birth to a further ten Procul cats – Harun’s half-siblings – between 1964 and 1969, though, and his sire … well, tomcats will be tomcats ... )
Again typically for this investigation, Worsley Road no longer exists. It was incorporated into Pilgrim’s Lane in 1969, at which point the houses were renumbered. Number 12a Worsley Road became 56a Pilgrim’s Lane. The address doesn’t appear to be likely roadie or drug dealer territory: politician Michael Foot was a Pilgrim’s Lane resident at the time, and still is. But the flat Guy Stevens shared with his wife Diane at 23c Gloucester Avenue, a popular party venue, was just a couple of hundred yards away down Haverstock Hill.
‘I was always told that Mrs Coombs was the mother of a Procol Harum band member,’ offers Rosemary Hale. While this isn’t the case with regard to the official early line-ups, numerous musicians auditioned for or were even briefly members of Procol Harum during Guy Stevens’s tenure as manager; and some of their names have been forgotten even by the core members of the band, such as the near legendary drummer known only as ‘Tubs Drubs’, despite having played on the demo of AWSoP. A connection of some sort via one of the musicians in the Procol-Stevens circle is at least theoretically possible, then.
Googling different spellings of Coombs with various combinations of Procol Harum and Guy Stevens throws up one possible candidate: Rod Coombes. Coombes had drummed for Lulu’s backing group the Luvvers, then George Bean and the Runners, where he replaced future Procol Harum drummer BJ Wilson, and then briefly with another of Guy Stevens’ protégés, Spooky Tooth. A drummer. Mmm. It’s worth an e-mail, which eventually brings the following response: ‘Unfortunately, although I lived in Hampstead – that’s quite a coincidence isn't it? – I never had such a cat, sorry.’ Shame. For a tantalising couple of days, I’d allowed myself to think I might have traced not only the cat’s owner but also Mr Drubs himself. Though, thinking about it, Brooker and Reid would surely have remembered a Tubs-tabby twofer.
Via the London Metropolitan Archives website, I pay for a check on the electoral rolls for 12a Worsley Road, 1965 to1969. In the two weeks it takes for the information to arrive, I put in a request to talk to Gary Brooker via the PR company handling the band’s fortieth anniversary back catalogue reissue programme on Salvo/Union Square. I also contact Roland Clare at 'Beyond the Pale' and ask him to pass on e-mail requests to talk to Keith Reid (though he doesn’t think much of my chances) and former Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher. When I apprise him of my quest, and tell him I think I’m nearly there, Roland unintentionally takes some of the wind out of my sails. ‘I got 90% of the way there too, I think,’ he e-mails back. ‘But it was several years ago, and I didn’t write it up.’ Oh. It sounds very much like he was the last person to go knocking on the Burmese Cat Club’s door.
Guy Stevens died in 1981. By cross-referencing information supplied by Mott the Hoople biographer Campbell Devine with current online directory information, I find a likely 'phone number for Guy’s widow Diane. Three separate attempts go straight through to the answering machine. I finally leave a message, but never receive a reply. There’s a thin line between dogged persistence and stalking, so I leave it. Covering all the other bases, I e-mail Ian Marchant to ask him about Ash.
Matthew Fisher gets back to say he was hired after the naming of the band, at a time that Guy Stevens was already fading into the background. ‘I have seen the actual pedigree certificate. The cat was called Procul Harun,’ he confirms. ‘Never met the guy whose cat we were named after. And Coombs doesn’t ring any bells. I think Keith got the misspelling of Procul from a proprietary cold cure – similar to Contac 400 – which I've just discovered is still out there.’
‘It was quite early on when the band was named,’ recalls Gary Brooker over the 'phone from France. ‘I think it was when we were rehearsing in Camden, a church hall sort of place. Before we moved to Stockwell. I have a recollection of the name being suggested over the 'phone, but – come to think of it – why would there have been a 'phone there in those days? We didn’t expect so much interest in the name. It became another mystery. An enigma. I remember seeing the pedigree certificate. It was in a newspaper, I think.’ He doesn’t recall anyone called Coombs either. ‘I thought the cat owner’s name was Bob. Can’t remember his surname.’ Bob? Now we have a Bob?
The electoral roll search for Worsley Road turns up no Bobs, but does reveal that Elisabeth A Coombs shared the flat at 12a with David Rhys-Rowberry. Given the times, this suggests a younger unmarried couple: Miss rather than Mrs Coombs, with her partner being perhaps the more likely link to the band. Although still at the address in 1965, they had left before the naming of Procol Harum.
The online directory fails to offer a 'phone number or a more recent electoral roll listing for either name. I do find a 'phone number for a David R Rowberry, and call it on spec … but when his wife answers and tells me his name is not David Rhys Rowberry but David Robert Rowberry, I offer her my apologies and end the call without bothering him. There’s nothing useful in the easily searchable part – 1984 onwards – of the online births, marriages and deaths registers, either. Googling Elisabeth Coombs divulges a lady of that name currently involved with the Anglican Church in Exeter. What the hell. ‘Unfortunately I am not that Elisabeth Coombs!’ she replies to my e-mail. ‘Coombs is my married name.’
Googling variations of the then-partner of the other Elisabeth throws up another intriguing possibility: Dave Rowberry, who replaced Alan Price as organist in the Animals… one of several R&B bands with which Guy Stevens had a close relationship. Rowberry’s 18-month tenure in the Animals came to an end at the end of 1966, around the time Brooker, Reid and Stevens began looking for musicians to form Procol Harum, and before they found Matthew Fisher, so he might, conceivably, have tried out for the band around the time of its naming. Rowberry passed away in 2003. Checking the registration of his birth reveals no trace of ‘Rhys’, whether as a subsequently dropped double-barrel, a middle name, or a mother’s maiden name. This looks like a dead end.
My searches also throw up Nicky Rowberry’s 'Peasants to Puddles' family history site. Rowberry is not a common name, apparently, and has strong links to the Hereford area. As Hereford abuts Wales, that might explain the ‘Rhys’ and perhaps even the location of Ian Marchant’s meeting with Ash. There’s no mention of a David Rhys-Rowberry on the site itself, but I e-mail Nicky David and Elisabeth’s details along with an age guesstimate. She can’t help, but suggests I try another Rowberry family historian named Polly Rubery …
Polly Rubery e-mails me back almost immediately, and takes me completely by surprise by giving me the former Elisabeth Coombs’ current married name and a fairly recent home address. She also tells me I’ve been chasing yet another false lead with regard to Elisabeth’s former partner: the man listed as David Rhys-Rowberry on the 1965 electoral roll is actually David Robert Rowberry … known as Bob. Bob, again. This looks promising…I have no idea how or why Polly knows all this, and don’t feel I can ask because she already feels short-changed when – with an instinctive protectiveness towards my ‘scoop’ that I recognise as faintly ludicrous even while I’m exhibiting it – I offer my apologies, but refuse to go into any further detail at this stage about the reason for my research into the owners of a pedigree cat …
Bob the Hook
Hang on, didn’t I just 'phone the house of a David Robert Rowberry? Could that have been the right bloke after all? Apparently not. Polly has provided me with a link to Hardcore Carvers, an arts and crafts website via which the David Robert aka Bob Rowberry I want promotes his highly inventive garden furniture, sculptures, ornaments and jewellery made from scrap metal and other recycled materials. Known as ‘Bob the Hook’ after his signature piece – yes, it’s a hook – he does the rounds of the summer festivals selling his work and conducting workshops. There’s a picture on the site of Bob looking grey haired, rustic and capable, and an e-mail contact for John Nethercott & Co of Hereford, who act as his agents for internet and 'phone orders.
|Bob Rowberry's image from the
Hardcore Carvers website
I e-mail Nethercott & Co, explaining that I’m researching a piece about Procol Harum and saying that I’ve heard Bob used to hang around with the band in the mid to late Sixties. Could they put me in touch? Annie Nethercott comes straight back with Bob’s mobile number. And, in her PS, asks me if I know that the band were named after Bob’s pedigree cat … Is there anyone along this trail who doesn’t know more than I do?
Again, apparently not. Ian Marchant e-mails the same day to say the character he referred to as Ash in his book was someone he used to see around from time to time whose real name was … Bob Rowberry. ‘I must admit, he actually told me the story years ago, and I just popped it into our conversation in the book.’ Which is why the version of the tale in The Longest Crawl is just a little on the approximate side.
Roland Clare forwards an unexpected message from Keith Reid: ‘I don’t mind answering a few questions concerning the cat.’ It’s a one-shot deal. I have a choice: play dumb and hope for unprecedented spontaneous revelation; or say what I’ve learned so far at the risk of prompting a total shutdown. I go with the latter option… and get pretty much the latter result. ‘Much as I appreciate your interest in Procol Harum’s cat, unfortunately it was all a long time ago,’ replies Reid. ‘What I can tell you with absolute certainty is that we never considered calling ourselves the Pinewoods. I didn’t know Mafalda Hall’s cat was named Pandora, or even that she had a cat. I hope that’s helpful.’
Well, only up to a point, Keith, but thanks, anyway. Bob’s former line of work is probably the main reason Reid and Brooker didn’t name him in the months immediately after they formed Procol Harum, or later, and is certainly why Ian Marchant invented a pseudonym for him. Members of the Rolling Stones were involved in high-profile drug busts in 1967. Guy Stevens – a friend of the Stones’ Brian Jones – was also busted that same year, then again in 1968, leading to a custodial sentence. Neither the band nor Bob needed that kind of attention at the time. And more recently … well, people in their sixties tend to have different values and responsibilities than people in their twenties.
I decide not to go into such potentially problematic areas when I 'phone Bob in case he Keiths me. But he turns out to be both open and affable. He says he lives a traveller’s life these days, keeping his overheads low and enjoying his work. Guy Stevens was indeed his main point of contact with the band that became Procol Harum: he was friendly with Keith Reid, too, but met him through Guy. ‘I knew Guy well. We hung around on the same scene. We used to go clubbing together, and we shared the same vices, shall we say. I also knew his wife, Diane. In fact, she came down here to visit about five years or so ago to ask me about all this stuff herself, but I never heard anymore about it.’ Yet another detective on the trail… which perhaps explains why Diane didn’t return my call.
By 1966, Bob tells me, he and Elisabeth Coombs – known as Liz – had moved from Worsley Road to Belsize Square, also in Hampstead, and even closer to Guy’s flat. ‘Guy was round one day saying he really had to find a name for this band, really going on about it. The pedigree papers for the cat happened to be on the table, and he was looking at them while he was talking to me. And then he stopped and said, “That’s it! That’s the name!”’ How did Bob feel when the band went on to have such a massive hit? ‘Amused! You would be if the pedigree name of your pet cat went on to become a household name.’
In day-to-day life, Harun was actually known as Claude. ‘He was a posh cat, so we gave him a posh, poncey name.’ What happened to him? ‘We moved down to Wiltshire a year or so later. I left the cat with Liz while I drove over to Afghanistan, because I used to go over there in those days ... And when I got back she told me he’d just run off one day. Never saw him again.’
Did Claude ever breed, or had he been neutered? ‘I wouldn’t have had it done,’ says Bob. ‘I mean, he was a tom. He still had balls. As to whether and where he put it about, I don’t know.’ I ask if there are any photographs of the cat with his owners. ‘What, a nice little family group shot of all three of us together smiling at the camera?’ he laughs. ‘I wouldn’t hold your breath. I’m not the type to keep photos. Liz might have something.’ They’ve been separated for many years, but are still in contact. Bob offers to ask her, but when I 'phone back as arranged he says there aren’t any photos.
I’ve already decided I need to contact Liz directly. Bob is happy to talk about their famous cat, but he wasn’t Procul Harun’s official owner, and I get the impression he wasn’t really that much of a cat person. Following up Polly Rubery’s lead, I find a number for Elisabeth Rice, formerly Coombs, and she responds to the introductory explanation of my quest with both surprise and amusement. I don’t mention Bob, and neither does she.
Liz confirms that she first saw Procul Harun at Olympia, and then went down to Abingdon to pick him up from Mrs Vogt-Chapman. Also that the cat was indeed known as Claude. She tells the same story about the pedigree papers being on the table when Guy Stevens came to visit, but she is adamant that this happened after the move to Wiltshire. ‘It was a cottage in Westcourt, in the village of Burbage,’ she says. ‘It was called Half House, because half of it was thatched and really old and the other half wasn’t and had obviously been added much later.’
As Guy Stevens spent some time in the early part of 1967 visiting Traffic at their cottage in the village of Aston Tirrold, then in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire) just 25 or so miles from Burbage, this is quite likely. And the remoteness of the location would explain why Procol Harum needed to be told their new name over the 'phone, and why it proved so difficult for their new management, New Breed, to trace the real cat a few months later.
What’s In a Name?
‘We’ve always been happy with our name,’ Gary Brooker told the Acoustic Storm in 2003. ‘I suppose every band is. I’m just glad we weren’t called Strawberry Alarm Clock or something. It would’ve been a bit embarrassing 35 years later.’ Four years later still, he says, ‘Mind you, even back when we started, Private Eye used to write about this group called Procol Turdum.’
‘We never even questioned it, never even thought if it was a good name, we just went ahead with that suggestion,’ Keith Reid told Adam Dolgins in 1993. ‘I think it was a silly name. And the trouble with it is that people have a great deal of difficulty understanding what it is. Broken Arm, Purple Horrors ... It’s very difficult for people to get the hang of.’
‘I thought it was pretty stupid,’ says Matthew Fisher. ‘I still do. It's daft having a group name that nobody – including the band – knows how to spell. Americans not only can’t spell it, they can’t pronounce it properly. They call it Prockle Hair-um.’
Rosemary Hale’s informed guess about the unlikelihood of Procul Harun having offspring turns out to be correct. ‘He’d been neutered, so there were no kittens,’ says Liz. She also contradicts Bob’s version of what happened to Claude. ‘He lived to be a happy old cat of eight or nine,’ she says. ‘There aren’t any photographs, I’m afraid. When I left the cottage, I put everything in storage, and I don’t think I ever got around to getting it back again.’
She remembers Claude with fondness. ‘I’d say his main characteristic was that he hated to make a fool of himself. And he was quite clumsy, so he often did. I bet the band won’t be too happy to hear that about their namesake! When we lived in our basement flat, and we had the top of the sash windows open, he’d climb on top and stretch out. They were so old and loose that they’d rattle down and spill him off. He’d always look highly embarrassed.’
When I write up the above and send it to him, Roland Clare confirms, ‘I am indeed the person who had already spoken to the cat ladies you interviewed.’ He also forwards me the e-mail that set him off on his own investigation. It was sent in September 2002 by cat expert Alan Edwards, who had come across the 'Beyond the Pale' site by accident when searching the web for pedigree information: ‘I actually knew Mrs E Vogt-Chapman, who bred Procul Harun, and he was a Blue Burmese. Procul was chosen by Mrs Vogt-Chapman as her breeding prefix, or trademark. All of the cats she bred could be identified as being of her breeding by having Procul at the beginning of their names. Procul Harun was definitely neither Devon Rex nor Siamese. The photograph supposed to be the actual cat is that of quite a poor quality Abyssinian!’ Poor quality? Avert your gaze, Mafalda!
Given their much longer acquaintance, it also comes as no real surprise to me to learn that Keith Reid had also been a little more forthcoming with Roland than he was prepared to be with me. ‘Keith told me categorically in the last week of February 2007 that – from my notes – “Procol Harum, the cat, belonged to Bob Reece-Rowberry [spelling uncertain],” and Gary confirmed it the next day,’ he e-mails. ‘One loose thread, however, is that many years before – in Denmark some time – Gary told me, “It was someone who played with the Incredible String Band at the Albert Hall in 1969.” Also, “Bob” (as in Bob Hope) is one of Gary’s playful rhyming-slangisms for “dope”.’ The fact that Roland had just been too busy with his day job to get into print with all this makes me feel a whole lot better … yeah, right. (In fact, he very generously offers to step down, and allows me whatever remaining small glory there might be by agreeing to publish this rambling account on 'Beyond the Pale'.)
When I share my findings with Polly Rubery, I find she had no prior interest in either the cat or the band – though the organist did play A Whiter Shade of Pale at her best friend’s wedding in summer 1971 – but it transpires she knows plenty more about the extended Rowberry clan than she’s already told me. For instance, Elisabeth Coombs really was a Mrs – rather than a Miss, as I’d assumed – during the period she lived with Bob and became the owner of Procul Harun. She had married Mr Coombs in 1963, in Nottingham.
Armed with the information I gave her about Bob’s appearance as David Rhys-Rowberry in the 1965 electoral roll for Worsley Road, Polly has checked the London BT 'phone books online at the Ancestry website she subscribes to, and found a 1966 listing for ‘Rhys-Rowberry, DR’ at 25 Belsize Square, both confirming and adding a little more detail to the information Bob gave me. So that’s all four (known) homes of Procul Harun accounted for.
Polly tells me that that the first David Robert Rowberry I 'phoned, and whose wife I talked to, is – almost unbelievably – the younger half-brother (by nineteen years) of my David Robert Rowberry. (Which brings to mind Brian Jones’s bizarre decision to name two of his sons by different mothers Julian … though Jones at least rang the changes with their middle names.) ‘In fact all my research into Bob was inspired by the other David’s sister, Diane,’ e-mails Polly. ‘Their mother married their father during the War, and the children did not discover anything about his first marriage (which produced Bob) until Diane started researching her family history after her father died.’
Polly has a copy of Bob’s parents’ marriage certificate, on which there is no mention of Rhys or Rees, so she was initially puzzled why Bob would list himself as David Rhys-Rowberry on the electoral roll, or be known as Bob Rhys-Rowberry to Keith Reid and Gary Brooker. However, shortly after our exchange of information, she was sent details of a subsequently cancelled marriage entry for Bob’s parents – made earlier the same day as the official entry – in which the details are slightly different… In the first entry, Bob’s father (to be), Alfred Edwin Rowberry, lists himself as Edwin David Rhys Rowberry, and lists his father, known as Wyndham Rowberry, as David Rhys Rowberry. His obsession with the name ‘David’ remains inexplicable, but there does turn out to be a precedent for ‘Rhys’ … phonetically, at least. Polly tells me that Bob’s grandfather is entered as Wyndham Rowberry on his birth and marriage certificates, but as Wyndham Rees Rowberry on his death certificate. This was presumably in honour of his mother, who was born Elizabeth Rees. (Still with us?) So Rees/Rhys was indeed a family name – if not really an official one – going back four generations.
Bob’s father remarried, as we know – hence the second David Robert Rowberry – but so did his mother, this time to a Canadian soldier named … Fred Jack McGregor. How does that song go again? ‘McGreggor was a soldier brave …’ Completely unexpectedly – for me, anyway – the McGreggor myth has suddenly acquired legitimacy. My earlier 'Beyond the Pale' searches for information on this topic were limited to ‘McGreggor’. Belatedly trying ‘McGregor’ in the search engine turns up a 1996 Progression interview in which John Collinge asked Gary Brooker to name the owner of the cat, and Brooker replied, ‘I don’t know his name. I can’t remember. It’s a friend of Guy Stevens, a guy I used to score dope off ... Sandy McGregor’s brother, it was. Don't remember his first name.’
It’s understandable that anyone reading that interview would presume that the brother’s surname was also McGregor, and maybe also confuse the humper of backlines with the supplier of exotic herbs. When I check back in with Polly, she confirms that Bob’s younger half-brother was indeed named Sandy … and adds yet another twist. They did share the same surname for a while, but that surname was Rowberry. Sandy was listed thus in the register of births, his parents not being free to marry until the following year, at which time he became a McGregor.
I e-mail Roland Clare and ask him if the name Sandy McGregor rings a bell. As luck would have it, he’s due to 'phone Gary Brooker that very night, and passes on the question. ‘He thought Sandy McGreg(g)or and Bob were cousins; but he reckons half-brothers sounds pretty likely, too,’ Roland reports back. ‘He says the two men were definitely quite close: they travelled through Afghanistan together in the late 60s, which was quite a daring escapade at that time. (Still is, I guess!) The song is decidedly not about Sandy, though he would have heard it, as he was a roadie for the band for several years, starting in 1967. Gary reckons Keith will just have taken the name, realised it was good for singing, and written the narrative about “a Scotsman who got it all wrong” without further reference to the true facts about the roadie in question.’ That clinches it. Sounds like Sandy got the roadie gig via Bob. McGreg(g)or, climb in the back next to Rhys, Ash, Rowberry and Coombs. And let’s get back on track …
It occurs to me to ask the Burmese Cat Club if there might be a photo of Procul Harun in the breeders’ records. Sadly, no. It appears Gary Brooker was right when he said no-one was able to take – or, at least, keep – the cat’s picture. Rosemary Hale does supply a snap of his grandsire, Lamont Blue Burmaboy, though, which she says should give some idea of what Harun looked like in his prime. A bit pompous, is the answer, and like he’s just about to fall out of a tree.
Procul Harun’s grandsire, Lamont Blue Burmaboy
The Vanishing Cat
The discrepancy between Bob and Liz’s accounts of Procul Harun’s end niggles. Eight or nine isn’t old for a Burmese, so it would have been unusual for him to die of natural causes at that age, as Liz suggested. A few days after my first conversation with her, I 'phone her back, and tell her Bob’s version of events. She pauses for thought. ‘I’ve had a lot of cats over the years, and sometimes they do get muddled up a bit,’ she says. ‘Do you know, I think Bob’s probably right, and he just went missing.’ That being the case, the most likely outcome is that he was killed almost immediately by something wild or motorised, but it is just possible that he got lost and was taken in elsewhere – or was even stolen – and lived for many more years.
So the ultimate fate of Procul Harun, that cat with the most enigmatic of reputations, is still unknown. In real life, though – as long as his real life lasted – he was a bit of a klutz called Claude. He might not have left behind a dynasty, or even a photograph, but – in the fine tradition of another famous and mysterious cat – at least a grin remained long after the rest of him had gone …
Exit the cat
This article is
© Marcus Gray August
2007, and is reproduced by his kind permission.
Enquiries, further information etc, to red.barn at yahoo dot co dot uk
Marcus thanks everyone mentioned,
Rosemary Hale and Roland Clare –
and Polly Rubery, who would like to invite anyone with further information (or insatiable
curiosity) about the Rowberry family to contact her at email@example.com
In addition to an AWSoP retrospective for Classic Rock, Marcus Gray is the author of the sometimes-acclaimed Last Gang In Town: The Story And Myth Of The Clash, the occasionally-remembered It Crawled From The South: An R.E.M. Companion, and the deservedly-forgotten London's Rock Landmarks.
The Name of the Cat