'ZigZag' Magazine No 60, May 1976
Dealing with a group history as long and illustrious as that of Procol Harum is obviously not something that can be done in a few trite paragraphs; so, for better or worse, this saga is likely to turn into quite an epic (though not quite on the scale of Frame's Byrds monster). Anyway, for this first episode, we're going to concentrate exclusively on the group's activities up to June 1967, when 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' was released. Except in the case of real supergroups, it's rare to find any attention given to what happened to someone before they became famous, but I've always reckoned that one of the most fascinating aspects of the music business is the various ways in which people and bands make it to the top.
So, Procol Harum ... this is your life:
ZZ: Was the Paramounts the first group you played in?
Gary Brooker: No, I was in a skiffle group first. Then I was in a group called The Coasters, with a bloke called Johnny Short on guitar. There were loads of groups around at the time -- including the Raiders, who were Robin Trower, Chris Copping, Gary Nichols on drums, and Mick Trower (Robin's brother) on vocals ... we all knew one another; it was a fairly tight little scene.
ZZ: You were all from Southend...
GB: That's right. One night, Chris Copping stood in on bass for us -- we were an odd sort of group, because we didn't have a regular bass-player, and we just played instrumentals ... Les Paul numbers and stuff like that -- and in return for Chris appearing with us, I did a few jobs with the Raiders ... this would be around 1959, I suppose. Anyway, the Raiders ditched Gary Nichols and Mick Trower and brought in a bloke called Brian Richards as singer, and Mick Brownlee on drums -- and when they started rehearsing, they decided a piano would help them along a lot, so they used to take me on the occasional gig, when I wasn't playing with the Coasters.
Then one day, Robin pulled this stroke: he asked me to do this job one Saturday night, and I said "No, I can't ... I'm playing with Johnny's band". So he said, "Oh, that's OK .... I've phoned him, and he says that you're not doing that job after all." So we went out, and I didn't see Johnny Short for a few days -- and it turned out he knew nothing about any phone call and had assumed I'd left the band ... and that was that. I stayed with the Raiders.
Brian Richards only stayed for a few months, but he introduced us to a lot of good records -- he was mad keen on Carl Perkins, for instance -- but he never turned up for jobs, so we gave him the elbow. We started playing the Palace Dance Hall, which was a big job in those days, and the manager there got us a few gigs and gave us a new name ... The Paramounts. He had another group called Bob Scott and the Clansmen, and they packed up, so Bob Scott joined us. He was a good singer, he liked Ricky Nelson, and he stayed for a while ... until one night he just didn't turn up. By this time, we were doing all sorts of dance halls -- big jobs -- and it fell to me and the drummer to take over the vocals, because we knew all the words between us.
ZZ: What sort of stuff were you into then?
GB: Mostly American; Jerry Lee Lewis and Rick Nelson, plus a few Shadows instrumentals to help us go down well with audiences ... but it was mostly American rock'n'roll. It would be around the time of 'FBI' by the Shadows. . . that was one of their things we did.
ZZ: Early 1961.
GB: Around then, yes. We carried on as a four-piece, and it started to go well ... we were getting a lot of jobs -- but then Mick Brownlee packed it in for a while, and we had one or two other drummers, including Tony Diamond, formerly of the Red Diamonds, who later joined the Orioles with Micky Jupp. In fact, even Bobby Harrison popped up for an occasional night -- he was the cousin of Tony in a group called The Rockerfellers. Also by this time, Chris Copping had started studying, so Ada Baggerly, who was also in the Orioles, used to play for us -- then, when Chris left to take up chemistry and drinking at university, Diz Derrick joined. We did quite a lot of backing jobs in those days ('61/'62), for artistes who came down to Southend -- Tommy Bruce and Ricky Valence, people like that. In fact, we backed Tommy Bruce on a thing called 'Rock across the Channel', on the boat to Calais; it was us, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Duffy Power and the Dreamers, the Shadows ...
ZZ: How did those things work? Did you get an afternoon's rehearsal before the gig?
GB: Oh no ... no rehearsal. These blokes didn't used to turn up until five minutes before they were due to go on -- and they only had a twenty minute spot. They used to bring little sort of charts, with the chords scribbled down -- so anybody who could follow a chord chart used to get the job of backing them.
ZZ: Did they used to pay reasonably well?
GB: Pay? We did it just for the fun of it, but the manager from the dance hall always took a good interest in us, and used to get us all our jobs. We were leaving school around then -- I can remember swotting for exams as I walked home from a job -- and we'd also started this cellar club called the Shades. It used to be called The Penguin, and we did it all up.
BJ Wilson (who had just entered the room): I joined the group just as the stage was being built.
ZZ: What had you been doing before?
BJW: I'd just been in local groups with friends around Edmonton ... I'd never played with anyone of note, if that's what you mean. I looked in the Melody Maker one week, and there was an ad which said "Professional group needs drummer".
GB: Mick Brownlee had packed up for good by this time ... he'd acquired responsibilities as a result of this girl. In fact, we didn't have that much work at all -- we just sat around all day taking pills.
BJW: I liked it down the cellar club, and I moved down to live with Robin Trower for a while.
GB: When we left school, this manager bloke suggested making a record -- but we refused, because the great sin in those days was being commercial. But he said "well, put one down anyway -- just so you've got something on record". So we did 'Poison Ivy', the old Coasters number, which we used to do on stage -- and he started taking it round the companies.
BJW: We did that one and 'Further On Up The Road' with Glyn Johns at IBC Studios.
ZZ: Robin Trower reckoned that was the best session the Paramounts ever did -- better than any of the singles.
GB: They're not as bad as you remember them -- I played them a little while ago. The best one we ever did, though, never got released.
BJW: 'Freedom', the old Charlie Mingus number we used to do, backed by a choir of friends.
GB: Anyway, the manager took the tape to Ron Richards at Parlophone, and they offered us a contract. As I understand it, he said "I've got The Beatles on this side, and The Hollies on this side, and I want something in the middle." I don't think he ever had anything to do with The Beatles, though, that was George Martin. So we signed with them and started getting jobs all over the place.
ZZ: Still backing other people?
GB: No -- that was on our own, but we backed other people now and then ... like we did Mike Berry once, I remember.
BJW: Mainly wedid ballrooms -- the Friday night dance things that everybody used to go to.
GB: They used to be packed; three thousand people in every town. Do they still have those things? I guess The Rubettes must play something like that ... but they were the whole scene in those days; those and the more elite thing, the clubs, which was a very cliquey scene. Anyway, it was around that time that we did a gig with the Rolling Stones in Deal -- and we got on well with them. They were just reaching the stage when they were too big to go on playing the places they'd been playing, and they gave us a lot of jobs.
ZZ: They were playing fairly similar music, weren't they? Like 'Poison lvy' -- they used to do that.
GB: Yes, we overlapped slightly, but we were doing James Brown and Bobby Bland and Ray Charles, and they were much more Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry orientated. They spoke to promoters and we got a lot of the jobs they'd been doing ... they were all good scenes. The other places, like Rotherham Baths, were real pop things ... all about presentation. You had to wear a uniform and look good. We had suede waistcoats, and blue suede boots -- but it didn't seem anything at the time ... I mean, the Stones wore knitted ties.
A brief pause in proceedings is in order here, to say that while the Paramounts were with Parlophone, they recorded seven singles between 1963 and 1966. The first two, 'Poison Ivy' and 'Little Bitty Pretty One', both saw a little chart action, but the third, 'Bad Blood' was banned by the BBC, who in their wisdom thought it was a ditty about syphilis. Unfortunately, 'It won't be long', 'Blue ribbons' and 'You never had it so good' failed to create much of a stir, and the aforementioned 'Freedom' was never even released.
ZZ: Were the singles recorded with Glyn Johns too?
GB: No, they were done with Ron Richards at EMI studios. The major disadvantage of that period was that we were never really allowed to do what we wanted. Weld have a three hour session to do 4 numbers, or whatever, and never hear them being mixed. We never had a chance to do the numbers we wanted to ... and all in all it was pretty frustrating.
We performed most of the singles on television -- 'Thank your lucky stars', 'Five o'clock club' and 'Ready Steady Go' -- but we never played live on the radio ... we tried three or four times, but never passed the BBC audition. It wasn't a matter of passing the audition in those days though, it was a matter of bending down -- that's what we were told.
ZZ: BJ, didn't you pop off for a few months around late '64, early '65?
BJ: Yes, for about 6 months I played with Jimmy Powell and the 5 Dimensions ... just after Rod Stewart left. I was friends with two of the guys and I just fancied a change.
GB: We got in Phil Wainman -- THE Phil Wainman -- who was quite a good drummer. I remember telling him he was out when BJ rejoined ... he was a very resourceful person, though, so he wasn't too upset.
ZZ: Was Sandie Shaw the only person you backed during your latter days?
GB: We did a Beatles tour, their last one, and backed one or two of the people on that -- but we only did that kind of gig because financially we just weren't able to make ends meet. We went to Paris with Sandie Shaw, and played at the Olympia for three weeks, which was a nice steady little income.
BJW: She was great -- she used to sing lovely, even though it wasn't our kind of music. She'd do things like 'Lemon Tree' and 'Long Live Love', and a few groovy numbers like 'The Clapping Song'. We even did 'The Girl from Ipanema', which nobody ever knew the chords to, but we managed to get through it every time. Just after that, we packed up -- around September 1966 ... but then we had an offer to go to Germany with a singer called Chris Andrews. It paid about 30 pounds a week, so we did that. Robin Trower didn't want to go, so we got another guitarist and a saxophonist, and did the tour -- just to earn -- a bit of money ... when we came home, we went our separate ways.
GB: The Paramounts only really declined in the last year. In the early days of the group, we were doing all these unusual numbers which people enjoyed hearing -- but then a lot of bands started doing them ... people like Zoot Money, and the Animals, and I reckon that's one of the reasons our popularity declined.
ZZ: Were you writing your own stuff at all?
GB: A couple of those b-sides were written by Robin and me -- but they were hardly written! Ron Richards would say "we need a b-side', and we'd suggest something like 'Turn on your love light' by Bobby Bland -- but he said "no.... if you write your own b-side, you'll get an extra one penny in royalties'. In fact, I got a statement from Dick James Music for fourpence! It said "as this amount is too small, we are adding it to the next statement ... but I never got another one! The numbers we wrote were put together in about three minutes flat ... just a few words that rhymed, a few chords, and that was it. One of them wasn't bad actually -- 'Don't ya like my love?'
BJW: There was even a group that covered that song -- some American spade group.
ZZ: Had you any ideas what you were going to do when The Paramounts called it a day?
GB: Well, I had already met Keith Reid. We used to go round to Guy Stevens house -- having met him at the Crawdaddy Club, where he used to play the records -- he had this huge record collection, and we used to get material off him (for the Paramounts). We'd borrow a pile of records for a week, and learn off another fifteen or so numbers, you know. Anyway, I met Keith there one day, while The Paramounts were still going, and we wrote a couple of songs together. So when we packed the group up, I was going to become a songwriter -- in partnership with Keith. I thought, right, we'll have a go at that.
ZZ: What had Keith been doing?
GB: Nothing ... nothing at all ... a bit of labouring, maybe. He hadn't been a poetry reciter or an English language teacher, or anything. Diz went back to school, studied the flute, and took up jazz piano ... I didn't see him again until a couple of years ago. Robin started a trio in Southend, and Barrie almost joined that.
BJW: But I backed out -- I didn't like three piece groups -- and I just went off and played with other groups, like George Bean and the Runners... just drifting along.
GB: I didn't want to know anything about performing at all; I'd been through all that, and had had enough. I just wanted to write. So I took our songs along to a few contacts from the days of The Paramounts ... like Andrew Oldham, who paid for us to do a demo, with just me at the piano, but we didn't have any luck at all. We got a definite elbow. I thought the numbers were alright, but nobody was at all interested in doing them.
ZZ: Which numbers were these?
GB: A lot of the stuff from the first album ... 'Conquistador' and so on.
ZZ: When was 'A Whiter Shade of Pale written?
GB: In the early part of 1967. Keith and I had written about fifteen songs together, and nothing was happening -- so he said to me, 'We'll have to get a group together and do them our- selves". I said "Oh, no," and, in fact, I almost joined Dusty Springfield.... I was all set to become one of her Echoes, but at the last minute, I decided to have a go at getting our own group together -- even though we had absolutely no backing moneywise. We knew what sort of sound we wanted, what instruments were needed, and what sort of format we required ... all of this as a result of discussions with Guy Stevens. We decided that we wanted piano AND organ -- and that would be the basis of the sound.
ZZ: Did you get that idea from anyone in particular?
GB: No, not really, but loads of really good records had that combination. Then we thought about various people we knew, and I thought about Robin Trower -- because another thing we wanted was a blues guitarist.
ZZ: Did you envisage the group as a grand mixing of diverse musics?
GB: Yes -- all the things we liked, really. We put them all in one pot to see how they'd turn out, but also the thing was doing different kinds of numbers. People always think of us as being classically orientated, but there's really hardly any point at all where the classics have come into it.
BJW: It's just that occasionally a string section sounds nice.
GB: Anyway, we couldn't think of anybody who we would consider suitable. I didn't think Robin would go for this sort of thing, because there wasn't going to be any Muddy Waters in it, as such. So we put an ad in the Melody Maker, for a guitarist, bass player, and Hammond organist, and held audi tions up theTottenham Court Road. Dozens of people turned up: all guitarists and bass players -- so we paired them off and just did easy blues numbers, to get an idea of whether anybody could play or not. In fact, it was a pretty poor bunch, and in the end, we picked a coloured feller from Birmingham, who was the best guitarist ... but he went back home the following day, so we got Ray Royer and David Knights on guitar and bass respectively. Then we had to start looking for a drummer and an organist.
Well, soon afterwards, we saw an ad in MM -- "Hammond organist seeks work" -- and it was the answer to our prayers, because not many people had Hammonds on the grounds of expense ... and if they did, they were usually in a group already. So we went down to see this bloke, Matthew Fisher, in Croydon, and played him a couple of demos, including 'Whiter Shade Of Pale', which we'd just written ... and he joined us. He was playing with Screaming Lord Sutch at the time.
After that, we tried for a long time to get a drummer. We had several in for a few weeks, including Mad Steve the Greek, sniffing all day long, terrible it was ... he could've been a great drummer. In the end, though, things started to come together on the business side. We'd made a demo, and the people that were publishing our music set up a record deal.
ZZ: Who was that?
GB: We were with an independent company, Straight Ahead Productions, and they leased their stuff to various people -- so the first single was on the Deram label, but then the company (headed by Denny Cordell) switched to Regal Zonophone. The day we had the studio booked to do the single, Bobby Harrison came down. I'd remembered him from the old days, and he was the best drummer that had come along so far -- so we asked him to join. By then, of course, they'd booked the session, together with a session drummer, Bill Eyden, for safety's sake. He had a little bit of a go afterwards; once people began to say we were a session group, Bill put his spoke in, saying "where's my money? Where's my fifth of the royalties?"
ZZ: How did you get the name Procol Harum?
GB: From a cat belonging to a friend of Guy Stevens! We were looking for a name, but hadn't had any ideas ... then Guy phoned up one day with the name Procol Harum, which was the pedigree name of this cat. Apparently, most Burmese cats have Latin names ... but when people started to ask about the name, and we examined the cat's birth certificate, we found it should have been Procul Harun. It means "beyond these things", which was a nice little coincidence ... it could have meant "long red tail" or something.
And so, my friends, Procol Harum were born. If you're thinking "about bloody time too," I can assure you that we'll be on to more familiar ground next time as we trace the group's magnificent recording career, through thick and thin, through triumph and despair, up to the present day.