February 22, 2022

Gary Brooker — One of the Most Distinctive Voices

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For over 55 years Gary Brooker was not only the lead singer and pianist for Procol Harum, he was also their primary songwriter and leader. During most of those years his voice and piano were the sound of the band.

The first band that Brooker was in was called The Paramounts. They were the perfect steppingstone to Procol Harum. The group could best be described as a Jazzy Rock band that was heavily influenced by Classical music. When the band broke up in 1966, Gary and Robin Trower became founding members of Procol Harum.

The group’s very first single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale’ become an instant classic. It is one of a handful of songs that led the way to a new more progressive sound in the “Summer of Love” in 1967. It was the start of a new era in Rock music.

Brooker and his long-time writing partner Keith Reed wrote the song that remains as one of the all-time Rock classics. It was both a good way and a bad way to get the band started. While it was a huge hit, everyone expected a lot more from a group that helped coin the phrase “Bach Rock”.

In my conversation with Gary, he was very candid about the label. While he admitted that he loved Classical music, especially Bach and Handel, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was not an attempt to combine the two styles of music. In fact, the song was inspired by an American R & B hit by Percy Sledge called “When a Man Loves a Woman”. He challenged those who made the claim the song was taken from a Bach piece, to produce the piece that inspired “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.

Procol Harum was one of the best, if not the best, at combining the two genres. While following up “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was never totally accomplished, their live album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra was not only a big selling album, but a landmark album in the way they were able to mix both the band and the orchestra without either dominating the music.

Despite numerous personal changes and a period where the band broke up, Gary went on to do some very good albums with Procol Harum and as a solo performer. While these albums didn’t sell as well as the earlier efforts, they remain as brilliant works.

The one thing Gary always said was he never looked back, he always looked forward. Labeling his music as anything other than music was something that annoyed him. “I don’t think Procol Harum has ever fit into a particular pigeonhole” Gary said in an interview with Vintage Magazine, “you really don’t know what to put them under”. That accounted for both their charm and their inability to attract a larger audience.

When Procol Harum first broke up in 1977, Gary launched a solo career. At the same time, he began recording and touring with long time friend, Eric Clapton. He also did some piano on George Harrison’s ALL THING MUST PASS album. While it was nice to hear his great piano work, the thing that was really missing was that great voice.

A revised version of Procol Harum was formed in 1991. Except for a time in 1997 and 1999 when Brooker toured with Ringo Starr’s All Starrs and with Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones and was part of “the Concert for George”, Gary recorded and toured with Procol Harum until 2019.

Gary Brooker was universally liked. It has been said of him that he would light up a room when he entered and yet was very down to earth. He was known for his integrity, and for helping others in many causes. Unlike many stars, Gary was married to his now widow since before his stardom.

Despite hurting himself in a fall getting off the stage at a concert, Gary carried on until Cancer got the better of him. Thankfully, his voice and works will live forever.

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