The legendary Procol Harum singer was 76
Gary Brooker, one of the greatest voices in modern rock — some would say the greatest voice in modern rock — died last Sunday after succumbing to cancer.
The original co-founder of Procol Harum, among the most influential British bands of all time, Brooker leaves behind a legacy that goes well beyond the song that’s rightly called a classic, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” While many people identify Brooker and the band solely with that song, Procol’s accomplishments far exceed their biggest smash.
VIDEO: Procol Harum “A Whiter Shade of Pale”
They include a steady succession of innovative albums that began with the band’s eponymous debut in 1967 and continued to evolve throughout the remainder of the decade and into the mid ‘70s. Each was marked by elegiac arrangements, a sweeping, sound, and an overt intelligence that likened each of their efforts to mini masterpieces imbued with intelligence and imagination. Indeed, Procol was the epitome of classic British rock — magical, memorable and wholly unique in design and execution. One need look no further than the band’s third album, 1969’s A Salty Dog to appreciate the art and imagery.
Still, it was that singular song, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” released in the summer of 1967, that put Brooker and the band on the musical map and forever defined them as an outfit indebted to certain classical composers — Johann Sebastian Bach in particular — as well as the often indecipherable lyrics of resident wordsmith Keith Reid and the stately arrangements spotlighting the twin keyboards of Brooker and organist Matthew Fisher, the drama-infused, Hendrix-like guitar lines of Robin Trower and the mighty drumming of the late B.J. Wilson. Nevertheless, it was Brooker’s vocals, so searing and soulful one might have mistaken him for a preeminent R&B singer.
(I know that I was. When I first heard the hymn-like strains of the song, I thought it was a new track by Percy Sledge.)
Procol Harum wasn’t the only accomplishment of Brooker’s nearly 60 year musical career. He made his initial inroads alongside Robin Trower with an early ‘60s British R&B outfit known as the Paramounts, the immediate predecessor to Procol Harum, although it was decidedly different from the progressive posture as it evolved with the latter band. Before and after Procol’s demise, he served as a journeyman of sorts, sharing studio time with George Harrison for All Things Must Pass, and contributing to albums by Kate Bush, the Hollies, the Alan Parsons Project and Eric Clapton, with whom he played as part of Clapton’s backing band. He later toured with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, stealing the spotlight when he performed his signature song.
Brooker also branched out in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with a solo career that included three albums of his own, 1979’s No More Fear of Flying, 1982’s Lead Me to the Water and 1985’s Echoes in the Night. More recently, he helmed a reconstituted version of Procol Harum both onstage and in the studio courtesy of several later releases that began in 1991 with a reunion effort, The Prodigal Stranger, continuing through The Well’s On Fire twelve years later and Novum, released in 2017.
Brooker’s indelible influence extended beyond his music. In 2003 he was given the Queen’s high honors as a member of the Order of the British Empire, or OBE, for his continuing contributions to various British charities.
Brooker was 76 when he passed away, but he’ll live forever courtesy of some of the most memorable music ever made.
VIDEO: Gary Brooker “No More Fear of Flying”