Gary Brooker, who as leader of veteran, English progressive rockers Procol Harum paved the genre’s path in the latter 1960s with his Bach-infused “A White Shade of Pale,” and decades of subsequent work mixing multi-faceted, esoteric flavorings, English folk, and American blues, has passed away from cancer. Brooker’s death was on February 19th, but was not publicly announced until the 22nd. Brooker was 75.
Brooker’s career started in the early 1960s with The Paramounts, a British R&B outfit who were contemporaries of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, both of which were fans, and often included them on their tours, yet enjoyed minimal commercial success. Their only British Top 40 hit was in 1963, a cover of “Poison Ivy,” which was originally made famous by The Coasters.
Brooker and Robin Trower were part of the group that eventually broke apart. Brooker didn’t give up and came up in 1967 with the idea to loosely base a song on J.S. Bach’s “Air on the G String.” The result was a hastily formed band, with Brooker as lead singer and songwriter, alongside Keith Reld providing lyrics. The song was “A White Shade of Pale,” which became a permanent member of rock history.
Although never again ascending to the heights of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum carved a very successful career for themselves throughout the remainder of the 1960s and through the mid-1970s, including tracks such as “A Salty Dog” and “Conquistador” cementing their place in rock’s thinking brigade. The band remained sporadically active in the ensuing decades, enjoying a fond spot in aging rockers’ hearts for how it proved the worlds of traditional and contemporary music can indeed live together in harmony.
Procol Harum was a compositional band, relying on its individual songs’ and collective tunes’ strength — rather than instrumental virtuosity — to carry the day. Procol Harum was not afraid to mix multiple ideas into one album. You would hear straightforward blues tracks, gentle folk, and lushly orchestrated numbers all in one sitting, all laced together by Brooker’s powerful, earthy vocals. It was never the band of choice; it was far from being the most popular. Even at its peak commercially, Brooker’s strong, rich vocals unified them all. Procol Harum stood out as a unique band. It was innovative, vibrant, and, even though it is only known for one song, the band had a profound influence on pop music.
Aside from music, Brooker’s extensive charity work was honored in 2003, when Queen Elizabeth awarded him the MBE. He also maintained what might possibly be the lengthiest marriage by a rocker in the genre’s history, as he and wife Françoise married in 1968.
Godspeed Gary Brooker