Gary Brooker, singer for Procol Harum, dies at 76
By Jon Pareles
Gary Brooker, the singer and pianist of the early progressive rock group Procol Harum, who co-wrote songs including “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the improbable but overpowering hit during the 1967 Summer of Love, died Saturday at his home in Surrey, England. He was 76.
Brooker had been receiving treatment for cancer, the band said in a statement confirming his death.
With his grainy, weathered-sounding voice and a piano style steeped in gospel, classical music, blues and the British music hall, Brooker led Procol Harum in songs that mixed pomp and whimsy, orchestral grandeur and rock drive. Brooker composed nearly all of Procol Harum’s music; Keith Reid, who did not perform with the band, provided lyrics that invoked literary and historical allusions and spun tall tales, sometimes at the same time.
Although “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was both its first and biggest hit, and the band steadfastly avoided showmanship, Procol Harum sustained a five-decade career. It recorded and toured steadily until 1977, and it regrouped sporadically in lineups led by Brooker to continue making albums until 2017. Brooker, the band’s statement said, “was notable for his individuality, integrity, and occasionally stubborn eccentricity. His mordant wit, and appetite for the ridiculous, made him a priceless raconteur (and his surreal inter-song banter made a fascinating contrast with the gravitas of Procol Harum’s performances).”
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” drew on Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air on a G String” for its chord progression; Matthew Fisher’s organ opened with a stately melody and Brooker sang a countermelody, somberly offering the surreal paradoxes of Reid’s lyrics. In 2009, Fisher successfully sued to receive a shared credit for composing the song.
Procol Harum’s combination of classical influences, elaborately poetic lyrics and extended compositions made it a progenitor of progressive rock, but Brooker habitually shrugged off that category. “Prog — it was not invented when we started,” he told Goldmine magazine in 2021. “We always try to be progressive in what we do. So, we made our first album and then we tried to move on, to progress.”
Gary Brooker was born May 29, 1945, in London. His father, Harry Brooker, was a musician; Gary learned piano, cornet, trombone, guitar and banjo while growing up. Harry Brooker died when Gary was 11 and his mother, Violet May Brooker, found work on a factory assembly line.
Brooker dropped out of college to work as a musician, and at the end of the 1950s he began playing in the Paramounts, which largely performed American R&B songs. By the time the Paramounts broke up in 1966, they had shared bills with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles; later, Brooker would play studio sessions and concerts with the former Beatles.
Brooker started a new band, which included Fisher, to play the songs that he had begun writing with Reid: the Pinewoods, which were soon renamed Procol Harum, fractured Latin for “beyond these things.” The new band’s combination of piano and organ was uncommon in British rock, though American gospel groups used it, as did the rock group the Band. Brooker described his initial idea for the band as “a bit of classical, a bit of Bob Dylan, a bit of Ray Charles.”
Procol Harum’s first recording session, working with studio musicians, yielded “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” When it became a hit, guitarist Robin Trower and drummer B.J. Wilson, who had been in the Paramounts, joined Procol Harum to record its self-titled 1967 debut album. Its structural ambitions expanded on its 1968 album, “Shine On Brightly,” which included the five-part, 18-minute suite “In Held ’Twas in I.”
Brooker married Françoise Riedo in 1968. She survives him.
The title track of Procol Harum’s 1969 album “A Salty Dog” featured a dramatic orchestral arrangement by Brooker, and Procol Harum soon began performing with orchestras. Its 1971 album, “Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra,” brought it an American hit with an expansive remake of “Conquistador,” from Procol Harum’s debut album. By then, both Fisher and Trower had left Procol Harum and Brooker was the band’s clear leader. Its 1973 album, “Grand Hotel,” reveled in orchestration; its 1974 “Exotic Birds and Fruit” emphatically rejected it. Songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller produced “Procol’s Ninth” in 1975.
In 1977, Brooker decided that “For the time being, Procol Harum had nothing more to say.” He joined Eric Clapton’s band in the late 1970s, touring and recording, and he made solo albums. Brooker’s 1985 album, “Echoes in the Night,” was produced by Fisher and included contributions from Reid and Wilson.
Brooker restarted Procol Harum in 1990 with Fisher, Trower and Reid to record “The Prodigal Stranger.” During the long gaps between Procol Harum’s studio albums — the band released “The Well’s on Fire” in 2003 and “Novum” in 2017, for which Pete Brown replaced Reid as the lyricist — Brooker toured with Procol Harum, performed with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, and organized charity concerts that brought him recognition as a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2013. In 2021, Procol Harum released “Missing Persons” and “War Is Not Healthy,” a final pair of reflective Brooker-Reid songs.
Brooker soberly assessed his band in 2021.
“We don’t do a lot of grooves, but we do a good bit of rock,” Brooker told Goldmine. “Down in the core, though, there’s the music where I’m trying to reach the people and to make them feel something that’s right. And I don’t mean they’re going to jump up and down and want to dance. Fine if they’re going to. But I mean, if I saw a tear roll down their face that would be a good reaction — to reach people in their emotions, in the inside somewhere, not just on the surface.”