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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Keith Reid, who brought poetry to Procol Harum, dies at 76

The lyricist Keith Reid in 1970. A kind of rock star by association, he provided the impressionistic words for “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and other songs recorded by Procol Harum but did not perform or record with the band.

By Alex Williams

Keith Reid, whose impressionistic lyrics for the early progressive rock band Procol Harum helped to fuel emblematic songs of the 1960s, most notably “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” has died. He was 76.

His death was announced in a Facebook post from the band. The announcement did not say where or when he died or cite a cause, but according to news media reports, he died in a hospital in London on March 23 after having been treated for cancer for two years.

During its heyday in the late 1960s and ’70s, Procol Harum stood out as musically ambitious, even by prog-rock standards — as demonstrated by its 1972 album, “Procol Harum Live: In Concert With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.”

The band’s music, which at times bordered on the sepulchral, required lyrics that soared along with it. Reid was happy to oblige. “I always write them as poems,” he said of his lyrics in a 1973 interview with Melody Maker, a British music magazine. Indeed, with Procol Harum, the words tended to come first.

As lyricist Bernie Taupin has long done for Elton John, Reid generally submitted his lyrics to the band’s singer, pianist and primary songwriter, Gary Brooker, or sometimes the band’s guitarist, Robin Trower, or organist, Matthew Fisher, who also wrote songs.

While Reid was a founding member of the group, he was more a rock star by association, since he did not sing or play an instrument and thus did not record or perform with Procol Harum. Still, he rarely missed a gig.

“If I didn’t go to every gig, I would not be part of the group,” he told Melody Maker. Touring, he said, helped him write: “I find it much easier to shut myself away in a hotel room for two hours than to work at home, where there are far too many distractions.”

The results of such focus were apparent with “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the first single off the band’s debut album, released in 1967. The song, which hit No. 1 on the British charts and No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, sold around 10 million copies worldwide. And it endured long after the ’60s drew to a close.

By the ’80s, it had achieved canonical status. It was often used to underscore the wistful memories of veterans of the flower-power era in films like Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 hippies-to-yuppies midlife crisis tale, “The Big Chill,” and Martin Scorsese’s May-December romance installment in the 1989 film “New York Stories,” which also included short films by Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola.

The song’s famous opening lines (“We skipped the light fandango / Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor”) conjure bawdy images of drunken debauchery at a party, illuminating a failing romantic relationship. They are set to a haunting chord progression with echoes of Bach, rendered in ecclesiastical fashion by Fisher’s organ, and sung by Brooker in a raspy voice, soaked with longing and regret.

She said “There is no reason

And the truth is plain to see.”

But I wandered through my playing cards

Would not let her be

One of sixteen vestal virgins

Who were leaving for the coast

And although my eyes were open

They might have just as well’ve been closed.

“I had the phrase ‘a whiter shade of pale,’ that was the start, and I knew it was a song,” Reid said in a 2008 interview with British music magazine Uncut.

“I was trying to conjure a mood as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story,” he continued. “With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene.”

Keith Stuart Brian Reid was born Oct. 19, 1946, in Welwyn Garden City, north of London, one of two sons of a father from Austria and a mother who had been born in England to Polish parents. His father, who was fluent in six languages, had been a lawyer in Vienna but was among more than 6,000 Jews arrested there in November 1938. He fled to England upon his release.

His father’s experiences at the hands of the Nazis left emotional scars that Reid said influenced his worldview, and his writing.

“The tone of my work is very dark, and I think it’s probably from my background in some subconscious way,” Reid said in an interview with Scott R. Benarde, the author of “Stars of David: Rock ’n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories” (2003).

In 1966, Reid was introduced by a mutual friend to Brooker, who was with a band called the Paramounts, whose members also included Trower and drummer B.J. Wilson. Reid and Brooker became friends and started writing together; they, Trower, Wilson and Fisher would all eventually form Procol Harum.

Procol Harum never again scaled the heights it achieved with its first single, but it continued to be a major act through the mid-1970s, regularly releasing albums and scoring the occasional hit single; a live orchestral version of “Conquistador,” a song from the band’s first album, reached the Top 20 in 1972.

Reid said he felt lost after the band broke up in 1977 (it would reform, in various incarnations, over the years). In 1986 he moved to New York, where he started a management company and composed songs (music as well as lyrics) for other artists.

That year, he collaborated with songwriters Andy Qunta, Maggie Ryder and Chris Thompson of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band on “You’re the Voice,” which was recorded by Australian singer John Farnham, and topped the charts in several countries, although it made little impact in the United States.

During the 1990s, Reid wrote songs for Annie Lennox, Willie Nelson, Heart and many others. He would eventually turn the focus on his own talents, releasing two albums by what he called The Keith Reid Project, “The Common Thread” (2008) and “In My Head” (2018), which included artists like Southside Johnny, John Waite and Thompson.

Reid’s survivors include his wife, Pinkey, whom he married in 2004.

Unlike the rock luminaries he came of age alongside, Reid did not bask in the lights of the stage. Even so, he experienced his own form of glory, gazing on as the members of Procol Harum brought life to his words at shows he refused to miss.

“You wouldn’t expect a playwright not to attend the rehearsals of his play,” he told Melody Maker in 1973. “My songs are just as personal to me. They’re a part of my life. They are not gone from me.”

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