Gary Brooker is renowned across the world as the mesmerising singer, pianist and principal composer in Procol Harum, the elusive and inspiring band he has led since their chart-topping début in 1967 with A Whiter Shade of Pale: tonight’s benefit concert for Tsunami Survivors punctuates Procol’s European tour, which started in London last month. The band’s career – eleven critically acclaimed studio albums, a gold-selling live album with symphony orchestra, chart singles like Homburg, Conquistador, and Pandora’s Box, numerous poll-topping awards – has been interwoven with Gary’s spells of recording and world touring as the featured pianist / vocalist in the Eric Clapton Band, Ringo’s All-Starr Band, Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, and the British Rock Ensemble; along the way he has played by invitation on records by three ex-Beatles, and has made three solo-albums; he also runs an alter-ego group of R&B hooligans, No Stiletto Shoes, which doubled as house band at 2002’s ‘Concert for George’ at the Royal Albert Hall.
The Shoes, and tonight’s Gary Brooker Ensemble, are just two more of the musical strings in Brooker’s multi-talented bow: operating closer to home than Procol, both have raised significant sums for worthy causes. It’s a characteristic paradox that Brooker, who was awarded the MBE in 2003 for these services to charity, actually began his fund-raising activities as a kind of dodge ‘… so I could play the blues all night.’ In the late seventies, following Procol Harum’s ten-album first incarnation, Gary ran The Parrot pub at Fortune Green, and gathered some fellow stars to play an informal session. ‘Licensing regulations didn’t permit us to stay open past eleven unless food was served, so we charged a pound for some Spartan snacks and that entitled us to sit up playing until 4 am.’ The following dawn, finding himself with two hundred pounds in hand, Brooker gave the money to the National Autistic Society at Worcester Park: and a tradition was born.
Since those days Gary has been involved in musical fund-raising for a kaleidoscope of charities, including Cherry Trees, DEBRA, HASTE, McMillan Nurses, Royal Surrey County Hospital, Save the Children, St John Ambulance and St Joseph’s School. The local flavour of many of these organisations reflects his loyalty to his adopted county; born in London (1945), he moved to the Guildford area in 1971 after a spell rehearsing in the Surrey countryside with Procol Harum for their classic 1970 album, Home. ‘Guildford’s been a great R&B town since the early sixties, when the Rikitik Club operated at the Plaza and the Woodenbridge Hotel,’ Gary recalls. He played there with The Paramounts, the Southend band in which he paid his musical dues: a favourite of the Stones, they charted in 1964 with Poison Ivy, and toured with Parlophone label-mates, the Beatles. Procol Harum, born when the Paramounts disbanded, were more fêted abroad than at home: they didn’t reach Guildford until 2000’s open-air concert in Stoke Park – with choir and orchestra – marked the re-establishment of the twenty-first century incarnation of the band. Procol have toured every year since then, and details of their latest studio album The Well’s on Fire, and 2004’s Live at the Union Chapel DVD, may be found at www.procolharum.com, one of the most comprehensive rock sites on the web.
It was in 1996 that Gary agreed to promote a special concert to raise money for restoration of his local 13th century church; that first concert by The Gary Brooker Ensemble, initially released on his own Gazza label as a fan-club live CD, has since been taken up by the German Repertoire label (recommended by Gary as the best source of Procol Harum’s CD catalogue) and recently re-issued in North America too. The Ensemble adapted some of the most spiritually-charged Procol Harum songs (also setting a new text written for the occasion by his non-performing Procol colleague, the lyricist Keith Reid), mixed in some Gospel and some Elvis, and (literally, for once) raised the roof. The same players repeated the concert a year later in the Army Church at Aldershot by invitation of Chameleon Arts, who again supplied the choir and the string players.
All the featured musicians in tonight’s version of The Gary Brooker Ensemble have played – albeit in markedly different style – in No Stiletto Shoes, direct descendants of The Paramounts in terms of their repertoire and full-tilt approach. Such musical versatility is indispensable when playing benefits, says Gary: ‘Since these gigs are invariably put together at short notice with very little rehearsal, you only invite great players, masters of their instruments, who know the repertoire. Players,’ he adds with the famous twinkle in his voice, ‘who have the same flavour, and who have come up together through the University of Rock.’
The University of Rock is not Gary’s only alma mater. His father Harry Brooker was a versatile professional musician, with whom Gary occasionally duetted on stage as a child; Gary also profited from the guidance of a piano-teacher sympathetic to his appetite for songs and his blossoming interest in the mechanics of harmony. Blessed with hungry ears and a complete absence of musical prejudice (his finest song, A Salty Dog, took shape when he sat at the piano to reproduce the sound of a Swiss loco-siren) Gary has remained open to myriad influences throughout his long career.
Along the way Gary taught himself orchestration: his extra-curricular works include a ballet-score commissioned by the Danish Royal Opera (Delta, 1990) and a piece for a huge brass band (1998) in his wife Franky’s native Switzerland. But too much has been made of the ‘classical’ influences in Procol Harum. Certainly original organist Matthew Fisher knew his Bach; Brooker’s basslines didn’t just hammer at the root of every chord; and from the outset the band relished dynamic contrast: they didn’t all play all the time. But as Brooker has often observed, Procol’s music was ‘fundamentally the blues, with the odd clever chord thrown in.’ When they were first invited to present their music with orchestra and chorus, at 1969’s Stratford Festival, Brooker’s symphonic arrangements essentially complemented an emotional drama already implicit in the songs. Subsequent joyriders on Procol’s orchestra-plus-band-wagon chose to present group and orchestra oppositionally: Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra or the Nice’s Brandenburger had the iconoclastic taint of a younger generation’s powerboat churning the lily-pond of the parental record-collection. Brooker, on the other hand, retains a deep affection for the music, light or ‘serious’, that he heard at his father’s knee (he has even used the paternal pseudonym, ‘Pahene’, on occasions), and tonight’s recital reflects the rich cocktail of influences he has absorbed and made his own.
Following this cathedral concert Gary resumes Procol’s European tour; a new song in their repertoire, Victims of the Fury, reflects his continuing concern with tragedies elsewhere in the world, and the band’s Blink of an Eye, commemorating the twin towers disaster, now has rejigged words alluding to the recent Indian Ocean catastrophe. A new version of No Stiletto Shoes (Brooker, Fairweather Low and Mead, with Ian Jennings and Mark Morgan from The Big Town Playboys) will shortly play benefits in Delhi and Madras – organised by entrepreneur philanthropist Johnny Caulcutt and Richard Branson – for tsunami survivors in that region. The fifth all-star ‘Picnic by the Lake’ at Wintershall follows on 11 June, from which the proceeds will go towards a new wing at the Royal Surrey and Guildford Hospital. Just about to turn sixty, Maestro Brooker MBE remains a very busy man.