It was the musical equivalent of a rookie baseball player smacking a grand-slam home run on the first pitch in his first at-bat in the major leagues.
Yet recording a global hit that would become one of the most iconic songs in the history of popular music was the furthest thing on the minds of the newly formed band Procol Harum when they went into a studio and laid down their very first tune in 1967.
“We believed that what we were doing was different and good,” group founder, pianist and composer Gary Brooker tells Atlantic City Weekly. “We believed that if we liked it, then everybody else would like it. But we certainly didn’t think that just a few weeks after we put the record out it would be No 1 in England or No 5 in the United States.”
The song was A Whiter Shade of Pale, one of the earliest rock tunes that fused elements of classical and baroque music borrowed from Johann Sebastian Bach with soulful and mysterious lyrics that hinted of a sexual encounter. Over the decades, the song has been covered by dozens of artists ranging from Willie Nelson and Annie Lennox to Southside Johnny.
“We were just thinking of [a hit in] England, really, and maybe Scotland,” Brooker says with a laugh during a recent chat from his home outside of London. “It really wasn’t a global world back then, if you know what I mean. The market just didn’t flash like it does today.”
But from the moment the song was released, it seemed to take on a life of its own. In less than a month, it rocketed up the charts to capture the top position in Great Britain and France and crossed the ocean to become a top 10 hit in America.
Check out this 16mm video of A Whiter Shade of Pale from 1967.
Brooker, who co-wrote the song with Matthew Fisher and Keith Reid, acknowledges the song drew its musical influence from Bach compositions like Air On a G String and Sleepers Wake! and even from the Percy Sledge classic When a Man Loves a Woman.
“JS Bach was the inspiration, of course, with the descending chords and all that,” Brooker, 65, says. “And we had written some interesting words which fit in with my idea for the music, and it all just kind of came together. The Hammond organ gave it a sort of haunting sound. I guess everyone must have been waiting for it, because it was so successful and it’s lasted all this time.”
With more than 900 recorded versions of the song over the past 43 years, A Whiter Shade of Pale ranks right up there with The Beatles’ songs Yesterday and Michelle as the most covered songs of all time.
Brooker, who was knighted [sic!] by Queen Elizabeth several years ago, is the only original member still performing with Procol Harum. He’ll lead the latest version of the band onto the stage of the Tropicana on Saturday (June 12) with special guests Renaissance opening the show.
Headlining the show is a switch for Procol Harum, who have just begun touring as the opening act for another legendary British rock band, Jethro Tull, which ironically is headlining at Caesars Atlantic City while Procol Harum is performing a few blocks down the Boardwalk.
Procol Harum was one of the first bands from the progressive rock era to work with symphony orchestras when they toured. Brooker admits it was something of a risk to combine classical music with rock in live performance.
“I suppose it was a risk in that the rock fans could have said, ‘We don’t like violins’ and classical musicians and listeners could have said, ‘We hate rock,’” he offers.
One of the first times the band performed live with an orchestra was in 1971, when they recorded a concert with the Edmonton Symphony in Canada. Brooker says he never had any doubts that the combination of the rock band and the classical orchestra would sound great.
Although Procol Harum hasn’t performed locally since its appearance at the 1969 Atlantic City Pop Festival, Brooker isn’t a stranger to Atlantic City. As a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band in 1997, Brooker spent a week at the Trump Taj Mahal rehearsing with the band for its tour.
Casual conversations with the stars. Watch the Emmy-winning Curtain Call with David Spatz, Saturdays at 6pm on WMGM-TV NBC40.
Procol dates in 2010 | Procol history in print