In May of 1967 I heard a new song on the radio with the most mournful organ sound I had ever heard. When the singing started a half-minute or so later, I was struck by the most captivating and beautiful rock voice I had ever heard. Forty-seven years later, A Whiter Shade of Pale never fails to make me react emotionally, despite the fact that I have heard it many hundreds of times. No other song can make me feel extreme joy, profound sadness and – most often – a strong feeling of melancholia in a way that this song does.
As I have always been a fan of Procol Harum, the band that created this masterpiece and numerous other magnificent works, I followed the ups and downs of the band over the years. I always wondered if I was the only person on the planet who felt so strongly about these Brits. In my opinion, this enigmatic group of musicians defied all attempts at categorisation. Was Procol Harum a progressive band? A singles band? A power band? None of these adjectives seemed to apply. Yes, the band recorded a few intricate pieces that could be considered as Prog rock; they had three commercial hits in the UK and two in the US, so they could be deemed a "commercial" band. In addition, they recorded a number of hard-driving rock tunes that could have easily have been in Led Zeppelin's repertoire. Yet in my mind, Procol Harum was a piano-dominated, highly melodic band that had one of the best vocalists on the planet and – most critically in this fan's opinion – played only what was necessary to ensure that the final versions of each wonderful song contained only those white and black notes that were required to complete the musical visions of Gary Brooker, nicknamed The Commander (piano, singer, composer) and Keith Reid (lyricist).
Forward to May, 2014: I had a few conversations with members of Procol Harum's Facebook page and at one point made the soon-to-be-fateful comment that I had enjoyed playing many of the band's songs on piano about thirty years ago when I actually still knew how to play (I don't think I had mentioned this latter part). Roland Clare, who co-runs the band's fan website, saw one of my postings and asked me if I was interested in playing with a fan-based musical ensemble, known as the Palers’ Band, that was going to perform before and after a Procol Harum concert in NY on 12 July. My son, Josh, and I had already gotten tickets to the concert that was being held on the same day as the Palers’ Band show/convention, not knowing about the convention in advance. I initially declined the invitation, but with encouragement from my wife Suzanne and Josh, both of whom said, "When are you going to get another chance like this?" I asked Josh if he was interested in learning some Procol Harum songs from his guitar teacher and playing as part of a band in concert as well. He said, "Yes!", so I volunteered.
I rented an odd creature known as a Roland electronic keyboard and started to practise many of the band's songs. Within the first five minutes of my first practice session, I realised that my semi-arthritic fingers were in for the shocks of their lives. Having not touched an acoustic keyboard in approximately 25 years, let alone an electronic one with a firmer action, my level of confidence was starting to wane. It didn't take me too long to recognise that my pretty good 1960s-thru-1980s musical chops had evidently turned into 2014 minced meat!
A few weeks later, numerous hours having been spent at this electronic beast, Josh and I headed to Brooklyn to see what (musical) fate awaited us. Although Josh had never heard any Procol other than their big hit until that time, he had been practising Procol Harum's music with his guitar teacher for many weeks and slipped into the role of occasional soloist quite easily. Unfortunately (for me), I recognised too late that I was expected to be the dominant musician on most of the tracks on which I was playing. As Roland had so eloquently pointed out to me after the first ten-hour practice day, "You need to be more forceful with your playing, and play more loudly. Don't worry about doubling the bassist's parts. Piano is the dominant instrument and you are expected to play many of the bass lines as well – the bassist won't mind".
Ian Hockley ... confidence booster
This conversation would never have had to occur if this had been 1965, 1975 or 1985, but as I hadn't played any serious piano in more than a couple of decades, "Uh-oh; I'm in trouble now," was the first thought that came to mind. I had hoped to slip into the background, filling in where necessary, but this was obviously not going to be the case. So to boost my confidence level, I shared one-half of a lovely bottle of wine over dinner on Thursday night with Ian Hockley, another wonderful musician (there's always an excuse!). For the next day's practice, I moved the ten-point volume slider from "0.16" all the way up to "3.5" on the keyboard. Was this an increased confidence level on my part, or utter foolishness? I didn't know … now my mistakes were really going to be heard!
Friday arrived and we hit the practice floor at the crack of dawn (9:00-ish). The tunes were starting to sound a bit better, as the musicians got more comfortable with each other and knew what our illustrious leader expected. Eight hours later, with a brief pizza break in between, we ensured that the equipment was packed and ready to go the convention hall for unloading and setup.
Friday, 11 July 2014 – 8:00pm – Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom – can't wait ... the REAL deal.
Thanks to Marvin Chassman, Josh and I got a lift into town from our hotel in Brooklyn to see Procol Harum at the Manhattan Center Grand Ballroom. We covered the ten-mile trek in a scant (by NY standards) ninety minutes and were soon seated to watch our heroes perform. This was Josh's first time seeing my heroes. Homburg ... I swoon, A Salty Dog ... I swoon again (Gary sounds wonderful!) … A Whiter Shade of Pale ... the grandest swoon of them all. Bushy-haired Geoff Whitehorn (guitarist) smiles throughout the show. Most importantly, I saw Josh rocking in his seat ...
Gear set up on Flippy's carpet
Late Friday evening Josh was told that there was no room for his guitar amp in the equipment van, so we needed to get to Gary Celebre's home (aka "Electric Garyland", the practice location) to get one to bring to our show (Gary is the bass player in local tribute band, Broken Barricades, which was supplying the equipment and sharing the bill with us on Saturday). In conjunction with drummer, Richard Williams, we had previously hired a chauffeur to take us to the venue and back to our hotel in Brooklyn after the show with no intended stops in between. Fortunately, he had no issues making this stop which ensured that Josh had an amp to use. There's nothing like starting off the day of a show with a screw-up!
9:30-ish: The equipment was being set up … guitars, keyboards, amps everywhere ... enough cabling to wrap around a baseball field.
Although we had practised In Held 'Twas In I (an eighteen-minute masterpiece) in separate parts on Thursday and Friday, this was going to be the first time we were rehearsing it from start to finish in our performance space with the additional musicians from Broken Barricades, and incorporating all of the transitions. To add a little complexity to the matter, there were three piano-players on our version of the song. The music runs continuously, so there was an instance where I had to stand behind pianist #1, Ian Hockley, and slide on to the piano bench to play the next part without (hopefully) missing a beat. Then preceding the Finale, I was to end my segment with a G flat arpeggio, followed by an F minor arpeggio, and then slide off the bench to let pianist #3, Roland, play the final segment. We ran through the tune twice and it came off quite well. That was it; the show had to go on.
The show had to go on ....
We opened the show with me at the piano playing two of my favourite songs, A Rum Tale and Rambling On with the volume level set to 5!. I was very pleased with the way they turned out, and getting smiles and thumbs up from a member of the audience didn't hurt! As I played, I glanced over at my smiling son, Josh, bending his knees in rhythm to the music and focussing on playing his guitar parts. I couldn't help but smile as well – here was my sweet kid playing music that was completely unknown to him sixty days earlier, blending in well with musicians whom he had just met 48 hours earlier! I had first heard A Whiter Shade of Pale at the age of seventeen and now my son, at the age of seventeen, was playing Procol music in a band with his dad!
The Palers’ Band played one more song and was followed by the ‘Broken Barricades’ band. The bands alternated, a set each, and then were entertained by a speech from "Unsteady" Freddie who talked about befriending members of Procol Harum in the early days. One story was about how his father embroidered sequins on Procol Harum tee-shirts that Freddie subsequently gave to the members of the band. There are photos of Gary Brooker wearing his in performance twenty years later! When Freddie mentioned that the band's late drummer, BJ Wilson, loved his tee-shirt and had been buried in it, I don't think that there was a dry eye in the house.
Three relatively obscure tunes (to non-Procol nutcases) followed, with Drunk Again being sung (loosely speaking) by the inimitable trio of Jens Anders Ravnaas, George Lovell and Stewart Bryson. Swaggering to the stage with beers in hand, these fine vocalists provided impeccable three-part harmony, occasionally pausing to refresh their gullets with long swigs of their beverages in order to ensure that their vocal cords were in optimal condition for the next verses. Mr Lovell, or Professor Lovell as he will be known to some of Josh's former classmates who will be attending Queens University in Kingston, is a real character who kept me smiling every time we chatted. George gave Josh a copy of his fine book The Waiter Brought a Tray: A Life (of Sorts) with Procol Harum with a personal inscription in it dedicated to Josh and me. Great stuff! As Josh said, "I'll tell my friends at Queens to wear Procol Harum tee-shirts to Geography class - -that ought to help their grades!"
The night's concert was being held at The Space at Westbury, a mere 800 feet from our hall, so all 20 Palers’ Band musicians walked to the venue to see our second consecutive Procol Harum show: and what a show it was! White-suited Gary was in fine voice on Friday night, but he blew the roof off on Saturday. I recall the band getting at least four standing ovations and there may have been more. As there was no opening act that night, the band's set was longer – nice! My favourite GB comment was when he said (paraphrased) "MP3s are bad – buy vinyl only!". As a big fan of oldies, I loved the band's version of Blueberry Hill.
I sat next to Laurie Wechsler, a friend from my summer camp days in the early 70s, whom I hadn't seen since a reunion many years ago. She told me that she started to love Procol Harum music as a result of my rabid interest. It's always nice to know that you've turned a friend into a fan of your favourite artist's music!
Fretmen Ronnie, Roland, Michael and Josh on In The Autumn of My Madness. Gary Shepard depping on Hammond
After the show, we returned to Mirelle's to play the next sets. As the evening progressed, we ran through many of our songs and I chatted with some of the folks who were attending the Convention. At one point I was standing near the piano and glanced over to the bar, which is located near the entrance, and saw a distinguished-looking gentleman in a familiar white suit near a bushy-haired, smiling gent – Gary and Geoff. Nearby, I spotted organist, Josh Phillips, and drummer, Geoff Dunn. Matt Pegg, bassist, was there too - woo-hoo! All five members of Procol Harum were at Mirelle's!!
Josh and Geoff
My son, Josh, had noticed that for the two concerts, Geoff Whitehorn played the same PRS guitar as does Josh (that did not fail to impress Josh!). There was a second PRS resting in a stand in front of the drum kit that Geoff didn't touch on either night. Josh was curious as to why that was. I said, "You'll never get another chance to ask!". A number of people had crowded around the band members, so we waited patiently and then Josh, with a big grin on his face, got to ask Geoff about the guitars. Geoff's answer was simply that he preferred playing the gold guitar, but kept the other one around as a backup.
In 1974, I saw Procol Harum at the Hemel Hempstead Pavilion outside London and was invited by their roadie to join the boys for drinks after the concert. I thought I had died and gone to heaven, but as the last train back to London for the night was to leave about thirty minutes later, I had no choice but to decline the invitation and make my way back to the train station. Roland told me that the band would have driven me back to London, or seen to it that I got a ride back – damn! NOW he tells me!. I was not going to let the opportunity to at least say ‘Hello' to my hallowed musical friends slip by.
Geoff was standing at the bar and for a few seconds was not talking to anyone, so I shuffled up to him, hoping to chat for a few minutes. I mentioned to him that it was great that he always seemed to be smiling while onstage. His response will stay with me for a long time. He said, "I get to do what I love to do and get paid for it. I have been playing with this band for 23 years and I have the best seat in the house, standing four feet away from him (pointing to Gary). I wake up the next day and do it again. What more could one want? I have the best job in the world!" He is right. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be paid handsomely to do a job one loves doing, with people who enrich one's life.
The Wolfes flanking the Commander (note the differentiated dangly things they're wearing)
Someone else came by to chat, so I inched my way over to Gary and mumbled the usual gushing fan things, "Great show ... long-time fan ... enjoy everything you've ever done ... (except Something Magic ... thought that, but didn't say it!). I then said, "My son had not heard any Procol Harum music until two months ago". Gary immediately responded, "Any ill effects?" Smiles all around. I had asked Josh if he would take a photo of Gary and me, so I asked Gary if I could have a flash photo taken of the two of us. His non-hesitating and terse response was "No!" I smiled and said, "How ’bout we take one anyways?". He grinned and nodded. Roland took the camera from Josh's hand and motioned Josh to come pose with us. After four or five misfires and two successful ones, Roland handed the camera back to me. Not wanting to be overly sycophantic, I thanked Gary for the indulgence and turned away.
I wandered back into the hall and picked up my video recorder.
Roland, Gary Brooker, Jens and Ronnie
A few minutes later Gary stepped out of the bar, glass of wine in hand, and came to the stage. With Roland on piano, Ian Hockley on organ, Gary Shepard on guitar, Ronnie D'Addario on bass and Jens Anders Ravnaas on drums (first song), Bruce Gold on drums (second song), Gary sang amazing versions of Give Me Something To Remember You By (a song which he has never performed in concert) from his first solo album, and The Milk of Human Kindness from A Salty Dog, Procol Harum's third album, both of which I recorded in HD for posterity on my videocam. A man of many talents, Gary B played some very complex and intriguing air guitar during the latter tune
Another shot of GB and Paul, the author of this memoir
So here I was, forty years after missing an opportunity to share a drink with my favourite band members, standing fifteen feet away from Gary Brooker, armed with my HD videocam, recording him singing two wonderful tunes after having had the opportunity to chat with him and his great lead guitarist at a bar. Life on the road is good, or as Josh kept saying with a smile, "I'm with the band!" :-)
After the members of Procol Harum left the building, the Palers’ Band resumed our set and I somewhat nervously played the other tunes on my list, but my brain was stuck in reverse and insisted on replaying Gary's set in my head instead of allowing me to focus on the music at hand. The evening ended with In Held ’Twas In I, the band's inspiring, creepy, moody, uplifting, and willies-inducing opus, with members of Broken Barricades and the Palers’ Band sharing the stage. I blew the piano intro to ’Twas Teatime at the Circus again, but at least no one can say that I'm not consistent (I also messed up the first Eb minor chord on the Look To Your Soul segment – bummer!). The show ended with this opus and it was all over in the blink of an eye
It was great playing with these folks and it was difficult to say goodbye to the Palers’ Band members. All of the musicians were exceptionally supportive of each other and not a harsh word was said during any of the rehearsals or performances. As Roland had said at the outset, "We're here to have fun!" As we departed Mirelle's, lots of hugs were exchanged and I felt a certain amount of sadness knowing that I would likely never see most of these people again. It's amazing how one can bond so strongly with folks over the course of just a few days.
This was a wonderful experience for Josh and me. We have been humming Procol Harum tunes non-stop since returning home to Toronto. Since last Thursday, I have fallen asleep humming some of the band's tunes and woken up humming other ones. On Monday night I played the band's recent live albums MMX and ...Some Long Road... at maximum volume while prepping dinner and now I'm listening to Liquorice John Death and The Symphonic Music of Procol Harum while typing this – I may even listen to Something Magic from start to finish for the first time in at least a decade!
I returned the rented Roland keyboard to the store yesterday, but not before playing my two favourite tunes from this weekend. I also tried that damn intro to Teatime again, but won't belabour you with the results …
Paul Wolfe in the midst of Palers' Band singers
If our adventures with The Palers’ Band are limited to this one time, I will have very fond and long-lasting memories of the experience and will always smile thinking about those four days in NY. If perchance, the opportunity arises to someday do this again, and the stars are aligned, I will jump at the chance to do so ... with Josh (hopefully) by my side.
As a friend remarked, "As Josh gets on in life and has a family of his own, he will likely think back about definitive times that he shared with his parents. Playing onstage for the first time with his dad and a group of strangers who ended up as friends will certainly be one of those fond memories."
Epilogue, kudos and thanks:
To the Celebres’ incredible generosity in hosting the Palers’ Band rehearsals for two days, for providing the burger and pizza lunches and dealing with any mess we may have made in your home (a special 'thank you' to the unknown neighbours who put up with our outdoor practices!).
The amazing D'Addario boys, interspersed among Gary, Josh and Ian
To the amazing D'Addario boys – you guys are mature as musicians and, more importantly, as individuals. It was a pleasure watching and playing with you both!
To Roland: our illustrious leader, who despite his familiarity and keyboard expertise with Procol Harum's oeuvre managed to maintain an even keel when some of the playing was less than exemplary. However, as he said at the outset, the goal was to have fun and I don't think anyone would deny that a grand time was had by all. Thanks to you and Jens for putting all of the pieces together and keeping everyone focussed on our collective objective: which was to have fun and play our tunes to the best of our individual abilities.
To Marvin: for graciously offering lifts to and from the Manhattan show (or did I coerce you into it?) while putting up with ridiculous crosstown traffic (I think there could be a song in there somewhere). Where else would there be rush hour traffic at 2:00am except in NYC?
Bert, Ronnie, Carina and Elizabeth
To "The Pros" (you know who you are), whose musical abilities are truly wonderful and who set the elevated standard for the rest of us.
To all of the Palers’ Band members who displayed oodles of friendliness, warmth, patience and acceptance without any preconditions. One request – would you all please move to Toronto, so that we can do this every night?
Roland and Marvin, piano and percussion
To Roland (again), who was going to mention the fifty-year age differential between the youngest player, Michael D'Addario and the oldest … I forget who that was … thanks for not mentioning it! :-)
To Evan Wagshul, whom I met for the first time at the Convention, despite trading tapes/CDs and chatting with him for the last fifteen years or so.
A similar shot to one shown above
To Gary, Geoff W, Geoff D, Matt, Josh P and past members of Procol Harum: for being my favourite band of all time. Without your songs, I probably would never have become the music wingnut that I am, music would never have become such an important part of my life, and Josh and I never would have had the opportunity to participate in this type of event.
To my wife, Suzanne, who encouraged me to volunteer, despite likely knowing the name of only one Procol Harum song and knowing that I hadn't touched a keyboard in many years. :-)
Josh with a smile on his face (all other faces shewn are being put to different use)
To Josh: who made me incredibly proud as a father watching him play his guitar, rocking rhythmically to his dad's favourite music and with a smile on his face. Needless to say, I had tears in my eyes the first time he got up with the Palers’ Band members. Sorry folks, but that was the crème de la crème for me!
Until we meet again … Shine on Brightly everyone!
Paul Wolfe (Ontario, Canada)
Procol dates in 2014 | More Palers' Band information