This interesting Notes-and-Queries type feature was found in the UK's Daily Mail by Geoff Whitehorn, who kindly sent it in to 'Beyond the Pale'. If you like this kind of detail have a look at Bernard Greenberg's very scholarly pieces, What Bach piece? and Bach and Fisher, which seem to have informed this article.
Bach Beyond the Pale
Question: Which piece of Bach inspired the melody of Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale?
Procol Harum's 1967 hit single was part-based on Bach's Air on a G String, more correctly Air from Orchestral Suite No 3 in D and his Cantata 140, which is known as Sleepers Awake.
But the story isn't that simple. Gary Brooker first wrote the song as a straight R&B tune, based on the Air on a G String melody [should be 'bassline'?], which he had heard on a 'Hamlet' cigar advertisement.
At the time, Bob Dylan had achieved great success with the Hammond organ on albums such as Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and this inspired other acts to follow suit.
Procol Harum called on Matthew Fisher, a classically-trained organist, who gave the band a unique flavour. He transformed the organ melody into something far superior to the chord/bass structure Brooker had borrowed from Bach.
The organ melody includes melodic lines running in counterpoint to the vocal melody and the famous eight-bar solo that begins, ends, and appears between verses.
That solo was influenced strongly by Sleepers Awake, but Fisher transformed the tempo, rhythm and context of a brief sequence for the Cantata to form an integral part of his cohesive eight-bar solo, greatly disguising the source of his inspiration.
In a recent interview, Brooker credited Fisher for composing the organ lines by saying that Fisher had 'refined' Brooker's use of Bach but Fisher's 'refinement' is, in fact, a carefully-constructed original melody.
PS Harper, Newcastle upon Tyne
More about A Whiter Shade of Pale