Procol Harum

the Pale

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Tito Davila on ...

The Many Shades Of Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker

On 30 August 1998, while Gary was awaiting his dinner in a Monte Carlo hotel, the Homburg Society's Tito Davila conducted a telephonic interview with him, about the Ringo tour and other matters Procolian.  The resulting article, syndicated to the New York Times, ran the week of September 14. Many thanks to Tito for submitting it to 'Beyond the Pale'.

Russia was in turmoil, the Rouble was in free-fall and Boris Yeltsin was tottering, but for singer and pianist Gary Brooker, who "skipped the light fandango" in the 1960s gothic rock anthem A Whiter Shade of Pale, being in Moscow meant a chance to perform with Ringo Starr and to search for old "bones."

"I was trying to get a hold of some ‘bones,’ but I didn’t find any," Brooker says of the term for bootleg records made on old X-rays, which are glued together for thickness. He visited Russia in late August [1998] on a tour with Ringo’s All-Starr Band, a mini British Invasion, featuring former Cream member Jack Bruce, on bass and Peter Frampton, on guitar.

The tour included shows in Finland, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, England, Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal. In a telephone interview from his hotel room in Monte Carlo, one of the stops on the tour, Brooker says he took the opportunity of his first visit to turbulent Mother Russia to search for old "bones."

"They would use it as if it was vinyl and make a pirate recording, but you could usually see the X-ray picture through it, somebody’s chest or something," Brooker says, adding that "bones" were how many fans in the old Soviet Union first heard such forbidden imperialist tunes as Conquistador, Whiskey Train and A Salty Dog, all songs originally recorded by Procol Harum, Brooker’s band in the 1960s and 1970s.

Brooker’s experiences off-stage in Russia included a bout with runaway inflation. "We woke up one morning and everything was twice as much in the souvenir shop, we didn’t get any bargains," he says.

Brooker, who patterned the biographical Last Train to Niagara on an imaginary long-distance rail journey, found Russian trains somewhat disappointing. "We were on the Red Arrow from Moscow to St. Petersburg, a long distance train, I should think it was last cleaned in 1947."

While trains may have influenced some of Brooker’s work, including, surprisingly, the sea epic A Salty Dog, it was Bach’s Air on the G String, as played on a Hamlet cigars television commercial, that influenced A Whiter Shade of Pale and its classical leanings. The song, which combined classical and rock music, double keyboards, far-out lyrics and Brooker’s soulful voice, was Procol Harum’s first recording in 1967 and immediately climbed to the top of the music charts. Brooker’s music and Keith Reid’s lyrics resulted in one of rock music most enduring and memorable songs, which has been featured in movies such as The Commitments and The Big Chill and covered by artists ranging from Sammy Hagar to Annie Lennox.

Brooker, however, has reservations about the song’s appeal to other artists. "Normally a song like that would have been covered a million times by everybody from Liza Minnelli to Julio Iglesias," he says. "It’s not that simple in its content. I think you’ve got to put it across with a bit of conviction, otherwise you’ll sound silly. Annie Lennox sang it like she meant it. You believed her. If you don’t put those words across just right, people won’t believe it."

The Ringo tour follows a similar one last year, which included shows in the United States, and Brooker is scheduled to tour with ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman and his band, the Rhythm Kings, in October. The band includes Georgie Fame, Albert Lee and Frampton. Stops on the tour include Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. "They play my songs really well and its good playing Cream songs, and Frampton and Bad Company and couple of Beatles tunes," Brooker says. He has had friendships with both Ringo and Wyman that date back to the 1960s and have included playing at Wyman's wedding.

While Brooker, now in his 50s, is partnering with other long-lived stars, he said that the approach to the music was far from tired. "This is not like a revival show," he says. "We are going over old ground in a new way."

Brooker, who traces his R&B roots to Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis, is familiar with teaming up with rock icons. He has also played with such legends as George Harrison and Eric Clapton, providing the guitarist with back-up vocals and piano on The Color of Money and touring extensively with his band.

However, Brooker’s relationship with Clapton transcends the musical into the world of sport. "I said come out with me one day when I go fly-fishing," Brooker says, himself a European Open Fly Fishing Champion. "He liked it and I showed him how to do it: he is a very quick learner, and he became proficient pretty quickly and had a natural feel for it."

Brooker became an expert at fly fishing after Procol Harum disbanded in 1977 (since 1991, the group has reformed to produce two CDs and several tours), but he does not see a link between music and fishing.

"I wouldn’t think there is much of a connection, but it’s probably the sort of pass-time that suits certain kinds of musicians," he says. "Alice Cooper is a great golfer, but you wouldn’t put (his music and the sport) together."

Neither would one link Brooker’s effort to help save his local English church and some of his songs which, thanks to Reid, have featured "religious leaders teachin’ hate" and preachers who "don’t know what they are teaching." In 1996, Brooker came to the aid of the 13th Century St. Mary & All Saints Church, in Surrey, a bucolic suburb south of London, when he learned it would lose its vicar because the Church of England was in a budget crunch.

"The main reason was that the Church of England invested heavily in the stock market and their coffers were emptied because of losses on the market and they were going to take away our local vicar," he says. "So I said perhaps we could do a little concert in the village hall and they held me to my word and we ended up doing it in the church." The performance featured Brooker’s vocals and piano leading a rock band, which was backed by a chorus and string quartet. Much like the scene in The Commitments, A Whiter Shade of Pale, came into its own when played on the church’s vintage organ. And, thanks to the brisk sales of Within Our House, the CD of the performance, recorded on the spur of the moment, the church is receiving a steady stream of funds to help keep the vicar preaching.

The result is reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of another show in 1971 when on a chilly November evening in Canada, Brooker recorded Procol Harum’s performance with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. The subsequent record was Procol Harum’s only gold album in its 10-year existence, propelled to the top of the charts by the majestic Conquistador, which tells the tale of a historical figure who came to conquer but only died. The song, originally a somewhat forgettable track on Procol Harum’s debut album in 1967, was arranged for orchestra at the last minute, because as Brooker has said "we needed another fast one."

While Procol Harum continued to produce albums of merit, and even hit the European charts with a single called Pandora’s Box in 1975, it was never again to see such lofty heights in the charts. And, Brooker wonders whether a performance at Woodstock could have contributed to change the band’s fate for the better.

"They really wanted us at Woodstock, they pleaded with us," Brooker recalls. "But we were just coming to end of a long tour and one of the reasons we were going back to England was that the wife of Robin Trower (the band’s first Hendrixesque guitarist) was going to have a baby and we were going to be there in time for that birth. So we said, ‘No thanks, we are going home.’ The baby, of course, was two weeks late. It would have helped us a lot if we had been at Woodstock, but that’s the way the dice fall."

The dice for Brooker in his private life have fallen in his favor. He celebrated his 30th wedding anniversary with his wife Franky in July, an amazing feat in his line of work. He has a simple formula for a successful marriage: "Pick the right woman. Pick the right man."

Side Notes From Woodstock (read the original page at Classic Video JukeBox)
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was an event held at Max Yasgur's 600 acre dairy farm in the rural town of Bethel, New York from August 15 to August 18, 1969. Bethel is 43 miles southwest of the town of Woodstock, New York, which is in adjoining Ulster County. The festival exemplified the counterculture of the late 1960s – early 1970s and the "hippie era". Thirty-two of the best-known musicians of the day appeared during the sometimes rainy weekend. Although attempts have been made over the years to recreate the festival, the original event has proven to be unique and legendary. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest moments in popular music history and was listed on Rolling Stone's 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll. The event was captured in a successful 1970 documentary movie, Woodstock.

Refused invitations

The promoters contacted John Lennon, requesting The Beatles to perform. Lennon said that The Beatles would not play unless Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono Band could also play. The promoters turned him down.

Procol Harum were invited to perform but reportedly declined due to the festival happening at the end of a long tour, and because of the impending birth of Robin Trower's child; The band elected to pass on the festival to be back in England for the birth.

The Doors were considered as a potential performing band, butcancelled at the last moment. Contrary to popular belief, this occurrence was not related in some fashion to lead singer Jim Morrison's arrest for indecent exposure while performing earlier that year; the cancellation was most likely due to Morrison's known and vocal distaste for performing in large outdoor venues. There also was a widely spread legend that Morrison, in a fit of paranoia, was fearful that someone would take a shot at him while he was onstage. Drummer John Densmore attended; in the film, he can be seen on the side of the stage during Joe Cocker's set.

Led Zeppelin was asked to perform, their manager Peter Grant stating: "We were asked to do Woodstock and Atlantic were very keen, and so was our US promoter, Frank Barsalona. I said no because at Woodstock we'd have just been another band on the bill". Instead the group went on with their hugely successful summer tour, their only time out being taken to attend Elvis Presley's show, at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, on August 12.

Jethro Tull refused to perform; there are varying accounts of the reasons for this decision. One claim is that they thought it wouldn't be a big deal. Ian Anderson is reported to have said he "didn't want to spend [his] weekend in a field of unwashed hippies". Another theory proposes that the band felt the event would be "too big a deal" and might kill their career before it started.

The Moody Blues declined to perform, because they were booked for another event in Paris at the same time and decided to play there instead of Woodstock, a decision they later regretted. They were promoted as being a performer on the third day on early posters that listed the site as Wallkill.

Tommy James and the Shondells declined an invitation. Lead singer Tommy James stated later: "We could have just kicked ourselves. We were in Hawaii, and my secretary called and said, 'Yeah, listen, there's this pig farmer in upstate New York that wantsyou to play in his field.' That's how it was put to me. So we passed, and we realized what we'd missed a couple of days later.

The Clarence White-era Byrds were given an opportunity to play, but refused to do so but they did perform at the Atlantic City Pop Festival held August 1,2 & 3, 1969, two weeks before Woodstock.

Paul Revere & The Raiders declined to perform.

Bob Dylan was in negotiations to play, but pulled out when his son became ill. He also was unhappy about the number of hippies piling up outside his house near the originally planned site. He would go on to perform at the Isle of Wight Festival two weeks later. At his June 30, 2007 concert at Bethel Woods, the original site of the Woodstock festival, Dylan joked (just before he performedAll Along the Watchtower): "Great to be back here-- I remember being here, playing at six in the morning, and it was pouring rain, too... a big field of mud!"

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention Quote: "A lot of mud at Woodstock. We were invited to play there, we turned it down." - FZ. Citation: "Class of the 20th Century", U.S. network television special in serial format, circa 1995.

Free were asked to perform and declined.

Spirit were asked to perform but declined and went on a promotional tour.

Mind Garage declined because they thought it wouldn't be a big deal and had a higher paying gig elsewhere.

Gary Brooker's page at 'Beyond the Pale'

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