Nowadays Procol Harum are chiefly remembered for 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' which was the biggest hit single of 1967. The record has since become one of the best-loved rock standards of all time, rivalling even the Beatles' top recordings. However, that one record has tended to blind people to the fact that Procol Harum made several albums displaying a high standard of musicianship and songwriting, as well as some excellent singles which are now very collectable.
Procol's story begins in Southend in 1959, when five schoolboys got together after a local band competition. The group which resulted from this was called The Paramounts by the manager of the dance hall at which they played, and the line-up consisted of Bob Scott (vocals), Gary Brooker (keyboards), Robin Trower (guitar), Chris Copping (bass) and Mick Brownlee (drums). They played songs by Elvis, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino and other rockers. One night, when Bob Scott failed to turn up, young Gary Brooker took over the vocals, as well as playing the piano. He proved so good that from then on he took over the job full-time.
Peter Martin, the group's manager, arranged for them to back visiting artists like Lance Fortune, Dickie Pride and Tommy Bruce, and they even took part in a 'rock across the Channel' gig, on board the S.S. Daffodil along with the Shadows, Jerry Lee Lewis and many other big names. With the help of Tony Wilkinson, a friend who had the largest collection of American R&B records in the area, they were introduced to R&B and soul, and widened their repertoire to include material by Ray Charles, The Coasters and James Brown. He also helped them to widen their audience by collaborating with Robin Trower's father in setting up the Shades coffee bar in Southend in 1962. The group ran it themselves, and started the whole R&B scene in Southend.
In 1963 they decided to turn professional, and as the drummer's stool had become vacant, they advert-advertised in 'Melody Maker'. Barrie (BJ.) Wilson, then only fifteen years old, replied and was drafted in. Later on in the year, Chris Copping also left to go to Leicester University, and was replaced by Diz Derrick.
Peter Martin persuaded them to record a demo of the Coasters' classic 'Poison Ivy', which they backed with a Bobby Bland song, 'Further On Up The Road'. The Paramounts thought it a sacrilege to record a cover version, but it got them a contract with Parlophone, and 'Poison Ivy' was released at the end of 1963 as the group's first single. It showed great promise, with Gary Brooker coming through as a strong, soulful vocalist and distinctive pianist, and the rest of the band providing some punchy back-up. It was well supported by the flip, an up-tempo version of the Drifters' 'I Feel Good All Over'. It got to No. 35 in the charts in January 1964. The record was produced by Ron Richards, who also worked with the Hollies.
During the promotion for their single the Paramounts appeared on 'Thank Your Lucky Stars' and met up with The Stones. In fact, they moved in on the Richmond circuit when The Stones left. Yet despite all this, and the added life that should have been given by The Stones' description of them as their favourite band, .'Poison Ivy' was their only taste of chart success.
Their follow-up was a respectable version of Thurston Harris's 'Little Bitty Pretty One' backed with 'A Certain Girl', which was also covered by the Yardbirds. Despite an appearance on 'Ready Steady Go' by the band, the single failed to chart, though it did become a minor R&B classic. For their third 45, the Paramounts covered Major Lance's 'I'm The One Who Loves You', backed with 'It Won't Be Long', a song penned by Gary Brooker and Robin Trower. After this had inexplicably failed to score, they tried to repeat the success of 'Poison Ivy' with the release of 'Bad Blood'. This was another old Coasters' number, but by now it was a year since 'Poison Ivy', and the group's initial momentum had been lost. The single's lack of success was partly due to the fact that it was banned by the BBC when they discovered that 'Bad Blood' was slang for V.D.
1965 saw a subtle change of style with the release of 'Blue Ribbons' & 'Cuttin' In'. The A-side was a charming little country-flavoured song written by Jackie De Shannon and Sharon Sheeley, with an orchestral background. The flip was more in their usual vein, however, being a superb version of Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's classic, with backing vocals By the Breakaways. When this one was recorded, B.J. Wilson had left the group briefly, and Phil Wainman took his place.
Later that year, in a desperate bid for a hit, the Paramounts recorded their most out-of-character single -a cover of P.F. Sloan's 'You've Never Had It So Good'. It was a total departure from their R&B roots, and they hated it. Brooker himself christened it 'You've Never Heard It So Bad'! It failed to achieve the desired result.
Apart from an EP that had been released earlier, consisting of the A-and B-sides of their first two singles, there were no further releases from The Paramounts. By 1966 the band that Parlophone had hoped would be their third biggest draw after The Beatles and The Hollies were reduced to backing Sandie Shaw and Chris Andrews on their continental tours. The Paramounts were no strangers to session work (they had backed Duffy Power on 'Broke And Busted') but this was the last straw, and they broke up in September 1966.
Gary Brooker in particular was disillusioned with the whole scene. He did not wish to fall into the stagnant routine of backing other artists, and realized that singers like Otis Redding were by this time appearing regularly in Britain, making The Paramounts' cover versions seem redundant. He vowed to switch from playing to writing songs for other artists to perform. He got in touch with Keith Reid (whom he'd met at the house of producer Guy Stevens). who read him some lyrics he'd written. Gary set to work putting them to music.
They were unsuccessful in their search for people to sing their songs, so there was only one thing for it -Gary would have to break his vow of silence and sing them himself. He advertised for musicians to form a band, and in April 1967 Procol Harum came into existence. Their line-up consisted of Gary Brooker (vocals/piano), Matthew Fisher (organ), Dave Knights (bass), Ray Royer (guitar), Bobby Harrison (drums) and Keith Reid (lyrics). Matthew Fisher had previously been with Screaming Lord Sutch's Savages, and Bobby Harrison had spent a short time with the Paramounts in their early days.
Procol Harum marked a new departure in rock music in several ways. Firstly, they must have been the first band to have a lyricist as an accredited member. Secondly, Gary and Keith decided on the unique step of having full-time separate roles for piano and organ, in order to achieve the fullest possible sound, and to ensure that no instrument was allowed to 'run away' with a solo. The name 'Procol Harum' (which is Latin for 'far from these things') enhanced this new feeling, and they were soon signed to Deram.
Procol's first single, 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale'/ 'Lime Street Blues' was released in May 1967, and became a massive worldwide hit almost overnight. The way in which it superimposed Bach's 'Air on A G String' (which was already the theme tune for the 'Hamlet' cigar advert!) over Ray Charles-inspired blues completely captivated the public and defied all classification. Reviewers at a loss to describe it dubbed it 'gothic'. The haunting organ work and Keith Reid's surreal lyrics gave 'Whiter Shade' a feel which seemed to sum up the magical summer. It stayed at Number One for six weeks before giving way to the Beatles' 'All You Need Is Love', and has remained high on the list of rock's all-time greats ever since.
Ironically, the record gave Procol more headaches than rewards. They were completely unprepared for the sudden success it achieved, and were certainly not ready to go on tour. More problems arose when session drummer Bill Eyden revealed that he had played on the A-side and Harrison had only played on the flip (also a classic track). In the end, Royer and Harrison had to leave the group, being replaced by old friends Robin Trower and B.J. Wilson respectively.
Procol and their producer Denny Cordell then moved to Regal Zonophone, and released their second single, 'Homburg/'Good Captain Clack' in September 1967. The A-side was in the same mould as 'Whiter Shade' -so much so in fact that one reviewer described it as 'a paler shade of white'. Nevertheless, 'Homburg' was a superb single and thoroughly deserved the No. 6 position it reached in October 1967.
Procol's debut album, called simply 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale', was released in January 1968. As well as the hit single, it contained many other classic examples of the group's blend of R&B-based rock and classical influences (notably 'Conquistador' and 'She Wandered Through The Garden Fence'), some strong bluesy numbers like 'Cerdes' and 'Something Following Me', and even a couple of tracks with a vaudeville flavour. All the tracks except 'Repent Walpurgis' (an instrumental written by Matthew Fisher) were written by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid, and showed Keith's lyrics to be a clever mixture of Dylan influences and his own brand of mysticism. The album as a whole revealed Procol Harum to be a band of superb musicians, and set the scene for things to come.
In March 1968, Procol released their third single, 'Quite Rightly So'/'In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence', which only managed No. 50 in the charts. It seemed somehow that they had lost the initial impact of 'Whiter Shade' -at least as far as British record buyers were concerned. But in the same year they did a very successful first tour of America.
In December 1968 came the album 'Shine On Brightly'. This album contained more excellent tracks such as 'Skip Softly My Moonbeams' and 'Magdalene', but perhaps its most outstanding feature was the monumental 'In Held Twas In I'. This track, which takes nearly all of the second side, actually consists of five separate songs which run together and result in a layout strikingly similar to side two of the Beatles' 'Abbey Road' album which came out the following year. The record was very much a product of the psychedelic era, with all the tricks of the trade such as reversed tapes, droning sitars, wailing feedback and 'Strawberry Fields'-type fade-outs and fade-ins.
In June 1969 the 'Salty Dog' album was released close on the heels of 'Shine On'. The title track, a dramatic tale of the sea, was released as a 45, backed with the heavy metal 'Long Gone Geek', and made No. 44 in the charts. This album was more of a group effort than anything that had gone before, with Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower writing some of the music (for instance 'Wreck Of The Hesperus' and 'Crucifixion Lane' respectively) and actually taking some of the lead vocals as well. Robin Trower's stinging guitar work was also beginning to come to the fore (as on the classic 'The Devil Came From Kansas'). Although very different in style from 'Shine On', 'Salty Dog' ranks with it as Procol's finest achievement on record. Both LPS further established the band in the States, and were also well-received in Britain.
Soon after 'Salty Dog' was released, Matthew Fisher and Dave Knights left. Dave Knights went to manage the group Legend, and Matthew Fisher went into production (he had produced 'Salty Dog') and later recorded three solo albums. Chris Copping came in and took on both bass and organ, and the line-up of Procol Harum was now exactly the same as that of the Paramounts in 1962.
'Home', the first album recorded with this line-up, was released in July 1970. Procol's sound had become dominated more by the guitar than by keyboards, but this could still make for interesting results, as the track 'Whisky Train' shows. Chris Copping revealed himself to be more of a jazz organ-player than Matthew Fisher bad been. 'Home' was a rather patchy album, but did contain some excellent tracks in the group's more usual style, such as the lengthy 'Whaling Stories' and the clever but ghoulish 'Dead Man's Dream'. No single was released from 'Home' in Britain, though 'Whisky Train' was put out in the States.
Procol Harum moved to the Chrysalis label in 1971, though 'Broken Barricades', the first LP made for the label, was actually released by Island Records. Jimi Hendrix's death had had a profound effect on Robin Trower, and by now his Hendrix-inspired guitar solos had become completely incompatible with Procol's more panoramic music. The album suffered accordingly, and remains Procol's least successful disc, both in artistic and commercial terms. Nevertheless, it did contain the classic 'Simple Sister', which became a favourite at their live gigs.
Robin Trower left soon after the release of 'Broken Barricades', feeling too restricted within the group. He went on to great success, however, with his own band, and American audiences soon elevated him to the status of an axe-hero. He was replaced by Dave Ball, and Chris Copping (who had often used a bass keyboard instead of a bass guitar on live dates) was relieved of his duties on bass by Alan Cartwright, so that he could concentrate more on the organ.
Now that they were a five-piece band again, Procol decided to embark on a very ambitious project -recording a concert which they did in Canada with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Da Camera Singers. The sleeve-notes written by Gary himself capture the excitement and trauma that surrounded the venture. The result was quite amazing, as Procol tackled all the most complex material that they had ever done on record: 'Conquistador', 'Salty Dog', Whaling Stories' and even 'In Held 'Twas In I'. Gary Brooker's skilful scoring and arranging of the parts for the orchestra and the use of quadrophonic effects meant that none of the songs lost any of the feel of the original studio versions, and the LP emerged in 1972 as one of the most successful albums of its kind. The critics loved it, and it was a massive American hit.
In May 1972 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' was reissued on the Fly label, and proved it had stood the test of time by reaching No. 13 in the charts. In August, 'Conquistador' and 'Salty Dog' (culled from the live album) returned the band to the charts with new material, reaching No. 22. Towards the end of the year, Dave Ball left and was replaced by Mick Grabham, who had been with the Plastic Penny (who are best remembered for their 1968 hit, 'Everything I Am').
In 1973, the album 'Grand Hotel' was released. Many Procol Harum fans consider this to be their greatest late LP, and certainly it is a very beautiful record. The techniques of scoring and arranging parts for orchestra and choir learned on the live album were put to good use on this one -especially on the title track itself (a grandiose waltz which recalls 'Magdalene' on the 'Shine On Brightly' album). The choral backing was taken by the Swingle Singers and Mick Grabham's tasteful guitar work showed him to be a more sympathetic guitarist than Robin Trower had been.
The band's next LP, 'Exotic Birds And Fruit', came out in 1974 in a cover fronted by a beautiful painting by Jakob Bogdani. All the elaborate orchestral backing of the previous album had gone, and instead the band just went into the studio and played 'live'. The result was a much lighter, but pleasingly well-balanced work, which was full of classy tracks like 'Nothing But The Truth', 'Fresh Fruit' and the unusual 'Thin End Of The Wedge'. The beautiful 'As Strong As Sampson' was lifted from the album and backed with 'Luskus Delph' from 'Broken Barricades', but failed to chart.
After the release of 'Exotic Birds' Procol decided that a change of producers and engineers (Chris Thomas had produced all their albums since 'Home') would be refreshing. Gary Brooker had always admired the work of producer/songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and so they were engaged to produce the band's ninth album, which came out in mid-1975.
Appropriately called 'Procol's Ninth', it was a very pleasant return to basics, consisting of short songs which admirably displayed the group's R&B roots. Also for the first time the band used material with lyrics that hadn't' been written by Keith Reid. Leiber and Stoller contributed the excellent 'I Keep Forgetting' and the LP finished up with a version of The Beatles' 'Eight Days A Week'. Procol were justly rewarded with their first Top Twenty entry in seven years when 'Pandora's Box' (taken from the album) got to No. 16 in August 1975.
In May 1976, Decca released 'Rock Roots: Procol Harum' on the Cube label. This compilation (now deleted) contained all of the band's early singles (including 'Homburg', which never appeared on any of their official albums), plus two tracks recorded in 1967 but never issued -'Seem To Have The Blues Most All The Time' and 'Monsieur Armand' (which had surfaced in a revamped form as 'Monsieur R. Monde' on 'Exotic Birds'.
Alan Cartwright left in the summer of 1976 and Chris Copping returned to bass as Pete Solley took over on organ. In March 1977, 'Something Magic' was released, which proved to be the last LP that Procol Harum ever made. This album also saw a return to elaborate orchestration, and to the same sort of themes as had been explored in 'In Held Twas In I' (which was 'revisited' on the album). One side of the record was completely taken up with the track 'The Worm and the Tree', which consisted entirely of narration over a full orchestral background. 'Wizard Man' was released as a 45, backed with the Booker T-inspired instrumental 'Backgammon'. Unfortunately the album was the wrong move at the wrong time, and received unsympathetic treatment from the music press.
Soon after the end of the tour which they had undertaken to promote 'Something Magic', Procol Harum took their final bow. They felt that they had said all that they could usefully say. Gary Brooker, who was Procol's leading light throughout their career, has since been pursuing a solo career. He has recorded two fine albums, 'No More Fear Of Flying' for Chrysalis (now deleted) and 'Lead Me To The Water' for Phonogram (which featured such musicians as Erie Clapton, George Harrison and Phil Collins) as well as some very listenable singles. The Paramounts and Procol Harum left behind some great music. Most, if not all, of the Chrysalis album catalogue should be readily available, but the first four Procol albums present collectors with problems, as since being transferred from Regal, they have been repackaged and reissued three times. The singles by both bands are harder still to come by. Today, Gary Brooker is helping to keep the standards and memory of Procol Harum alive, reminding collectors of the band who made some of the most memorable British rock records of all time.
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