... they tell Jimmy Bell (NME – 10 June 1967)
Gary Brooker twirled his moustache into a mandarin droop, pulled on a beautiful embroidered Chinese robe and sipped champagne from a paper cup. He looked set for the second act of Chu Chin Chow: in fact he and Procol Harum were preparing for the most trying performance in their brief career before a star-packed audience at London's Saville Theatre.
But Gary had no apparent nerves and faced the ordeal as calmly as he had taken the news that morning that A Whiter Shade of Pale stood at No 1 in the provisional NME Chart.
The traditional way to celebrate such an event is awash in flowing champagne – but only one bottle was standing in the dressing room, a present from Brian Epstein. I could detect no trace of joy or excitement on Gary's inscrutable face.
'How do I feel about it all? Nothing really, no different from when we first entered the charts. I'm happy of course, everyone dreams about having a No 1 but I am not surprised. I mean, we've seen all the figures and we were outselling everything else, so we knew it would come. But we didn't think it would be so fast. What really knocked me out is the speed with which it's gone in France. It's No 1 already and has sold 14.000 copies in two weeks! That's miraculous for a single when most of their releases are EPs. Great.'
I couldn't believe that he could take it all so coolly. In eight short frantic weeks the Procol Harum have been shot from total obscurity to the top of the charts and have become the talk of the pop world. Surely this classic rags-to-riches story must have drastically altered their lives?
Gary smiled lopsidedly. 'Well ... we're working a lot harder,
in fact it never stops and there's a lot of cameras popping!'
Just to prove the fact, the tiny dressing room was suddenly invaded by photographers rounding up Harum members and hustling them towards a nearby playground. Out we all trooped, photographers, fans and a Jamaican park attendant demanding to know who had given us permission to be in the park. 'What an incredible entourage,' Gary sighed and adopted a tired pose for the millionth time that week. In attendance, as ever, was 'creative director' Keith Reid, the white shade of his sensitive face looking even paler than normal. How was he taking it all? He said nothing, blinked nervously through his smoky glasses and toyed with a flower in his hand.
Gary returned from the clutches of photographers and politely asked for some food. 'I keep forgetting to eat and when I remember I don't have time anyway.'
The change in his status was already evident. He is now widely recognised and signs autographs with the courteous disinterest of an old pro. Externally the trappings of success are there – the telegrams, the fans, the back-stage groupies. How has it all affected his personal life?
'Do you want a quick run-down? Well here goes – Sunday:
up at 6.30 – drive to Worcester – films all day till
last drop of light fades – home 2.30; Monday: up at 7 –
fly to Paris – eight radio shows, twenty interviews, five
photo calls. Bed 4.00. Tuesday: up at 8, more interviews, etc.
and back to London at one in the morning ....'
On he went, getting up with the dawn, going to bed with the dawn! Travelling to Paris twice, Manchester twice and all points between. No food, no sleep. Despite all the hard work hasn't anything given Gary a charge, made him feel really good about being No 1 so fast?
'Not really. Being asked back to top the bill at the Saville was nice. Oh. Yes. One thing. Jonathan (Jonathan Weston is co-manager of Procol Harum with Denny Cordell) and I flew to Paris for what we thought was a promotional trip to find that the record had gone from nowhere to No 1 – now THAT really knocked me out!'
But just as I thought the dour Mr. Brooker was going to enthuse about something he was called onstage! Twenty minutes later he returned with a smile on his face!
'I was more than pleased with that. Now I am happy! I think that we went down well and the audience appreciated us. Anyway, they seemed to like it.'
I commented that it was a good sign because there were more stars having to stand in the audience than appear on an average edition of Top Of The Pops!
'Really,' Gary gasped, 'are you sure it's true?' I assured him
it was, as tickets could not be had for love nor money.
'If I'd have known that I would have been nervous. That makes me feel proud and privileged, especially if anybody might have come to see us. I really am pleased.'
I left the Procol Harum searching for food and sleep. I had
expected them to be delirious with joy and I suppose I shouldn't
have been surprised to discover that success is not an easy thing
to live with. After all, it's taken Gary Brooker seven hard years
to achieve his 'instant success' and he's being very philosophic
about it all.
'I don't think I really believe it all yet. What I want to do is get away for a time and organise myself. Think it all out and put it in its proper place. It's all very well people congratulating you and buying you drinks but it doesn't really mean much does it?'
Read more from the first year of Procol press