Procol Harum

the Pale

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Gary Brooker interview: 17 April 2001

With Andy Peebles, BBC Radio North

DJ Peebles starts this phone-interview just after 22.30 … programme delayed by football excitement …

Andy Peebles
Gary Brooker: the voice of one of what I suppose is one of the anthems of the sixties – A Whiter Shade of Pale – will be joining me shortly to talk about a big concert coming up in Manchester (plays Syreeta and Billy Preston) With You I'm Born Again

There's a little musical method in my madness as my next guest goes back a long way and I'm sure he'll forgive me for saying that, and he being a keyboard man will remember that Billy Preston recorded some remarkable organ music for a label called Capitol Soul Supply years ago. Wonderful version of In the Midnight Hour, he did Bobby Hebb's Sunny, he did all sorts of things. And I'm risking my neck here because Gary Brooker is on the line but I do know a little about the Paramounts and the sort of music that they loved. Who were the Paramounts? They were Gary's – I won't say his first group but it was the start of things Gary wasn't it?

Gary Brooker
Well absolutely, I was just enjoying that record there; that was marvellous wasn't it?

How are you?

Fine thanks.

Do you remember old Billy Preston and his instrumentals – Billy's Bag and all that stuff ... ... ...

Oh absolutely – he had some fantastic records, in fact – Bill ... he was also ... don't forget ... didn't he play keyboards on Get Back? (possibly sardonic tone of voice).

He did.

With the Beatles (possibly wry feigned surprise).

Toured with the Rolling Stones.

Toured with the Rolling Stones (possibly wry feigned surprise) ... and he's still touring now.

{query from SC : is he not in prison for sexual misdemeanours?}.

I never saw the Paramounts. How good were you?.

Not as good as (indistinct ... maybe 'we used to bloody think' ). No, these were early days when young English bands were getting all their influences from America. We were just trying it out – trying to copy the stars from over there. Doing it as best we could, and it was probably a pretty miserable representation but we had a thoroughly good time playing it.

But would you call the Paramounts a rhythm and blues band?.

Well we liked rhythm and blues and that's what we tried to play.

Yeah, and how far afield did you work because you were based in what – in Southend in Essex.

I think we got to Colchester once.

(Laughs) ... You never played the 'Twisted Wheel' in Manchester then?.

Oh yeah – that we did.

I thought you would have done.

Yeah, when we had Poison Ivy out in 1964 ..

That's right.

... That was sort of a gateway, previous to that we'd been Essex, we'd sometimes been to Kent, been to London a few times but, ammm, once we had a record out and you got on Thank Your Lucky Stars, that for us opened up a lot of gateways and suddenly you found that there was a road that kind of went, you know, north of Southend ..

It's an interesting era though Gary, 'cos I think you're dead right, there were a lot of great bands who never really made it as big as they should have done: Zoot Money's Big Roll Band, Gary Farr and the T-Bones, Graham Bond and his Organization. These are memories from my youth – these were all fantastic bands albeit that they never had a vast array of hit records .

Well I think they … no they were all ... everybody worked very hard then ... I knew about half the people you said there and I'd seen them. Me and the Paramounts we finally ran our course as did Gary Farr and the T-Bones and others. I kind of managed to be very lucky and hmm managed to take music a bit further for myself and hmm start with Procol Harum so ..

I saw you on television recently talking about that era and it was very interesting. I mean is it true to say that you aren't quite sure what the lyrics of a song which, y'know has become synonymous with the sixties, the summer of love and all the rest of it? Did you really know what A Whiter Shade of Pale was all about?.

Well ... its an often asked question but I don't believe that a song could be that popular ... hmm ... and the lyrics not mean something to people. I mean people get married to it ... and they do that quite sincerely ... they wouldn't do that if it was a load of rubbish. It obviously means something to them.

Oh it does, but I'm sure you'll agree Gary, as with so many songs in that era, the public and the supposed experts tried to read things into the lyrics which probably were never there.

Well ... I think ... I mean I didn't write the lyrics. I wrote ... I wrote the music.

Of course.

But ... hmmmm ... from the lyrical point of view ... I think there's a lot of ... Its not obvious what each line means ... or each pair of lines but it creates a little bit of atmosphere and it creates some pictures which people then found very appealing and still do some thirty odd years later.

Hmmm ... well I owe you a thank you ... and I'll say this publicly, when the record came out I was dating a vicar's daughter. The vicar ... who was very charming he was swayed by the fact that myself and his daughter loved the record and when he first heard it he went "hmm very interesting" and he couldn't argue because it could have been a hymn.

Did you marry ?

No we didn't.

Oh dear.

No no ... it wasn't that good Gary. It wasn't that good but it was a great record.

(Laughs) well it was good enough for some people.

Of course, of course (smarmy 'there there dear' voice) It's never been a millstone round your neck in terms of repertoire.

Oh no, I mean in Britain it's always been the great favourite. Some people think it's the only thing Procol Harum ever did but that was never the point. It's never been a millstone at all. It's actually ... luckily, it's always been a very interesting song to play and sing and … ammm …it's a great pleasure to play it y'know even now.

You had that out on Deram records. Homburg ... which I will own up even in your presence to absolutely adoring. I just loved that. That was top 10 but you changed record labels – that was on Regal Zonophone.

Yeah well, I think that it wasn't us that changed rather than the powers that be. We were with sort of one of the first independent record companies, well record producers. They put their records out by different people and we came on the end of a chain of a thing with Deram. Before that there'd been Georgie Fame and the Moody Blues and a few other people on that label that these people had done the deal with and just it came to an end. We ended up on Regal Zonophone and it didn't make much difference really.

And then came Conquistador. Then came orchestras with lavish arrangements.

No more lavish than they should be. Not as lavish as Burt Bacharach certainly.

Yeah but I mean we're leading in to the fact that obviously you're gonna be in the North on Sunday the 17th June at Manchester's magnificent Bridgewater Hall along with the Hallé orchestra and choir. When you were playing with the Paramounts I don't think you would have ever guessed that that was likely to happen would you?.

I didn't think I'd ever get out of the van. I thought that was my house. It was quite nice, I liked it but I never really thought I'd get out of the van ... and ah y'knnow to be playing with an orchestra one day ... it was marvellous when we played with one in 1970 or something ... and to be able to play with one again in ... .. aah ... I was gonna say the 90s ... but of course its gone a bit beyond that now.

It has.

New millennium.


I was very pleased to hear that the Hallé was still going because it was a name that I knew when I was a lad from the Light Programme or something like that.

That's right, that's right. Given that, what were those early combines between you, Procol Harum, and orchestras like? Was there a feeling in your mind that the classical musicians brought into play with you were sneering down their noses and saying 'What are this lot up to and why are we having to work with them ?'.

There was a lot of that but I was always very determined that there was no reason why a rock band shouldn't play with people who fiddle on strings and blew nice expensive trumpets. I didn't see that much of a clash between the two things. I always thought ... we're all players of music. I always battled through that ... The first time we ever played with an orchestra, they put earplugs on: some of the string players wore their crash helmets as if they'ld come in on their mopeds. They were obviously making some sort of statement, and it was probably a bit loud for what they were used to, but we kind of turned our sound down ... turned our volume down a bit. And they played a bit louder and we managed to make ... mmmmm ... but always at the end of a concert or a recording with a classical orchestra ... y'know they'd come into it thinking 'what the hell are we doing here?'. And they've gone out of it thinking "that was the best night we've had for years ... if not ever ... thoroughly thoroughly enjoyed it.".

I've memories of seeing James Brown at the Royal Albert Hall a good few years ago and he had a large string section, as you would know Gary, so they could accompany him on ballads like It's A Man's Man's World. And I remember him doing that but then going into Get Up I Feel Like A Sex Machine. My eyes were close on two members of the string section whose faces had to be seen to be believed because they obviously didn't know what was coming on the end of the song that they'd played on. And I remember thinking ... y'know ... c'mon ... loosen up, enjoy yourself and I've no doubt you're going to when you come up in June.

Well in June ... playing with the Hallé ... I'm really looking forward to that. I know that they're very excited ... hmm ... they haven't played with a lot of rock bands of recent I don't think, but they've got quite a bit of experience ... ammm ... and I've just been working on some of the choir parts this evening that I've got to get up there fairly soon so they can start learning these difficult lyrics.

So you're doing the scoring yourself?.

I've done a lot of it in the past. Doing some new stuff and some other friends of mine have done stuff and we've actually built up a repertoire over the years.

And Procol Harum these days consists of your good self and who else?.

Ahmmm ... the ones that people would know ... there's myself ... and there's Matthew Fisher that was the ..


... always the original organist from Whiter Shade of Pale days. Aaahh ... Mark Brzezicki plays the drums. .

Wonderful drummer ... You've done well to get him haven't you?.

Yeah ... always pleased to ..

Great player.

Well luckily ... well I say luckily he was with Big Country I think?


They've been touring and now they're having a bit of a respite so he's come back into our fold here. Our bass player is, in fact, I call him the little boy. He's the son of Dave Pegg who is/was the bass player with Fairport Convention.

We had Dave on the programme some months ago ..

Did you ? Well, young Dave – his even younger son Matt – Pegg minor as we call him. He's our bass player – he's a fantastic guy. He's great.

How many gigs do you do these days, outside of specials like this with the Hallé? How much work do you do as a collective?.

Well, aah ... Procol Harum plays from time to time. I'm working with them, in fact I usually play with Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings during the summer.

I know you do, yep.

And we played up north last year, probably within your listenership ...

Oh absolutely, Bill came in to see us on ..

And in actual fact, I'm missing some of those gigs so I'll say hello to everybody now. I know I've got a fantastic replacement in Mike Sanchez who was with the Big Town Playboys, who is still with the Big Town Playboys. He's taking my seat for a couple of weeks there ... hmm ... so he'll enjoy that.

Well that's what it's all about Gary. Sure you've got to enjoy it. Bill came in to me and said, 'I've been lucky enough to do this'. I've been lucky enough to know Bill for a number of years and he said "this is probably some of the most fun I've ever had" and that's really good isn't it?.

Well, he loves it. Bill doesn't have to have a band and go out on the road. We're about an 11 or 12 piece. It's quite a bit to get around so we go around in a bus. It's quite a bit (laughs) like being in the Paramounts really ... ..

... It takes you back doesn't it?.

... except it's more relaxed.

I was gonna say, you knew each other in those long off days, did you?.

I actually met Bill before he was in the Rolling Stones. We played on the same talent show once. He had a little band called the Cliftons, I believe they were called.

All those glorious days when ... ..

Always one of the kind Stones, he remembered everybody. I'd pop up at Southend at the Odeon to say hello to the Stones. I mean I knew Mick and Keith and that. But y'know standing around at the end, the last bus had gone Bill would say "How're you gonna get home, Gary?". I said "I'll walk, it's only four or five miles" and he said "No c'mon, we'll give you a lift. Get in the van." Nobody else had thought of that but Bill always did y'know.

He's very caring and he also has, as you and I both know Gary, the most remarkable recall and memory. It's staggering what he remembers of his illustrious career.

Unbelievable – he just forgets my birthday.

Listen, thank you so much for your time.

Alright, thank you very much Andy.

Gary Brooker there. The star of Procol Harum and before that the Paramounts. Procol Harum will be appearing in Manchester with the Hallé orchestra and choir. I've got the bill poster here. It's gonna be a terrific night: Nicholas Dodd will conduct the Hallé on that evening. It's going to be a very special night.

<gives the phone number etc>

Talk to me about the current effect of foot and mouth on tourism ...

Kindly transcribed for BtP by Sam Cameron, who adds

"Although I am not keen on editorialising I would like to add two things on this …

Gary Brooker's page at BtP

Index to Procol history in press and broadcast

Procol Harum in Manchester, June 2001

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