Procol Harum

the Pale

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Who is Procol Harum?

Joan May

Who is Procol Harum?

An offshoot of The Paramounts?

Some have described Procol as a slightly altered version of The Paramounts but I think this is a grave error. Physically, some members of both bands are the same, but musically the two bands are light-years apart. The Paramounts were an R&B cover band, quite an ordinary one at that, despite the fact that The Rolling Stones were fans. Gary has said that once the original artists' versions of the tunes became available in the UK, the fans much preferred those, as well they should have, and The Paramounts were finished. Listening to their collected works, including the 1970 re-formation for the Liquorice John Death sessions, one hears little or none of the creative musicianship that Gary, Robin and BJ brought to Procol Harum.

Just Gary and Keith?

It was only when Gary Brooker hooked up with Keith Reid that his musical identity changed from a singer and player of R&B cover tunes to a uniquely creative artist. Gary was already an extremely talented and well-trained musician with incredible potential for greatness, and I think he and all his fans owe a debt of gratitude to his piano teacher, who didn't teach him the usual way, reading classical pieces off a sheet like a robot, but rather let him bring in the popular recordings he wanted to play and then showed him how those pieces could be transcribed on to the piano. This provided great ear-training for Gary which later served him well in creating his magnificent Procol music.

' ... Keith Reid, Guy Stevens and I decided what sort of band Procol Harum should be. You don't ever get away from bass and drums. I was there playing piano and we wanted a Hammond to give that expansion the group missed. We also wanted bluesy guitar with this background sound a bit from Booker T, a bit from Bob Dylan.'

Gary Brooker, Record Collector, January, 1995

It was Keith whose Dylanesque psychedelic words inspired Gary to compose some music to go with those words. But neither Gary nor Keith had thought of developing much of the classical influence in their compositions,  until  they met up with Matthew Fisher. Of course any definition of Procol Harum must include Gary and Keith. They are necessary but not sufficient to define the whole of Procol Harum. If they hadn't met Matthew, their music would have been an amalgam of R&B and Bob Dylan, and if they had formed a band on that basis alone, it would have sounded like ... well ... The Band, not Procol Harum.

Gary, Keith and Matthew

'When I joined after buying a Hammond organ and placing an advert in one of the music papers, Gary wanted to be Ray Charles, Keith wanted to be Bob Dylan and I wanted to be Jimmy Smith, Booker T and Bach rolled into one.'

Matthew Fisher, NME, 15 September, 1973.

It was Matthew who brought in the Bach / Baroque classical influences that combined with and transformed Gary's and Keith's contributions into Procol Harum. As far as the musical compositions are concerned - ie what makes them unique as Procol pieces, that seamless fusion of rock, blues and classical I consider Gary, Keith and Matthew to be the musical founders of Procol Harum.

Gary, Keith, Matthew, BJ and Robin

But Procol isn't just about compositions, but also a glorious instrumental ensemble sound. A Whiter Shade of Pale was a perfect recording, consisting of Gary's beautiful soulful vocals, Matthew's ethereal classic Hammond, Bill Eyden's musical drums, and unobtrusive bass and piano (Ray Royer's guitar was unnecessary to the piece and thankfully barely audible). But the Procol sound expanded with subsequent compositions and the arrival of BJ Wilson and Robin Trower, whose playing was also transformed by their association with Matthew, who not only inspired Gary to further compositions in a classical / rock fusion style, but also influenced BJ to begin playing like an orchestral percussionist, and Robin to achieve that incredible wild electric 'cello sound he got on Procol's first (best) album.

Matthew, BJ and Robin all adopted rock / classical fusion styles of playing that are still unique in the history of music.

So Procol Harum is defined by all five men - not necessarily their physical presence (though Gary must be the singer and Keith the writer of all song words), but by the type of playing that Matthew, Robin and BJ innovated at the time of the first album, and the style of composing that Gary, Keith and Matthew created together.

When Matthew left, Chris Copping maintained the organ sound as part of Procol's overall incredible ensemble sound - he didn't significantly change the band's sound as Pete Solley did with those synths. Chris also created some nice organ solos on the albums. But the timbre of his instrument just wasn't exciting like Matthew's unique magic touch, and neither did he write any music. His solos were pleasant but not awe inspiring like Matthew's, and so the Hammond was not the huge part of the band's sound the way it was before, but still an acceptable part.

When Robin left, Dave Ball did not continue Robin's classically-tinged style (actually Robin didn't either during the latter part of his Procol tenure), but was mainly a blues player, a competent and tasteful one who didn't really hurt the band but didn't add anything dramatically creative either - hence, probably, his ouster and replacement by Mick Grabham, who very beautifully continued in Robin's early classical / blues / rock tradition.

BJ was the instrumental mainstay of the band in its first ten years, and I think he was a large part of the reason that the Procol sound could endure so many personnel changes. I used to think Procol could never really reunite without BJ, but have come to modify that opinion after hearing Graham Broad's excellent work at Redhill (he had a chance to play with Mick which I think helped inspire him and the others to greater heights than any of their other 90s concerts). BJ's musical legacy, like Matthew's and Robin's, can be studied and emulated by a competent replacement, and the Procol sound can continue, albeit never quite as magnificently as the original band of the first album the founding band.

By the above criteria, with the possible exception of some of the Redhill concert, Procol hasn't really reunited yet in the 90s.

'It's such a long time ago! I think it worked very, very well. I mean, I really do think ... what we did was a great combination of musicians, there's no doubt about it. And I don't think there are many groups of musicians that could put together that much individual talent into a band that really works, you know, and I think it really did work.'

Robin Trower, 1991, Prodigal Stranger radio promo,
talking, not about that album, but about the
original the true Procol Harum.

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