Procol Harum

the Pale

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As the drummer told his tale ...

A fan of Barrie Wilson offers his personal reminiscences

'Beyond the Pale' was founded in 1997 on 8 October, and today is the sixth time that we have used that special date to commemorate the work of Procol Harum's magical drummer, Barrie Wilson. Here we present a compilation of e-mails received in very recent days from drummer Tim Gagnon in the USA, with some of his slides (from BJ's own photographs) too. There are more here, here, here, here, here and here

I'd prayed long and hard to see another Procol concert again like the six or seven I saw in the seventies at the Santa Monica Civic Center. I had my mind on BJ Wilson in the mid eighties. Day after day I couldn't get him off my mind. I was taking a history of rock-and-roll class at Ventura CA and had an assignment to do a report on a band of choice and I chose Procol.

My instructor told me that he knew BJ was staying in Ventura. I was able to contact him and spent several days with him. I got to meet his family and his wife invited me over with them for dinner. He spoke for me at my college for my report which has got to be on the top five of my list of best moments ever (though I later that night broke out in hives from nervousness). He let me make slide pictures of all of his 'Kodak moments' with the band and I presented this slide show to the soundtrack of Conquistador.

I still have these slides. During our time together Barrie asked me if I knew of a town that I liked because of its quiet, yet not too quiet, home like appeal. I told him about the college town of Corvallis Oregon. He moved away a few months later. We wrote a few cards to each other. This was mainly handled by his wife.

I later found out that he passed away in Corvallis. I never bothered to find out why he passed away but I can tell you a little about the man.

BJ was probably the most humble and polite man I ever knew. He addressed you with respect, offered himself and his home and always said 'God bless you'.

It still saddens me that he is gone but I cant help think how blessed I was to know the nicest man in rock and roll. And what a drummer he was, still my favorite (Keith Moon comes in second).

Once again my mind was on Procol Harum earlier this year. I still wanted to see Gary and the band in a real concert, not one of the small six-to-eight song sets that he had been allowed in the past few years to warm up another band, but a real concert with the new group. Then I saw the album The Well's on Fire and started looking for a tour. I found the tour but there was no date for LA. I wrote to the group through 'Beyond the Pale' and I don't know if it made a difference but the LA date was added at the John Anson Ford Theater. I was the only one in line where I bought tickets. I stood in front of the Ticketmaster lady for an hour since these tickets went on sale mid-day. I was able to get second-row tickets for the greatest show of the year and right in the middle. We went to the show and the seats were great, the weather fine, the theater wonderful. I had never had tickets like this before. I had looked up every set list from all their prior gigs for weeks and weeks before this date. I knew that they basically played twenty songs, give or take a few, and which ones were most likely to be played.

A friend and I shouted for Conquistador since the band had not been playing it often. The band began. Everything was surreal. Then out of no nowhere on a hot July day in LA the clouds gathered and, yes, it rained. The band could only play about nine songs total [sic]. I am not over it yet. The friends I was with were blown away by the group's performance of those songs and vowed to go again to see Procol with me if they ever return. [Tim didn't hear the band's subsequent set at BtP's party]. I saw the set list from the San Diego show they did the next day and the band played Conquistador, possibly as a tribute to us. The good news is that I did get to see them if only for a few moments and they were great. I'm still praying.

I should still have my favorite slide of BJ holding his new baby during a photo shoot for the front cover of Grand Hotel. He is in full garb with his top hat on. I once tried to give this slide as a gift to Gary Brooker when I met him at a stairway at the House of Blues. It seems a strange gesture on my part now that I only offered him the one slide and a phone number if he wanted the rest. I believe he may have all these pictures anyway.

I also found a news paper clipping announcing the slide show presentation which BJ appeared at for me at my college. Interestingly they introduced him as the drummer for Joe Cocker which is fine but there was no mention of Procol Harum. Also I not-so-brilliantly cut off the newspaper date. And finally I will send you a Xerox copy of one of the card/letters that BJ and his family sent me at Christmas time where he mentioned work he had done that year on a Gary Brooker album in 1985.

I did not find my article I wrote about BJ's drumming style from one drummer to another which appeared on the Ventura music union's publication. But in a later message I will summarise it for your readers.

I checked out the website for the Palers' Project re: the upcoming second 2CD of fans' renditions of Procol songs. That's a great idea. For myself I would be afraid I would not do justice to their music. But I have written a song that was to be a tribute to my two heroes Pete Ham and BJ Wilson. Over the next few months I would like to record it and send it to you to give to BJ 's wife and daughters and possibly to Gary if you feel it is appropriate. I would like them to know how BJ and his family had truly touched my life. I only want to share the song with them and to remind them that I remember them and to thank them. I have done this sort of thing before. I contributed six songs to a documentary of the life of a quadriplegic motivational speaker and when he opened a camp for handicapped children in Oregon (just a few miles from where BJ lived) I wrote a specific song for him and his camp children and put it to video. My daughter sang the leads. Also when one of my daughter's best friends passed away I wrote lyrics and my daughter wrote the music to give to her father who has become a friend. That song is titled The Lord Is My Father. The song for BJ will not be completed for a few months probably but it will get finished ASAP (studio money pending).

Now I would like to dedicate a few paragraphs to BJ the drummer.

I believe it was a summer night in the early 70s, a song that had recently crept into the psyche of my mind and stuck there came on the car radio. I turned to my sister and said "that's the song I've been telling you about." My sister said "Oh, that song, it's old fashioned." I responded, "I don't know about that, but listen to that music, listen to that singing, listen to that drumming!" The song was Conquistador. My oldest brother learned of my interest in Procol Harum. I had not yet saved the money to buy the live album which had the song Conquistador, so my brother turned me on to a record from his own collection, which was Procol Harum's fourth album Home.

Within one or two listenings I fell in love with the music. I was in heaven listening to the choir-like climactic ending of the song Whaling Stories where Gary Brooker sings "Shalimar, the trumpets chorused". Throughout the album the music was punctuated with a most unique drumming. On the song Whisky Train BJ Wilson's abilities were showcased. Many a drummer mimicked his use of the cow bell on this song. When I finally was able to purchase the live album, I had a chance to hear the song Salty Dog. This further reinforced my convictions of Gary Brooker as a song writer and BJ Wilson's abilities to convey the emotions of Gary's songs through his drumming. On side B, the Finale portion of In Held 'Twas I In remains one of my favorite Procol pieces. It starts with a simple piano melody and builds into a full choir. No other rock group was able to do this more effectively.

Not long after this, my sister had a birthday and received, as a present, the album Broken Barricades, which was actually released prior to the live album and after Home. Of course, I immediately borrowed this from my sister. This was the last album to feature Robin Trower on lead guitar except for the album The Prodigal Stranger released many years later. The album contained a good amount of blues offered by Robin. The two songs which would prove to be concert show stoppers were Simple Sister and Power Failure. Power Failure provided us with a great drum solo by BJ though it was the in concert versions of this song where his solo really came to life.


Not long after soaking up as much of Broken Barricades as possible I heard a song on an FM radio station that sounded a lot like Procol Harum. The song was A Souvenir of London". I called the radio station and discovered their new album Grand Hotel which stands as one of Procol Harum's best albums. You could argue that the album was thematic regarding the excesses of the human spirit when unrestrained. To myself much of it spoke of American excesses. I would have to speak to Keith Reid to see if this were his intention. The album starts with the lavish extravagance of the most beautiful Grand Hotel complete with a Russian waltz inserted in the middle. Gary and BJ play off each other perfectly on this song. On Bringing Home the Bacon BJ gives us one of his most exciting performances with wonderful tom-tom fills and that great cowbell again. The song is about over consumption and insatiable appetite. The consequences of excess are spelled out in the seemingly upbeat songs Souvenir and Robert's Box. Then there is the borderline personality in A Rum Tale who blames the world for his problems. But the most poignant of all these exceptional songs are TV Ceasar and Fires (Which Burnt Brightly). TV Ceasar was written in the seventies but looked ahead to today and the last decade where our living rooms "hold the court" as it did with the OJ Simpson case. "Something for the Mums and Dads": I find the words extremely pertinent. But even more so the lyrics of Fires which may be my favorite Procol song. Fires is about the atrocities of war and how the pursuit of right can go so wrong. Its message is as valid today as in any other time in history, maybe even more so.

It was around this time that I was finally able to see Procol Harum in concert at the LA Convention Center and not much later at the Hollywood Bowl with an orchestra. These were great concerts but not as intimate as the six or more shows I would see at the Santa Monica Civic center for about $6.50 a ticket where there was not a bad seat in the house. This allowed my friends and me to see Procol up close. After my friends saw Procol live with me the first time at Santa Monica, they never refused to go back with me again. This was mainly because of BJ Wilson. My friends would anticipate hearing Simple Sister with Gary playing two keyboards at the same time. But it was the song Power Failure that they held their breath for, and the chance to see another phenomenal live drum solo, no two ever the same.

The first thing you notice about BJ is how low he sat on his drum throne. BJ was a tall man. Mick Fleetwood is another tall drummer but he sits high and upright. Mick has a very controlled style much like a drum machine. This is not to deride Mick's style at all since there is an obvious place for this kind of drumming. BJ on the other hand seemed to lean backwards at times with his legs jutting forward while his long arms performed a sort of ballet across his drum kit. The light on BJ cast a giant yet graceful shadow over the entire room. BJ could be dramatic and then poignant and subtle. A simple unexpected drum stroke was like that of a painter's brush on a canvas. Whether he was rocking out, playing the blues or the softer songs, BJ was always exciting even in the still spaces. The brilliance of the small things in his playing might be overlooked by fans who enjoy the more conventional or bombastic style of other rock drummers. An example of this is the genius of the double time on the cymbal bell at the end of the song New Lamps For Old, an idea that might not naturally occur to another drummer.

BJ had many fans. Among them was Lou Reed who used him in his critically acclaimed album Berlin and Joe Cocker who also performed with him. Because BJ wore his heart on his sleeve, he was able to convey an honesty in his playing. When performing he allowed us all in on the emotions the music took him through. He was often spontaneous and dangerous. It is apparent that he often reinterpreted the songs. Compare the original version of Salty Dog to the later concert version. That one dramatic snare punch after the line "We fired the gun" allows the listener to actually visualize the scene as does the way he uses his cymbals at the beginning and ending of the song to convey the sound of a ship rising and falling in the sea. His technical abilities had more to do with sheer soul and innovation than repeated paradiddles and triplets. He seemed to exuberate a child's enthusiasm yet a humble constraint. He was an artist's artist and a performer's performer.

Gary was the master songsmith and soulful dignified narrator. Robin Trower (whom BJ admired greatly) with his blues innovations forged a unique and recognizable sound that was very successful. Keith Reid took us on adventures through spiritual questions and moral quests. Still, I believe that all three of these men would agree that it was BJ whose performances from night to night stood at the front line, holding back nothing and played in innocence, beauty and loyalty to the group and his fans. At the end of a Procol Harum concert you knew he gave his all because he spoke to you revealing secrets of his own all through two drum sticks and his drum set. I don't recall another drummer who could do that as well as BJ.

Like Pete Ham from Badfinger, BJ was a sensitive artist who poured all of himself into his work. Unfortunately artists who do this seem to leave us too early, but oh how he shone while he was with us. We all miss you BJ, but still have you in our hearts.

Thank you Barrie J Wilson.

Thanks, Tim!


 BJ's page at BtP

More of Tim's pictures here , here, here, here, here and here

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