One of the most prominent English rock groups in the 1960s is Procol Harum. They are known for their single “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which became a number one UK hit and a Top 10 US Billboard smash in 1967. The single is considered one of the songs that truly define the 1960s sound.
Formed in 1967, the original and best-known lineup consisted of Gary Brooker (vocals, piano), Ray Royer (guitarist), David Knights (bass), Matthew Fisher (keyboards), Bobby Harrison (drums), and Keith Reid (lyrics). Since then, Procol Harum had experienced several lineup changes until Brooke passed away in 2022.
From formation to success with “A Whiter Shade of Pale”
Procol Harum originated in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England. Before Procol Harum, vocalist and pianist Gary Brooker led another group called The Paramounts, which he formed at school when he was 14. The Paramounts had a minor hit with a cover version of Leiber and Stoller’s “Poison Ivy” in 1964 (some sources say 1966). But the group were struggling to follow it up with another hit, and they disbanded in 1966.
In April 1967, Brooker formed Procol Harum with Reid, Fisher, Royer, and Knights. The group named themselves after a Burmese cat.
The newly formed group entered Olympus Studios in London to record a new song, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” with session drummer Bill Eyden. The music was composed by Brooker and Fisher, while the lyrics were written by Reid. The single was produced by Denny Cordell and sound engineer Keith Grant.
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” was released on May 12, 1967. The single was known for its haunting, church-like Hammond organ melody, which many music critics compared to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air” from Orchestral Suite No. 3 BWV1068, popularly known as “Air on a G String.” It rose to the top of the UK singles chart and peaked at #5 on the US Billboard Hot 100. By the time “A Whiter Shade of Pale” became a hit, it had sold over a million copies. To date, the single has sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
Procol Harum, naturally, wanted to consolidate the single’s success with touring. However, they still lacked a full-time drummer. After auditioning nine drummers, the band finally hired Bobby Harrison to man the kit.
The band soon went on the road after “A Whiter Shade of Pale”’s chart success and opened for Jimi Hendrix on his UK tour. Hendrix was one of the band’s vocal supporters during its early years.
In July 1967, Royer and Harrison left the group. At the same time, Procol Harum severed their ties with their original manager, Jonathan Weston, and hired a new one in Tony Secunda. The departures of Procol Harum’s now-former bandmates and manager didn’t go smoothly, as they were marked by what Brooker described as “great lawsuits and expense.”
On September 1, 1967, Procol Harum released its eponymous debut album. The US version of the album contained “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” On September 22, Procol Harum released its second single “Homburg,” which peaked at #6 on the UK singles chart and #34 on the Billboard Top 40 singles chart. By the time “Homburg” was released, the band’s lineup had changed with new members: former Paramounts member Barrie James “B. J.” Wilson on drums and Robin Trower on guitar.
The band’s career in the following years and break-up (1968 – 1977)
After “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum released some pretty competent works, such as “Homburg,” “A Salty Dog” (#44 UK, 1969), and “Conquistador” (#16 US, #22 UK, 1972). But they were unable to repeat the astounding success of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
Fisher, who produced the album A Salty Dog that carried the single of the same name, left the group soon after its release.
Procol Harum returned to the US Top 20 with the single “Conquistador” in 1972. “Conquistador” was originally a track of their 1967 self-titled debut album. This time, the band released “Conquistador” as a single. It was given a symphonic rock treatment thanks to the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, who had invited the band to perform with them in a concert. The concert was recorded for Procol Harum’s live album Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (1972), with “Conquistador” as its lead single.
The group experienced more personnel changes but it was clear that their appeal began to dwindle as music trends and audience tastes changed. Their last charting single was “Pandora’s Box” from their eighth studio album (ninth with Procol Harum Live included) Procol’s Ninth. “Pandora’s Box” peaked at #16 on the UK singles chart.
Procol’s Ninth’s saw the band’s significant stylistic shift from psychedelic rock to progressive rock, most likely as an attempt to cash in on the latter genre that was widely popular at the time. Unfortunately, the success of other progressive rock bands overshadowed Procol Harum to a greater extent. After their ninth studio album Something Magic stalled at #147 on the US Billboard 200, Procol Harum finally disbanded in 1977.
Reformation and ensuing years (1990s – 2020s)
B.J. Wilson was one of Procol Harum’s few stable members, besides Brooker and Reid, during the band’s artistic and commercial peak. Sadly, he died in 1990 after three years of vegetative state due to an intentional drug overdose. His death occurred only a year before Brooker and Reid reformed Procol Harum.
To signal their comeback, Procol Harum released a new song “All Our Dreams Are Sold” (from the album Prodigal Stranger), their first single in 16 years.
In 1999 the band played an open-air gig with the New London Sinfonia in Guildford.
Although Procol Harum were no longer charting hits, they kept themselves busy with touring. Several lineup changes continued.
As the band resumed their limited touring schedule in 2005, keyboardist Josh Philips replaced Fisher on Hammond, leaving Brooker the only original and constant member.
In 2009, the band released All This and More, a set with three CDs and a live DVD with historical notes. Until Brooker’s death in 2022, Procol Harum continued to perform throughout the world and remained popular in the oldies and retro circuit.
Procol Harum were nominated for induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 but failed to garner enough votes for the election. But their famous track, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a new category for singles in 2018.
Brooker died from cancer at his home in Surrey on February 19, 2022, aged 76. On February 25, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” re-entered the UK singles chart, peaking at #38.