Update: Sadly, Gary Brooker has passed away (in Feb. 2022) at age 76. Here is the interview we did with him in November 2020. He talks about his great career with Procol Harum, and how he wrote the band’s classic songs.
For over five decades, Gary Brooker has been the lead singer, main songwriter & composer, and pianist for legendary British rock band, Procol Harum. He has been in the group for 53 years, since they released their debut album, Procol Harum, in 1967. Notably, he has co-written the band’s classic songs including “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Conquistador,” “A Salty Dog” and “Grand Hotel.”
Procol Harum is known for being a pioneering band that combined rock music with orchestrations and classical music (particularly the Baroque music period). Their most popular album in the U.S. is Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, a 1972 live album that featured the band playing with a full orchestra and choir.
Besides the band’s often majestic and orchestral sound, Procol Harum’s music also has a gritty, blues-rock edge. Brooker has a powerful, soulful voice that could have fit well in many pure rock bands. But when merged with a sophisticated music arrangements and orchestral accompaniment, his voice comes off as even more unique.
Procol Harum got off to an excellent start in 1967, when their first single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” became one of the biggest, most memorable hits of the era. The single immediately introduced the band’s distinct sound, performed by the original lineup of Brooker on piano, Robin Trower on lead guitar, Matthew Fisher on Hammond organ, B.J. Wilson on drums and David Knights on bass.
Another key component of the band was their lyricist, Keith Reid. Impressively, Reid wrote the lyrics to all their songs over a period of 45 years, from 1967 to 2012. Reid’s lyrics brought a poetic, dramatic and storytelling dimension to their songs. Reid’s songwriting process with Brooker was similar to the way lyricist Bernie Taupin worked with Elton John. In most cases, Reid would write the lyrics first, and then Brooker would create the music to complete the song.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Brooker. But before we get started, here’s a rundown of Procol Harum’s albums. Several of their albums have recently been re-released by U.K. label Cherry Red Records in new remastered and expanded versions.
The band’s first album was the self-titled Procol Harum (in 1967), which was followed by Shine On Brightly (1968), A Salty Dog (1969), Home (1970), Broken Barricades (1971), Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (1972), Grand Hotel (1973), Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974), Procol’s Ninth (1975), Something Magic (1977), The Prodigal Stranger (1991), The Long Goodbye (1995), The Well’s on Fire (2003), and Novum (2017).
Gary Brooker Interview
Here’s our interview with Gary Brooker. He tells how he gor started with music and formed Procol Harum. He also discusses the band’s classic songs “A White Shade of Pale,” “Conquistador,” “A Salty Dog” and “Grand Hotel,” and his songwriting.
DK: How did you get started as a musician and songwriter, leading up to forming Procol Harum?
Gary Brooker: Well, I started to play piano when I was five. My father was a musician, so he probably booked the piano lessons (laughs). When I was eight, I passed a couple of exams which said I was getting on fine. Then we moved to a new house and town because my father, who always kind of toured, settled down to a job in a big posh hotel in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, and he ran the orchestra there. So our family moved down there.
Here’s a video of Procol Harum performing their hit,
“A Whiter Shade of Pale,” in Denmark in 2006.
DK: How did you start writing songs and eventually form Procol Harum?
Brooker: I had a band called the Paramounts, but things were starting to fade a bit. So I was interested in doing something different, and I thought I’d try songwriting. Around that time I met (lyricist) Keith Reid, who gave me an envelope of words. One day I got them out and thought…Well, these look interesting. So I composed some music to a few of them. By coincidence, Keith wrote me and said, “Did you ever do anything with the words?” And I said, “As a matter of fact, I just wrote some this morning.” So we immediately got together. He liked what I was doing, and we thought we’d be songwriters. It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Except nobody wanted to do our songs (laughs).
DK: I read that with Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Bernie would write all the lyrics first and then he’d give the lyrics to Elton, who would write the music. So was it the same with you and Keith, that he’d write the lyrics on a piece of paper and hand it to you, and you would write the music after that?
Brooker: That’s normally the way it worked. Keith always used a typewriter. He would type the lyrics out, and at the same time I would have ideas going around my head. I’d have ideas sitting at the piano, just waiting for the right thing to come along. And that’s the way it happened most times. There is an idea I would have, and suddenly there was a lyric there that was perfect. Because I was a singer, I could vocalize, so you can make any lyric fit your musical lines, because you’re singing it. So the phrasing is up to me.
DK: “A Whiter Shade of Pale” remains such a classic song. Can you talk about how you wrote that song?
Here’s the audio for Procol Harum’s hit, “Conquistador.”
Brooker: At that point, I was living at home with my mother and sister. We had a piano, and I would write things on that piano. I’d usually do that as soon as I woke up, because it’s better than going to work (laughs). Anyway, I had been listening to a lot of classical music, and I got particularly keen on what I call baroque music, that might have included Handel and Bach. I also liked the Swingle Sisters who were doing treatments of Bach. They did a fine job on them, particularly the slower songs. It was wonderful.
Also about that time, the Jacques Louissier Trio—which had a pianist, bass player and drummer—they made an album called, Play Bach. They were a jazz trio, and they’d start off with a piece of Bach, and they would improvise around it. Louissier had done a fabulous version of what was called “Air On A G String” which was also used in a set of good adverts in Britain. And all those things came together one morning…a bit of Bach and “Air On A G String” going through my head [as I was starting to write “A Whiter Shade of Pale”].
DK: Did Keith Reid already have the lyric for “A Whiter Shade of Pale” when you were creating the music?
Brooker: That morning while I was working out this thing, I thought…this is a good idea. It was a very circular piece that started in C and just descended all the time, and going through lots of chords, I ended up at C again. So I just carried on down, and I went around in circles with that chord sequence and playing bits of Bach-like things over the top. And when I got to that stage, the postman came, and there was some new lyrics from Keith Reid. So I opened it up and looked at the first one…it was the longest set of words I’d seen from him. I think it was four long verses, and it had these choruses at the end of each lyrical verse. And so I sang them over my idea, and that became the tune, along with the instrumental passages I played in-between.
DK: On your third album, the title song “A Salty Dog” featured a beautiful orchestral sound, which the band became known for. How did you write “A Salty Dog” and create the string arrangement?
Booker: Well, it was a good musical idea. I had the tune over the top…I sat there and the lyrics popped up as they always did. And I didn’t really see what else could be in it. There’s a piano and vocal with lyrics of course, but I couldn’t really see what else there could be. I couldn’t see rock guitar in it at all, and at the time I didn’t hear organ in it. But I thought some strings would be good in it. I might add that I was slightly influenced in that because we had done a tour of Germany with the Bee Gees. On their tour, they had their little band, and they also had a string orchestra with about 20 strong.
Here’s a video of Procol Harum performing their classic
song, “A Salty Dog.”
I’d chatted with [members of the orchestra] when we were on tour. One of them was a viola player named Victor. And when I got the idea about doing strings on “A Salty Dog,” I went around to see him, and I asked him how I could do it.
He told me that violas and violins have different ranges of course, and you write within those ranges. And where the instruments sound like you want them to sound, that’s where you put it, in notes. So I soon got the idea that you’ve got two violins—the first violin and the second violin, and the violas, cellos and basses. So I got out this book I had, which gave the range of instruments. The violas were suddenly complicated because it’s written in the alto clef. It’s not like looking at piano music.
Anyway, Victor was very helpful, and when I actually did it, I wrote the orchestrations out on paper. He said “That looks really good. I can put you together with an orchestra if you’d like.” And Victor, who was a well-connected musician, helped me get the top musicians because most of the orchestras were on holiday (laughs). He got the lead players from all of these orchestras. So we had about 20 strings in the studio and they were the top players. And I was lucky they were, because I thought, “I’ll conduct this.” We were at Abbey Road Studios, and I was like, “Ready?” I put my hand down to start counting the time, and they were all late (laughs). I said “Come on, come on…Wake up boys.” You know, conducting is a little bit different from rock (laughs). So anyway, the leader of the orchestra said, “Don’t worry about it Gary, you just count. We’ve got the tempo. You count us in and we’ll be alright.” So I just gave them the “1-2-3” and off they went. And they knew exactly what to do. They played it wonderfully.
DK: In 1972, Procol Harum recorded a live album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, which was a big hit. How did you decide to play with this orchestra and record a live album?
Brooker: The difficult thing was, it was almost unheard of at the time, for a rock band to play with an orchestra. Before we played with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, we were invited to play at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada. Somebody there thought that Procol Harum should play with a big orchestra, so they booked us there. So we were going to play with this orchestra, and all we’ve got is “A Salty Dog” (laughs). I thought…I better do something else here. Then I thought about “In Held ‘Twas In I.” It’s got the length (19 minutes)…you could really do something with an orchestra with that.
Here’s a video of Procol Harum performing their
classic song, “Grand Hotel.”
Anyway, it took me a few weeks, and I worked on it quite hard. I was in San Francisco at the time, so I rented a grand piano and off we went. I wrote all the parts and thought about how I would do “In Held ‘Twas In I.” There was also going to be a choir at Stratford.
DK: How did you decide to record a live album for your show with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra?
Brooker: When we played the show at Stratford, the Edmonton Symphony people saw us there. They said, “We want to do this with Procol Harum, with our orchestra.” So that’s how we got there a few months later. But a few weeks before the show, we had a meeting with our label, A&M Records. We said, “This is a once in a lifetime thing—we’re playing one concert with a symphony orchestra and a big choir. Maybe we should try and record it.” And everybody said, “Yeah I think we should, just in case.” (Top recording engineer) Wally Heider had a mobile 24-track studio, and we told him that we needed him, and he drove up to Canada with the mobile. It was very last minute, so we were lucky that Wally Heider was free. There wasn’t many people who could have handled that.
On the plane, flying up to Edmonton, I thought…. We don’t have songs that are uptempo. By then we had ”In Held ‘Twas In I,” “A Salty Dog” and “Whaling Stories.” They were dramatic and descriptive, but they weren’t uptempo and in your face. And so I thought…how about “Conquistador”? It was uptempo, and there was something that came into my head of dramatizing it and giving a bit of life to it. [The character in] “Conquistador” rode a horse (laughs), and he was like a Spanish, imperial colonialist who liked to go down and kill South Americans, looking for gold (laughs). That’s the sort of Spanish image I had in my head, and so I adapted the tune as it stood, and wrote an introduction to set the scene. That’s what that orchestral introduction is, with the trumpet over it. It’s like a clarion call…here comes the trumpets with the hero or the bad guy. And ”Conquistador” was always a short song: three short verses and repeat choruses. That’s why in the middle of it, we went back and redid half of the intro, and it gives it a break. Then the orchestra comes back in, and it all settles down to the last verse.
DK: At that point, the band was riding high because the Edmonton album was very popular and people loved the orchestral sound. So can you talk about your next album Grand Hotel, and your song, “Grand Hotel,” which had a big orchestra?
Here’s a video of Procol Harum performing their classic
song, “Simple Sister.”
Brooker: I think the Edmonton album was very successful, and not just for the money, but artistically. But because it was a live album, we hadn’t been in a studio for quite some time, since our Broken Barricades album (in 1971). So we really wanted to go back in the studio for our album, Grand Hotel. In particular, the song “Grand Hotel” was crying out for an orchestra. It was pretty epic. So we recorded that song with an orchestra, and we did that with a choir as well.
I was glad to be back in the studio, because in the studio you’ve got a lot more control. With the Edmonton Symphony album, it is what it is. You couldn’t do much with it after you played it. I mean, (top record producer) Chris Thomas produced it, and he also did a good job of mixing it. But you know, you didn’t have [the studio technology] that you have now. So to be back in the studio to record Grand Hotel was quite refreshing.
DK: After your Grand Hotel album, you returned to a more rock band sound for your next album, Exotic Birds and Fruit. Was that your plan, to take a break from the orchestral style?
Brooker: Yes, absolutely. After Grand Hotel, we thought we’d have a rest from this orchestra stuff. That was the thought before we wrote the songs and went in to record Exotic Birds and Fruit. We said, “Let’s forget all this orchestra stuff…let’s just be a five-piece band.”
DK: In the following years, you released six more albums, from Procol’s Ninth and Something Magic, to your most recent album, Novum. Of these later albums, which ones are your favorites?
Brooker: Our album Something More (from 1976) has just been re-released in Britain by Cherry Red Records. [For the repackages], we usually try and find some bonus tracks, which we did. So I listened to it, and “The Worm & The Tree” has some fantastic music in it. It did not set the world on fire, but I think probably because it’s spoken word, which is always difficult to get people to like (laughs). In fact, it’s as uncommercial as it can be in the rock business. Back then, punk and disco music were big stuff, and Procol came out with a 20-minute spoken word fairy tale. But when I recently listened to it, I thought…God, that’s good. That was good writing. There’s a bit of orchestra on it as well.
Also at the moment, I would say that Novum (from 2017) is my favorite. I really enjoyed it. We had a new producer with Novum, Dennis Weinreich. As a band (with the current lineup), we’d been playing together on the road for 10 years, but we’d never been in the studio. So that was refreshing…I enjoyed making it and I combined with the rest of the band on writing some of the songs.