I was searching through YouTube the other day when I came across a listing for Gary Booker singing A Whiter Shade Of Pale. For those of you who are not up on 1960s groups, Gary was the piano/keyboard player and singer for Procol Harum. My first reaction was blimey that guy must be well into his 70s by now and this song is bound to be an embarrassment and will destroy my memories of the original song. How wrong I was…
In 1966, Gary founded Procol Harum with his friend Keith Reid. They immediately had a worldwide hit with “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and this became the song that most people would associate with the band. The song was written by Gary Booker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher. It reached #1 in several countries, including the UK, when released in 1967. In the years since, it has become an enduring classic. It was the most played song in the last 75 years in public places in the UK and the United Kingdom performing rights group Phonographic Performance Limited in 2004 recognised it as the most-played record by British broadcasting of the past 70 years. Also in 2004, Rolling Stone placed “A Whiter Shade of Pale” 57th on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In 1977, the song was named joint winner (along with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”) of “The Best British Pop Single 1952–1977” at the Brit Awards. In 1998 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Keith Reid got the title and starting point for the song at a party. He overheard someone at the party saying to a woman, “You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale”, and the phrase stuck in his mind. The original lyrics had four verses, of which only two are heard on the original recording. The third verse has been heard in live performances by Procol Harum, and more seldom also the fourth.
Reid was quoted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut magazine as saying: “I was trying to conjure a mood as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story. With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene. I wasn’t trying to be mysterious with those images, I was trying to be evocative. I suppose it seems like a decadent scene I’m describing. But I was too young to have experienced any decadence, then. I might have been smoking when I conceived it, but not when I wrote it. It was influenced by books, not drugs.
Gary Brooker’s melancholic vocals and emotive, eclectic piano playing were a key part of Procol’s musical mix for the entire course of the band’s career. In the early years Brooker, Hammond organist Matthew Fisher and Trower were the guiding musical forces behind the band, but after disparities in style became too much and Fisher and Trower left, Brooker was the clear leader until the band broke up in 1977.
Unusually for a rock star, Gary married Françoise “Franky” Riedo, a Swiss au pair, whom he met circa 1965 and the couple are still together. He was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2003, in recognition of his charitable services.
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