Gary Brooker of Procol Harum Passes Away

Gary Brooker (L) in a 1967 promotional film for Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” screenshot. Credit: YouTube

Gary Brooker, who as leader of veteran, English progressive rockers Procol Harum paved the genre’s path in the latter 1960s with his Bach-infused “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and decades of subsequent work mixing multi-faceted, esoteric flavorings, English folk, and American blues, has passed away from cancer. Brooker’s death was on February 19th, but was not publicly announced until the 22nd. Brooker was 76.


Brooker’s career started in the early 1960s with The Paramounts, a British R&B outfit who were contemporaries of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, both of which were fans, and often included them on their tours, yet enjoyed minimal commercial success. Their only British Top 40 hit was in 1963, a cover of “Poison Ivy,” which was originally made famous by The Coasters.

The band, including Brooker and guitarist Robin Trower, eventually fell apart. Brooker remained undaunted, and in 1967 came up with the notion of loosely basing a song on J.S. Bach’s “Air on the G String.” The result was a hastily formed band, with Brooker as lead singer and songwriter, alongside Keith Reld providing lyrics. The song was “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which became a permanent member of rock history.

Although never again ascending to the heights of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum carved a very successful career for themselves throughout the remainder of the 1960s and through the mid-1970s, including tracks such as “A Salty Dog” and “Conquistador” cementing their place in rock’s thinking brigade. The band remained sporadically active in the ensuing decades, enjoying a fond spot in aging rockers’ hearts for how it proved the worlds of traditional and contemporary music can indeed live together in harmony.

Procol Harum was a compositional band, relying on its individual songs’ and collective tunes’ strength — rather than instrumental virtuosity — to carry the day. It was unafraid to combine multiple ideas on one album. You would hear straightforward blues tracks, gentle folk, and lushly orchestrated numbers all in one sitting, all laced together by Brooker’s powerful, earthy vocals. The band was never a flavor of the week; even at its commercial height, it stood far apart from its contemporaries, following its muse wherever it led, regardless of commercial achievements or lack thereof. Procol Harum was uniquely itself; inventive, colorful, and although known by most for but one song, a band that firmly stamped its influence on popular music from the moment it first made itself known.


Aside from music, Brooker’s extensive charity work was honored in 2003, when Queen Elizabeth awarded him the MBE. He also maintained what might possibly be the lengthiest marriage by a rocker in the genre’s history, as he and wife Françoise married in 1968.

Godspeed, Gary Brooker.


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