The second part of the extract from Procol Harum: The Ghosts Of A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Henry Scott-Irvine, telling the remarkable story of this ageless, haunting and unforgettable song. Concluding part tomorrow.
In the second week of March, Procol Harum placed their own ad in Melody Maker, this time to find a drummer. Those auditioned were a varied bunch: Walter Johnston, of The VIPs (who became Art and then Spooky Tooth), Philip ‘Phil The Greek’ Andronicus, a notorious ‘Soho heavy’ and an associate of The Pretty Things who, according to Andrew Oldham, had “never drummed in his life”, and a man known only as ‘Tubs’ who’d played on an early demo of ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’. All of these hopefuls were deemed inappropriate by Cordell who was notoriously fussy when it came to choosing drummers.
Keith Reid: “Gary had worked with [former Rockerfella drummer] Bobby Harrison in the past, and we were trying him out. Denny Cordell had already booked Olympic Studios to record ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ and some other songs. He had told us he was going to get Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience to record with us, which we were excited about, but on the day he said he couldn’t get either Mitch or Bobby, so he booked Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames drummer Bill Eyden instead.”
Eyden conveniently lived across the road from Olympic Studios in Barnes. Cordell considered him to be a safe pair of hands, having worked with him many times as Georgie Fame’s producer. Session engineer Keith Grant made the call to Eyden on March 29, the actual day of the recording. Eyden listened to the original demos, “replicating the drum part played by drummer Tubs on the original Guy Stevens produced acetate of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’,” according to Matthew Fisher.
Bobby Harrison states that he had “just joined the day before the ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ recording session”, and was in attendance at the session, and had “expected to play”. The group would subsequently re-record a couple of alternate, unreleased versions of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ with Harrison at Advision Studios in New Bond Street, along with the later issued ‘Pale’ B-side, ‘Lime Street Blues’. This April 19 session was produced by Cordell, with Gerald Chevin engineering.
Bobby Harrison: “As far as I knew they were going to release the version of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ with me playing. So when the record came out I was actually convinced it was me playing on it. I thought I was number one in the charts! Then of course I was told it was Bill Eyden, and it felt, well, pretty strange!”
In the event the recording of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ that ended up being released featured Brooker on piano and vocals, Fisher on Hammond organ, Ray Royer on guitar, David Knights on bass and Eyden on drums. Keith Grant recently claimed that Denny Cordell was not in attendance on March 29 at the Olympic ‘Pale’ session when he taped and created the perfect mix. Grant and Cordell are no longer alive so this particular bone of contention will have to remain a moot point that can be verified only by the musicians who were present. Here, too, there are conflicting conclusions or simply vagueness.
‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ was licensed to Decca’s progressive label, Deram, set up in autumn 1966 by the company’s ace promotion man Tony Hall who knew a hit when he heard it. In the case of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ it was at Denny Cordell’s house where he had been invited for dinner. “I was looking through a pile of white label demos, and I picked out one and put it on,” Hall says. “Well I didn’t stop playing that demo all night long until about two in the morning. It was ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’.” Hall would later describe the song in his Record Mirror column of May 13 as being, “vaguely in the Dylan bag. The most arresting thing about it is the organ figure. It’s loosely based upon Bach’s ‘Air On A G String’.”
With the possible exception of wedding favourite ‘Jesu Joy Of Man’s Desiring’, ‘Air On A G String’ is probably the best known composition by the classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and is adapted from a passage in his Orchestral Suite No 3 in D Major. Like many easily assimilated pieces of classical music it has been recorded by all manner of musicians, mostly by classical guitarists, but the best-known popular version is unquestionably that by the French pianist and composer Jacques Loussier which was famously used to accompany a TV commercial for Hamlet cigars.
“The original Hamlet cigar commercial featuring ‘Air On A G String’ had always been a big favourite of ours,” says Brooker. “When the guy lit up the cigar everything just went cool. Anyway, I sat down one day and tried to play ‘Air On A G String’. I just started off with the bass line, and I put in some chords. I think only the first four notes are the same, and then it starts to change. I sang a tune over the top. I thought the in-between part would have some tune, which I wrote... What the bass notes were doing was very important to me. If it was an E-chord they played an ‘e’, and when it went up to an A they played ‘a’. I started to find out that the whole nature of a chord changed with the bass note that you had with it. Once I had got this idea that you keep playing these bass chords descending, I just went round and round. I was there. The only problem was I thought, ‘How am I going to get the repeated bit at the end of every verse?’ I just banged in this triplet, and just changed the tempo of the chords for a bar, then I carried on with the chords again. You just have to flip it around at the end of the last line so that you start again.”
While JS Bach’s ‘Air On A G String’ is its most obvious influence, ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ additionally incorporates elements of Bach’s ‘Sleepers Awake’. A yet closer melodic influence can be found in the organ choral prelude ‘O Mensch bewein dein’ Sünde groß’ (‘O Man, Lament Your Sin So Great’), from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). The song also borrows ideas from the aching melancholy of ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ by Percy Sledge which itself tips its hat towards JS Bach. Sledge would later cover ‘Pale’, thus reversing the homage. Denny Cordell later admitted, “I wanted to make Gary’s voice sound like a psychedelic Percy Sledge.”
The soulful organ playing was very cathedral-like in tone and would earn Matthew Fisher the nickname ‘Matthew Celestial Smith’ – the ‘Smith’ part allegedly a reference to organ playing legend Jimmy Smith. Fisher is unimpressed: “Smith? They just got the name wrong!” he says. “And ‘Celestial’ was something that I made up afterwards for a laugh as my middle name begins with ‘C’ for Charles. Anyway, with regard to ‘the organ sound’, I just had this little preset on my Hammond organ that had a big churchy sound, and I thought that would sound good in a rock band. It just seemed to work.”
Fisher considered ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ to be a suitable vehicle for his unique Bach-cum-Booker-T organ style. “It was entirely my idea to compose a set solo and to give the last two bars a satisfying ‘shape’,” he says. “What I added was a tune of course... I saw a proof of the [song’s] sheet music and the first thing I saw was that the first eight bars were my organ solo. And yet at the top of the sheet music it said, ‘Music by Gary Brooker’. Suddenly I realised what I had contributed went way beyond the call of duty... Gary was totally unsympathetic, and I was completely devastated!”
There is a well-known truism in the music business that ‘Where there’s a hit there’s a writ’, to which might be added, ‘the bigger the hit the bigger the writ’. Many individuals are involved in the hit making process, from the writers and performers to the record producers and those whose job it is to ensure that records are played on the radio and eventually distributed to the shops around the country. As we have seen, those involved in making ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ the massive hit it became range from JS Bach through publisher David Platz and producer Denny Cordell to the sound engineer Keith Grant, the musicians in the studio, the lyricist, and many others besides. And one notable individual who could claim a part in its success was languishing in a cell at Wormwood Scrubs.
Originally, however, according to Tony Hall, executive voices at Decca considered the song to be “too dreary, too long, and too slow” and questioned the wisdom of releasing it. “I said, ‘You are mad! Bollocks, you’re totally wrong’. This is a monster smash!”
Hall arranged to get it played on the pirate station Radio London, at a specific time so that the group could tune in and hear what the disc sounded like through a regular transistor radio. “I told [Radio London boss] Alan Keen that he would get a worldwide exclusive on-air debut of the acetate of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’, if he would agree to play it at a certain time.”
It was a smart move by Hall. The pirates broadcasted from ships anchored in the waters that surrounded the UK and the top stations, notably Radio London and Radio Caroline, attracted millions of young listeners in the days before BBC Radio 1 and independent local radio. Acting on orders from his boss, London’s Mark Roman played ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ on his show The Roman Empire on April 17 at precisely 13 minutes and 20 seconds before 4pm from a tiny cabin inside a ship on the stormy North Sea.
It was the first time anyone from outside the ranks of Procol or their record label heard about skipping the light fandango.