The third and final 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.
Gary Brooker still has a recording of that first Radio London broadcast of ‘A Whiter Shade Of pale’. “I got the old Grundig out, and put the microphone near the radio,” he says. “My girlfriend Franky [to whom Brooker has at the time of writing been married for 42 years] and I both cheered when the name Procol Harum was first mentioned. The DJ then said, ‘I’ve got this new record here... And I think it’s going to sound lovely!’ So he puts on ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ and I think it sounded fine, but I was so euphoric that we were getting airplay on the radio that I got a bit carried away. When the record finished he said something like that sounds like a huge hit to me!”
Roman told his listeners to phone in or to write to Radio London at 17 Curzon Street in London’s upmarket Mayfair. Immediately afterwards the station’s switchboard was jammed with callers. Needing no further convincing Decca agreed to press up thousands of copies, rush-releasing the single across the globe on May 12. In the second week of its release it stood at number 13 in the UK charts.
On May 12 Procol Harum made their live debut at London’s premier psychedelic club, the UFO on Tottenham Court Road. The club’s manager, Joe Boyd, had earlier dismissed an approach from Keith Reid who was seeking to further the group’s interests. “He said, ‘Hey Joe’. ‘I was like, ‘Do I know you?’” says Boyd. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I came to your office!’ It was Keith Reid and he was like, ‘See what you missed!’”
That same night Procol performed for a second time at the late-night, members-only Speakeasy Club in Margaret Street, near Oxford Circus. “[It was] the day ’A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ came out so nobody knew us,” said Brooker. “Because we only had ten Brooker-Reid songs, we played those, and then we played a few others that we liked. We played a Bob Dylan song, a Rascals song, and one called ’Morning Dew’ that Tim Rose had recorded. Hendrix was down at the Speakeasy watching us playing and he suddenly jumped up onstage when we started ’Morning Dew’, grabbed the bass off our bass player, turned it upside down, and joined in. He loved us. He thought we were lovely.”
The response to Radio London playing ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ was immediate. Brooker recalls riding down Oxford Street in a bus and seeing a sign in a shop window that stated, simply, ‘Yes we’ve got it’, and another window saying, ‘It’s in!’ “And by the third shop up Oxford Street going on this bus ride I could see copies of our record stuck in the windows. I realised this was what they were talking about. It was very important. So it was there by popular demand, which was great. When it was number 13 in the UK I went to Paris, ostensibly to do a radio interview. When I got off the plane I was met by 100 cheering people. They said, ‘Welcome, welcome. We go straight to the radio show’. They said, ‘You are number one’. I said, ‘Oh really? Number one what?’ And so it was number one in France before it was number one here in England.”
There was universal agreement among Britain’s pop cognoscenti that the record was exceptional. No lesser figure than Paul McCartney subsequently recalled the first time he heard it, at the Speakeasy Club in the company of Animals singer Eric Burdon and Who drummer Keith Moon. “We said, ‘This is the best song ever man’,” McCartney recalled.
It was a memorable night for the Beatle as earlier the same evening, at The Bag O’ Nails Club in Kingly Street, he had met his future wife Linda Eastman for the very first time. Later Paul gave Linda his copy of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ as a token of that night.
‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ received its official live debut at the Speakeasy on May 24. Disc & Music Echo’s Scene column (dated June 3) reported: “Digging Procol Harum at The Speakeasy last week were all four Beatles, Georgie Fame, Chris Farlowe, Cat Stevens, Andrew Loog Oldham, Eric Burdon, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and Denny Cordell.”
Paul McCartney and George Harrison took their partners to watch Procol Harum make their first major UK concert appearance at the Saville Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue on June 4 where they supported The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Reviewing this show on June 10, New Musical Express’ Derek Boltwood wrote: “I am sure that Procol Harum will be with us for a long time – and I think they will not only prove that they are not just a one-hit group, but they will also show themselves capable of producing some really progressive music – they’ll have to after ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’, which is surely one of the most up-to-date sounds around.”
It took just three weeks for ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ to climb to number one in the UK singles charts where it remained for six weeks.
“We weren’t really ready for such instant success, so I thought we’d better go out and get ourselves some new clothes,” says Brooker. “We made an appointment to go to this exclusive boutique called Dandy Fashions in the Kings Road in Chelsea. We rang the doorbell and inside all four Beatles were standing around a harmonium singing ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ the very moment we came in. Not for us... They just happened to be there singing the song as we came in through the door...”
According to The Beatles’ press agent Derek Taylor, “John Lennon played the song over and over inside his psychedelic Rolls Royce Silver Ghost.” It probably also inspired Lennon’s ‘I Am The Walrus’ from The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.
Procol made numerous television appearances on BBCTV’s Top Of The Pops between May and July with primetime guest spots on BBCTV’s Billy Cotton’s Music Hall on June 18 and ITV’s As You Like It on June 20, all arranged by plugger Tony Hall.
In the US, where Procol Harum weren’t known at all, ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ reached five in the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed in the top 40 for 10 weeks. The song achieved this remarkable success without any American TV appearances whatsoever.
‘Pale’ became a top five hit in almost every country in the world; in France the single was number one for 18 weeks, while in Venezuela it held the top spot for a staggering six months. ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ received a UK Ivor Novello Award for The Best International Song of The Year and also beat The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’ in NME’s reader’s poll for The Best Single Of 1967.
Such success did not come without a whiff of envy from other performers. Crooner Englebert Humperdinck was so jealous of Procol’s achievement that he refused to speak to the group backstage in the green room at BBC TV’s Top Of The Pops 1967 Christmas Special. Instead of congratulating the group, Humperdinck, whose schmaltzy ballad ‘Release Me’ had shamefully prevented The Beatles double A-side ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’ from reaching number one earlier that year, angrily blew cigar smoke into Brooker’s face before quickly exiting.
Total sales figures for ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ are difficult to estimate and subject to the influence of those who might have reason to underestimate them in order to reduce royalty payments or overestimate them in order to promote the group’s ‘legendary’ status. Some have suggested that, worldwide, an estimated six million sales had been chalked up by the end of the sixties but this figure must surely include albums tracks as well as singles. In 1978, on its third UK issue Procol were awarded Gold Discs with an embossed plaque that read: ‘UK Sales In Excess of 6 Million’, but this was surely untrue as according to reliable sources the best-selling UK single of all time is Elton John’s ‘Candle In The Wind’ (1997) with sales of 4.9 million to date. An alleged 10 million copies had been sold worldwide by the end of the seventies, with an estimated 16 million sales to date, according to some sources. It has, of course, appeared on countless compilation albums. There are almost 1,000 cover versions of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ recorded in many different languages, and the song has been featured on the soundtrack to numerous movies, TV series and commercials. In the modern digital age it has even become a mobile phone ringtone and a ‘Wii’ computer game!