Driving in my car yesterday a DJ on 6Music played Procol Harum's ‘Homburg’ as a ‘tribute’ but I didn’t know who for until this morning when I opened up my paper and discovered that their keyboard player and principal vocalist Gary Brooker had died. I saw him alighting from a train at Guildford station one evening in, I think, 2009, like me returning from Waterloo; myself from work, him no doubt after another day in court over the vexed question of who wrote ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’, a case that dragged on for several years.
I suspect I was the only person on the train who recognised this distinguished looking gentleman, a bit portly with thinning white hair in a smart blue suit, collar and tie, looking a bit stressed by the weight of the lawsuit. No one in a million years would have taken him for a rock star. I’d met him once or twice years ago, back in my MM days, but he was unlikely to recognise me now and bearing in mind how the case was going I wasn’t about to mutter ‘skip the light fandango’ into his ear. “Best of luck,” I said. Realising I was someone who knew who he was, he nodded and smiled at me a bit wearily.
Brooker lost the case insofar as former Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher was deemed by the judge to have been a co-writer of ‘AWSOP’ and could therefore share in future royalties, along with PH lyricist Keith Reid who wrote the words. I suspect that defending his claim that he alone wrote the music cost Brooker a pretty penny in lawyer’s fees, and this was probably why his large detached house near Cranleigh appeared on the market not long afterwards.
Like most music fans in my age demographic I adored ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ without having a clue what it was about. Enigmatic, catchy but weirdly profound, with a hint of JS Bach, it was the anthem of 1967, the year pop came of age, the only serious rival to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the leading record in a trio of singles that embodied the Summer of Love, the others ‘All You Need Is Love’ by the Fabs and ‘San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)’ by Scott McKenzie. I bought all three.
‘Pale’ spent six weeks at number one in the UK and hit the top in a dozen other countries but like so many other records by young, credulous acts signed to management and music publishing companies whose business practices were heavily slanted towards themselves, the musicians that comprised Procol Harum at the time saw very little in the way of rewards. Abrupt personnel changes didn’t help. Many years later I was told by a friend who once worked for their publishing company that the amount AWSOP earned for the musicians who created it was simply minuscule, fractions of pennies per sale or play, especially on foreign earnings and inclusion on hits compilations by various artists, on which it appeared on too many to count. This was probably adjusted at some time in the last 20 years, which was no doubt why Matthew Fisher felt it worthwhile to bring his lawsuit.
Oddly, Procol Harum’s second LP Shine On Brightly was the first free record I ever received, a review copy sent to the Telegraph & Argus in Bradford where in 1968 I had a column called The Swing Scene. I can’t remember what I wrote – sorry, it was a long time ago – but I can remember my delight at getting an LP I didn’t have to pay for.
I saw the group twice while working for Melody Maker, once at the London Palladium when they were introduced by Vivian Stanshall. “They are the most uncompromising group in England,” he intoned in that marvellous accent of his. And once again at the Hollywood Bowl on September 21, 1973, when they performed alongside the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and a large choir.
I enjoyed both concerts. RIP Gary. You were to Procol what Jagger is to the Stones.