Gary Brooker MBE, English singer, songwriter and lead vocalist with Procol Harum, chats with Kevin Cooper about his sabbatical from the group, their worldwide hit A Whiter Shade Of Pale, their latest album Novum and their 50th Anniversary Tour of the UK

Gary Brooker, MBE, is an English singer, songwriter, founder and lead singer of the rock band Procol Harum. Formed in 1967, they contributed to the development of symphonic rock, and by extension, progressive rock. Their best known hit is their 1967 single, A Whiter Shade Of Pale which sold over ten million copies, having reached number one in the UK singles chart. It also reached number five in America whilst in Australia it set a record by remaining at the number one spot for eight weeks.

To consolidate the success of the single, they toured and their live debut was opening for Jimi Hendrix in 1967. The group’s follow up single was Homburg which reached number six in the charts. Whilst the group did take a break in 1977, they got back together in 1991 and released their 10th studio album, The Prodigal Stranger.

Brooker was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2003 for his charitable services.

Whilst preparing for their tour of the UK to celebrate their 50th anniversary and the release of their 13th studio album, he took some time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Mr Brooker, good morning. How are you today?

Hello Kevin I’m alright thanks, how are you doing today?

I’m very well thank you and let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No worries, it’s a pleasure.

And before we move on may I ask you how you are after your recent fall when exiting the stage at your concert at the Royal Festival Hall?

Everything is coming along nicely and I now just have to wait for the fifth metacarpal in my right hand to heal and I will be back as good as new (laughter). Thanks for asking, that’s very sweet of you.

Apart from the fall, just how is life treating you?

(Laughter) other than taking a tumble life is absolutely fine.

In May you will be touring the UK with the Procol Harum 50th Anniversary tour. Are you looking forward to that?

Yes I am and what makes this tour special is the fact that it is the 50th Anniversary of Procol Harum and that we have recently released a new album. I don’t know which one is the coincidence (laughter) but the tour will give us the ideal opportunity to showcase a few of the new songs from the album.

Does touring still excite you or is it now a necessary evil?

Not evil at all in fact I would have to say that touring has been the highlight of my time spent within the music industry. However, I have to say that I really did enjoy going back into the recording studio this time and we really do enjoy ourselves once we get out there on stage. We are all especially excited about this forthcoming tour because we don’t very often play here in Britain. So this will make a change and I am sure that there are a lot of people out there who have always wanted to see Procol Harum and at last they will now have the chance.

You will be here in Nottingham at the Royal Concert Hall on 14th May. Just what can we expect?

What I personally expect is for everybody to come out of their homes, come to the Royal Concert Hall and see Procol Harum play (laughter). What I will say is that those of you who choose to come along are in for a really great night. I am looking forward to playing there in Nottingham immensely.

When you formed Procol Harum back in 1967 could you ever envisage that fifty years later you would still be writing and performing?

Not at all, no. Certainly back in 1967 we all thought ‘I wonder if we will last the year’ (laughter). However, things started to build for us all over the world and we did spend a hell of a lot of time over in America during our early years and it all built really nicely. Mind you, it was really hard work. In those days we played a lot of college gigs to people who no doubt are now Captains of Industry (laughter). I suppose that you start to realise after around thirty years that perhaps it is going to carry on (laughter). And after fifty years you just think that you are never going to retire (laughter).

Other than the tour and the album are you planning anything special to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary?

I think that the year has not overtaken us but it is about time that we started to think what there could be. I think that making a new album of newly written material is very important to us and that makes the year particularly special. I must admit that I do not feel that we have been in the recording studio enough over the past decade.

Looking back to 1977, was that the right time for the band to split?

Yes it was but we didn’t really split, we just thought to ourselves that the group had gone full circle. That’s what we all thought and therefore perhaps it was time for us to not do it. So we all just did that and also there was a different atmosphere at that time for a band like Procol Harum who always wrote quite thoughtful songs and lyrics. You have to remember that at that time the Punk scene was taking off and also Disco was very popular, and just for a while we simply didn’t seem to fit in. So rather than the band splitting up it really was just a question of we had gone a full circle and the atmosphere was simply not there. We didn’t think that we would have a break or anything we just sort of stopped. Everyone kept on playing of course and it meant that we could all do the things that we hadn’t had the chance to do.

What was the catalyst back in 1991 to get the band back together?

Well I would have to say that it started back in 1989 when a few different things happened. Firstly, I realised by doing a lot of American radio interviews that in fact Procol Harum was, as far as the public and the DJ’s were concerned, alive and kicking. That being despite the fact that we hadn’t played anywhere for thirteen years or so. Secondly, the internet was just getting going and somebody sent me a copy of a chat room where there was a boy chatting to a girl online and he asked her what music she liked. She then proceeded to tell him that she liked Procol Harum and she was amazed because they were also his favourite band. You have to bear in mind that we hadn’t played anywhere or had a record out in over thirteen years. Then somebody else then entered the chat room and also said that Procol Harum were his favourite band too.

I know that this sounds like a joke but believe me it is all true (laughter). Suddenly there were about ninety-five people in the same chat room professing to be fans of Procol Harum. It went to reinforcing the thought in my head that Procol Harum were in fact still very important to a hell of a lot of people, be they the public, be they DJ’s, or be they musicologist’s of some sort. Also by that time the atmosphere had changed, the Punks had gone and god, we even missed the New Romantics (laughter). So we got together again, made a new album in 1991 and that was it, Procol Harum were back and playing again.

I have been playing your latest studio album Novum for a couple of weeks now and I have to say that in my opinion it is a great piece of work.

Thank you for saying that. I am so pleased that you like it. As I said earlier it is an album of completely new material recorded in the studio. It is in my opinion a very strong set of songs. I suppose that I should really try to be immodest about this shouldn’t I (laughter).

You have co-written all of the songs on the album. Did that work well?

I have to say that yes it did, it worked really well. All of the songs have been written by Josh Philips, Geoff Whitehom and myself. We have all combined a bit on this album.

I hear that you also had a little help with the lyrics from Pete Brown?

Who’s been telling tales out of school (laughter). Yes that right, dear old Pete Brown worked on the lyrics and believe you me Pete dates back to when the dinosaurs were still here (laughter). I have seen Pete from time to time over the centuries and the idea came up that he wanted to write something with us so there you are.

Were there any hiccups or did it all go smoothly?

It pains me to say this because it’s simply not rock and roll but I have to admit that everything went really smoothly (laughter).

I understand that you recorded the album all together in an almost live situation in the studio.

Yes we did. We tried to make the album feel as fresh and as real as we could. We haven’t got an orchestra playing with us, it was simply recorded live in the studio with everyone playing at the same time without any overdubbing and I have to say that I really do think that we have made an album which we think is current as far as a rock band is concerned. As I said earlier, they are a strong set of songs without relying upon our past history in any way.

You say that you haven’t relied upon your past history but you have still managed to make a Procol Harum record.

I am so glad that you think so because that is what we were trying to do. We are Procol Harum, we have that line-up of instruments and I do just happen to sing the songs (laughter). Having said all of that what I can say is that this album won’t be upsetting anyone. Please rest assured that we haven’t gone all electronic (laughter).

Are you happy with the album?

Oh yes, immensely happy. Not having made a studio album since 2003 I was a little bit apprehensive, and wondered if it would work but it worked fantastically thanks to everyone involved.

The word Novum is Latin for a new feature which I feel is somewhat apt for this album.

And I would have to agree with you. This is a new feature; our first studio album in fourteen years. Yes I think that the title is very apt for this album.

Now I couldn’t possibly speak to you without mentioning that song could I?

What Homburg (laughter).

(Laughter) when you recorded A Whiter Shade Of Pale did you instantly realise that you had got something special?

Oh yes, I think that from the moment that I wrote the song, complete with the idea of combining Johann Sebastian Bach with a band and a blues vocal going over it together with the very unusual words, then from the moment that was conceived I always thought that it was a good song. Whenever I played it to anyone it was just me sitting at the piano and every person thought that it sounded like a hit. So we honestly believed that it was going to be a hit even before we had recorded it. Once we had recorded it and had captured that very characteristic sound, a rather haunting sound, we really did think that it was a good one.

From the moment that we made it we knew it was special; from the moment that the single came out, and remember that this was in the days before hype, and even before radio actually (laughter). The only radio was pirate radio and radio Luxemburg so the only way that people got to hear about the song was, well I’m not really sure where they got to hear about it (laughter). However, within a week it was number eleven in the charts and the following week it was number one.

And here in the UK it stayed at number one for six weeks.

Yes it did and it wasn’t just a hit record here in the UK it was a hit record everywhere. You think that you have made a hit or that it has come out great but to think that it is going to be liked in places such as Venezuela and that the people were still going to like it fifty years later, well that wasn’t in the mind at all.

I have to say that in my opinion the song is timeless. Why do you think that is?

That has always been a mystery to me and I think that is the answer. There is no answer, there was no formula, there was no hype, and it was purely all in that sound and that song. People just couldn’t get the song out of their minds. They just had to keep hearing it and they still do. Also it was very different back in 1967 and it still sounds different today. Whenever you hear it played on the radio it still stands out. I don’t know if it is just me but I feel that it probably stands out more today because most people now have a certain sort of sound especially if you want to get played on the radio. I don’t think that the song has ever dated and to be honest I don’t think that it ever will. It really does stand all on its own.

And then after six weeks four young men from Liverpool knocked you off the number one spot.

Did they, what with?

Yes they did with All You Need Is Love.

Did they? Well in that case all that I can say is well done to The Beatles (laughter). There was a bit of a story at the time because Engelbert Humperdinck, just prior to A Whiter Shade Of Pale earlier in 1967, Engelbert bloody Humperdinck had kept Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane off the number one slot with Release Me. Which of course any good rock band were absolutely appalled that Engelbert Humperdinck could do that especially to Strawberry Fields. However, a few weeks later Procol Harum kept Engelbert Humperdinck with his next release off the number one spot. Dues were well and truly paid let’s say (laughter).

Back in 1995 Annie Lennox covered A Whiter Shade Of Pale for her album Medusa. What did you think to her version?

Honestly, I thought that she recorded a really good version of the song. The song has been covered a lot of times and I have to say that it’s not very often that I like them. It’s not an easy song to cover I think, but I thought that Annie Lennox got the vocals just right and more to the point she actually sang the song as if it meant something to her which it most probably does, but we don’t know what. It all depends how old she was when the record first came out. We will have to look that up. But she did a good job and she didn’t have an organ playing in it at all. She didn’t do any of that she just got on and made her own version of the song. I personally thought that it was a very good version, I liked the way she sang it and I told her so.

Who has musically inspired you?

Well when I was younger my father was a musician; he was an Hawaiian guitarist so I grew up with music. I also grew up with live music as well although that was all Hawaiian. Back then I thought that everybody was Hawaiian when I was little (laughter). I didn’t realise that it was only my family. Luckily I was listening to music as a very young teenager when you could hear Roll Over Beethoven or Great Balls Of Fire for the very first time.

However, I think that the one who really inspired me back then was Ray Charles. I found myself being drawn to the singers who also played the piano so I suppose that must have appealed to me but Ray Charles has always been my number one. His interpretation of songs was the business.

What was the first record that you bought?

That would have been Zambezi by the Lou Busch Orchestra and it was on a 78 (laughter).

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

Apart from my father that would most probably have been Vince Taylor And His Playboys.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

For some reason I think that would have to be Sinead O’Connor singing Nothing Compares 2 U. There is just something about the intensity which she puts into that song. There is just something about it. Whenever she sings that song she always appears to be very sincere about it and looks so helpless. It most definitely bought a tear to my eye.

If I had to push you what would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

I think that would have to be the first time that we ever played with an orchestra and choir which was over in Canada in 1969. That was a massive highlight because it demonstrated that our music could be interpreted and worked in a very different way. And it also crossed a huge void between the classical players, in other words a symphony orchestra and a rock band. Although you have probably heard that many times now, back then for someone to do that it was very different. For me that was both a milestone and a highlight.

On that note Mr Brooker let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today it’s been an absolute pleasure and I will see you in Nottingham.

Thanks Kevin you take care and I hope to see you soon. Bye for now.