In Memoriam: Gary Brooker

by delarue

Gary Brooker, the visionary pianist, main songwriter and frontman of pioneering art-rock band Procol Harum, died last Friday after a battle with cancer. He was 76.

If the Beatles invented art-rock, Procol Harum were the world’s first fulltime art-rock band. Blending epic classical grandeur, expansive psychedelia, proto-metal grand guignol and occasional goofy theatrics, they were the first rock band to include two keyboards. Brooker’s piano typically filled the role of rhythm guitar, with Matthew Fisher’s baroque-inflected organ and Robin Trower’s guitar sharing leads.

Procol Harum were also unusual in that lyricist Keith Reid was an official band member, but did not perform with them. Utilizing a flowery, ersatz Byronian vernacular, Reid’s lyrics could be ridiculously over-the-top. Yet they could also be venomously succinct, notably in protest songs like Conquistador or As Strong As Samson.

Brooker developed his signature throaty, expressive, soul-inspired vocal style in the early 60s while fronting British band the Paramounts, who played covers of American R&B hits. He brought along his bandmates, Trower and drummer Barrie Wilson, when he founded Procol Harum in 1967. Although they put out ten frequently brilliant albums in their initial incarnation, their biggest hit single proved to be their first release, A Whiter Shade of Pale, a mashup of Bach and Blonde on Blonde Dylan surrealism. The song is reputedly the UK’s most-played radio single of alltime, as indelibly linked to the decade of the 60s, via innumerable film and tv scores, as Jimi Hendrix’s cover of All Along the Watchtower is here.

Procol Harum were both utterly unique and years ahead of their time: gothic before gothic rock existed, and metal just when that style was sifting out of long-form psychedelia in the early 70s. Although pop acts had made orchestral records as far back as the 1930s, Procol Harum were the first rock band to record a live orchestral album. That 1972 release, Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, remains one of the greatest and most foundational art-rock records ever made. Although their influence has waned in recent decades, they had an enormous impact on their similarly ornate colleagues from the 70s, including Pink Floyd, Supertramp, the Strawbs, Nektar and Jethro Tull.

After what was left of the original Procol Harum broke up in 1977, Brooker served as Eric Clapton’s musical director, sang with the Alan Parsons Project and recorded with Kate Bush as well as putting out a handful of R&B albums under his own name. He regrouped Procol Harum in 1991 as a touring project and ended up recording three studio albums with a new supporting cast, although the music lacked the fire and spontaneity of Brooker’s earlier work.

Beyond the live orchestral record, the group’s best studio album is Shine on Brightly, a commercial flop in 1968 despite being the first rock record to feature a sidelong suite, arguably the band’s deepest plunge into psychedelia.

In the fall of 1991, a future daily New York Music blog owner made the long trip to the Town Hall in Manhattan from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn with his girlfriend to see Procol Harum perform their first American concert since the 70s. With Tim Renwick playing a volcanic recreation of Trower’s leads, it was a transcendent show, most of it captured on an old lo-fi Sony walkman recorder. The recorder disappeared with the girlfriend, but the tape remains in this blog’s archive.