Gary Brooker of Procol Harum

by Carl Wiser

Putting music to the words of Procol Harum's lyricist Keith Reid, Gary Brooker created a rich, classical sound without compromise. Revered by legions of fans who appreciate their clever songwriting and outstanding musicianship, Procol Harum is known to the masses for their 1967 hit "A Whiter Shade Of Pale."

Brooker is also the group's lead singer and pianist. In addition to his work with Procol, he was part of Phil Spector's sonic masonry on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and on much of Eric Clapton's '80s output. We had the good fortune to speak with Gary about his songwriting and inspiration.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Gary, I spoke with Keith Reid about a year ago, and he was explaining how most of the time he would write the lyrics first, and then you would put the music to those lyrics. Can you explain what it's like taking a sheet of lyrics and trying to put music to it?

Gary Brooker: Well, I wouldn't entirely agree with Reid's synopsis there. He might think it, because when he writes lyrics, he hasn't heard any music to them, so he thinks they exist first. But what about a scenario where he's at home writing lyrics, and I am also at home writing song ideas? And then at some point the two come together. And by me looking at his lyrics, I will see that I've got a really good musical idea that will fit with them.

So in answer to your question, Carl [laughs] it's not as difficult as you might have expected to write music to lyrics. Because the ideas might already be there, and eventually I find one of Keith's lyrics that fit with my musical idea.

Songfacts: So in the same way that Keith is writing down ideas on pieces of paper, which are words, you are similarly coming up with musical ideas constantly?

Gary: Yeah. That's it. But of course now and again there's a lyric - and it's usually a really good one - and if you haven't got a musical idea, you can write something to it.

Songfacts: Do you have any examples of songs where you looked at a lyric and that has inspired a musical idea?

Gary: Well, I think the best case of that will be one called "Grand Hotel." The lyric is all about the grandeur. It's actually an autobiographical Procol Harum on-the-road song. But the grandeur of the words, and then all the expressions used of the food and wine and sparkle and chandelier, I looked at that and thought, Well, you've got to conjure up an atmosphere here. And having experienced the same things that Keith had experienced in what he was writing about, I was able to interpret, hopefully, his lyrics into something which enhanced the whole effect.

Songfacts: Are there any other examples of songs that you remember thinking about how well your music went with the lyrics?

Gary: Hopefully all of them. [laughing] Usually the best combinations do happen very naturally. If we take something like "A Salty Dog," that was a musical idea, it's very much a type of chord progression with a certain rhythm. And I think soon after I got that idea, Keith sent me the words and they were already done, and they just seemed to fit with it very, very easily.

Songfacts: Would you ever change or reject the lyrics that Keith gave you?

Gary: No, I would never think of it. Because I knew that he had thought very carefully about every single word. Every "V" and "N," there wasn't anything - I mean, if I tried to take even a small adjective out of a line, it would be strongly resisted by Keith, because that would take away the sense that he had. Therefore, I've never needed to change his lyrics.

He's mellowed out a bit over the years, and recently I said something like, "I want to have a long note on the end of this line, and yet that word there, I cannot make it last long singing it." There are words like that. And he will quite willingly think of something else without changing the meaning at all.

Songfacts: How do you typically write?

Gary: Personally? Music-wise?

Songfacts: Yeah.

Gary: I sit down at the piano and improvise, really. I sit down at the piano, and I just play things that I haven't played before, and I try to invent, and I do that until I go, "Oh, I like that bit." And I run 'round it a couple of times, and then see where that leads to something else. So it's very much improvisation, and coming up with rhythmic and chordal ideas.

But, of course, always I'm humming, I'm thinking of a melody in my head to go with those particular chords and rhythms. Because luckily I'm the singer as well. When I play around on the piano and think up some chords and ideas, the tune is there, as well, in my head.

Songfacts: Can you sit down and say, "I'm going to write today from 3 o'clock to 5 o'clock," or do you have to wait for inspiration to strike?

Gary: I have to wait for inspiration to strike. I used to sit down almost every morning - it was usually mornings for some reason. Morning has always been a good idea time for me rather than late at night. Sometimes you think you can do it, but I think the morning ideas have always been better than the nighttime ideas.

As time goes on, as the years go on, you seem to have less and less and less time. I think whatever profession you're in, everybody would agree with that. We've got to have lots of things that help us, that make life easier. But you end up looking at emails for two hours a day, and by the time you get through everything, you sometimes don't feel like going and playing the piano.

Songfacts: That's interesting that you talked about email and technology. Can you talk about how recording technology has affected your work?

Gary: Well, making a record now, working in a studio with modern technology is absolutely painless. But, of course, myself and the boys in Procol Harum, we grew up and learned to play before we started recording. And when we started recording, you had to get it right. You had to play it right, you had to sing it in tune. So all of those things are a part of our craft, so we don't rely on technology to, like, repeat a chorus for us musically, which you can do with a computer. You can go, "Well, it's more or less the same, next time we'll just use the first bit we played."

We will always record a song all the way through and I will sing it all the way through as well. So we don't use the technology of correction. We just use it because you can do two or three or four songs in a day, where getting exactly the right sound with the old technologies used to sometimes take a day or more.

Songfacts: Considering that you write on a piano, and that you need to wait for the inspiration to strike, do you have any trouble finding a piano when this inspiration happens?

Gary: I don't get inspired if I can't see a piano. I think in my life I've written one song while sort of sitting up against a wall somewhere. And in fact I wrote a song and all the lyrics while I was sitting waiting for something to happen. And that's been about the only song that's ever done it.

Songfacts: What song was that, Gary?

Gary: It was on a solo album of mine, it's called "The Angler."

Songfacts: So how did that come about?

Gary: Well, I went up to Oregon. I was a fly fisherman, you see, and I went fishing for steelhead. It actually took me two weeks to finally land one, and it was a beauty. And I managed to put it back, as well, so it lived to swim again, and I just photographed it and weighed it and things. Took some good pictures and somebody up there made me a model of it in the end. But I then went back euphorically to these friends' house I was staying with, and nobody was in. It was like 4 in the afternoon. So I went and bought a six-pack of malt liquor, which is like strong beer, really. And I thought, well, when they come we can have a beer. But they took so long I sat there and I had a couple of these malt liquors, and I started to think about the two weeks that I just spent all over Oregon and Washington in search of this elusive steelhead, and the adventures I'd had on the way. And they took a real long time to come home, these people, and I was sitting there for about two or three hours. I finished the six-pack and finished the song.

Songfacts: But most of the time you like to have a piano where you can see it. Does that mean when you're on the road you try to have a piano close by?

Gary: These days, you don't get that sort of time on the road. In the old days, like with Procol touring around America in 1969 or something, we used to be there for two or three months at a time. We'd try and base ourselves in say, New York State somewhere, and we'd have a motel, and I'd have a piano in my room. The days where we weren't playing or we didn't set off until 4 in the afternoon, I'd tinkle around on the piano. These days we find it's, "What time's the flight," or "What time's the bus leaving?"

There's very, very little time to actually sit down when you're on the road. Now and again with a soundcheck - I mean, they're always noisy and busy, but you might sort of whilst warming up on your instrument try a few chords out and you might get the gist of something. But you get very little time - it's a different place every night. I don't carry 'round a portable keyboard. It's not practical, because we do fly quite a lot, and it's not an easy thing to get on the plane these days.

Procol Harum, L-R: Josh Phillips, Gary Brooker, Geoff Dunn, Matt Peg, Geoff Whitehorn. Photo: Simon ThiseltonProcol Harum, L-R: Josh Phillips, Gary Brooker, Geoff Dunn, Matt Peg, Geoff Whitehorn. Photo: Simon Thiselton
Songfacts: Gary, what's your best vocal performance, in your opinion, of a Procol Harum song?

Gary: Oh, that's a tough question. I'd have to think about that. Well, I would say something off of the Edmonton Symphony Live album. I don't mind which one, really. But it always gives one a great deal of pleasure if you know that when you sing live, that you sing as well or better than you did in the studio. And, of course, when you get excited, when you're playing on stage, a bit more adrenaline, it always fits well in with the feeling.

When we played in Edmonton with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra that first time, it was a very inspiring evening, and there was a lot of good music going on from everybody, and the vocals had to get over it all. So I would say something off there.

Songfacts: It must be very different, also, when you're singing live as opposed to a studio environment.

Gary: Well, it's easier. It's much easier on stage than in a studio.

Songfacts: Why is that?

Gary: Well, usually, what you're singing in a studio, you haven't really sung before. You are recording that song for the first time. Sometimes I walk up to the microphone and it's the first time I've had a serious go at it with the backing going on. When we record in the studio, we always have a vocal mike up at the keyboard, so I always sing all of them the same time as playing. And very often those guide vocals are what gets used on the finished recording. So it's much easier to sing and play and just be natural about it - which is what it's like on stage - than standing in a booth crafting something.

Songfacts: What do you consider the most difficult Procol Harum song to perform?

Gary: Most difficult... well, we've got a couple of songs that we don't even play because they're so difficult.

Songfacts: What are some examples of songs you can't even take on the road with you?

Gary: Well, we will one day, but we've got one called "The Thin End of the Wedge," which was on Exotic Birds and Fruit, which is, for some reason, a quite difficult piece to play and get the vocal across. I mean, if you heard it, you'd probably see why.

But when I write a tune, I'm able to sing it, so I haven't written something that I can't sing. Nothing is really that difficult. It's easy sometimes because all you've got to do is put yourself into it. Some songs I must have sung thousands of times. Of course, they've been around for 40 years, you know. "A Salty Dog" or "A Whiter Shade of Pale" or anything, but I always put myself into them. The lyrics are interesting enough that every time you sing them you can always, if you feel like it, just think of it in a different way, as you are vocalizing.

Songfacts: The last thing I have for you, Gary, I was reading about how you recorded "Wizard Man" thinking of it as a single. What's the difference between a song being recorded for single release as opposed to all your other songs?

Gary: Well, what you are saying - asking now, what is a hit? I think that any song that's going to immediately capture people and stay with them for a bit.

What happens with a song that becomes a hit is that people want to hear it again, they've got to hear it again. Therefore, that requires what we call "hooks," doesn't it? And hooks can be all sorts of things, they can be just a little turnaround in the song. Often the people that aren't musicians, the producers and the people at record companies, are the ones that pick up on what is the hook. It might be an unimportant part of the song to you, but suddenly that is the part of the song that captures you. That's the part that hooks you and gets you in.

So if you're thinking of a single, then you've got to have hooks and/or you've also got to have something that's quite different to everything else that's around. I think "A Whiter Shade of Pale" fell into that category, something like - what's the one by the Irish girl that was a Prince song? "Nothing Compares." That's got lots of hooks in it, also. It was very different to whatever else was around musically, off the wall and interesting. We don't always want what we heard last week. It doesn't mean to follow the fads and fashions is what makes a success, often it's the complete opposite of that. The go-where-no-man-dares-to-tread.

We spoke with Gary on October 14, 2010
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Comments: 16

  • Dalehas2 from Zushi, JapanRest in peace, Gary. Your beautiful music will live forever!! In my humble opinion, A Salty Dog is one of the greatest albums in modern musical history. From the dramatic title track to the spectacular Wreck of the Hesperus, this album shines like a tropical sun on the deep blue sea.
  • Timothy Paul Mortrud from LostlookI would really like to know the background to the song Conquistador. What Gary was thinking when the story came to him or was this a lingering idea. something that was carried along for a time, sparked in school perhaps or did the lyrics just show up in the minds eye like the Spanish did in the Myan culture in the sixteenth century? There are alternate views and the old first historical encounter is not so sure in the telling to be fact. Very interesting in any form. I heard your song back in the 1970 but never clearly understood the lyrics fully. I like it even more that I have learned the lyrics. Great song all around! I'm going back to hear if I've missed anything else. Thanks for all your Music! Rock on.
  • Martin from MallorcaI was mesmerised by 'A Salty Dog' when I, aged 12, first heard it on the radio in the summer of 1969, and was pleased to see it enter the UK Top 50 at No.44, just below another new entry 'Bringing On Back The Good Times' by The Love Affair, which I also liked. However, it was not to repeat the phenomenal success of 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' two years earlier, and by the time The Love Affair was peaking at No.9, this Procol Harum masterpiece had fallen out of the chart. I believe it re-entered twice (both times at No.44 again), but it didn't receive enough airplay. I imagine most DJs thought it was too long, too slow or too classical, and yet it was, in my view, every bit as outstanding as Simon & Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', which soared to No.1 in the spring of 1970.
  • Phil Eddings from Okeechobee, FloridaI drove bus back in the 70's on a Procol Harum tour. It was one my most memorable tours. Gary Booker was a joy to be around. I taught him a country song, Jambalaya, by Hank Williams and he sang it for me on the last day of the tour.
  • George Martin from Chesterfield, VaMy wife and I attended the Stockholm Sweden concert this past October (10/07/13) and were blown away by the vocals, music and great humor of the band. Procol Harum will no doubt live on forever!! Gary Brooker sounds better now than before and is a master at his trade. Bravo!
  • Head_unit from Los AngelesI'll also add to the "contra-voice" and say that "Conquistador" is actually my favorite. Such...tension? A lot of energy, certainly.
  • Kent S. Theurich from New Jersery, UsaBeing the rock-in-roll dinosaur I am, I was VERY happy to hear that Mr. Harum and Company were back doing what they do best, make great inspiring music. I hope I can catch them on their USA tour. I only hope Mr. Brooker will be up for the tour after his accident. Gary, please continue to shine on brightly for all of us life long fans. Hope to see you soon!
  • Rob from Culpeper, Va.I just read that Gary suffered a rather serious head injury while touring in south africa. My thoughts and prayers go out to him for a speedy recover. Him and Greg Lake are my favorite singers and songwriters ever.
  • Ralph from Brighton UkA Salty Dog is a masterpiece, and the version in Denmark 2006 with orchestra and choir is very special indeed
  • Braedalbane from Midland,'s always "Whiter Shade of Pale is my favorite". Get over it! Yeah it's great. I love it. But gosh. I'd have to say "A Salty Dog" is definitely mine. Just to contribute a contra-voice here.
  • Donna E from Parkville ,mdone of greatest classic songs of all time whiter shade of pale ....
  • Flemming from DenmarkLooking forward to seeing Procol Harum again on january 18th. This time with the symphony orchestra of the Danish Radio, and their choir. And Gary: "Lead me to the water" is not all that obscure.
  • Nanci Poulos from MaGary, you're a genius, thank you for making A.W.S.O.P. my anthem. It's my #1 favorite song ever.
  • Linda Orole from Riga, LatviaYesterday Procol Harum played in Tallinn - it was brilliant! Thank you!
  • Jackie Donerson from Los Angeles, CaGary Brooker is fantastic. After all these years his voice is still strong and clear. Go see Procol Harum if they come your way.
  • Satch Dobrey from Midwest UsaInteresting interview...let's hope Gary is making progress on a new studio album...thanks
see more comments

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