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Gary Brooker

Gary Brooker

Gary Brooker (Shutterstock)
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I saw this guy. He was one of Ringo Starr’s All Stars. He’s not why I went to the show, but he was the highlight.

Am I the only person who didn’t love “A Whiter Shade of Pale”?

And Procol Harum was a strange band, the lyricist, Keith Reid, wasn’t even a performer. And why is it everybody always spelled it “Procul” instead of “Procol”? I always saw this as a sign of disrespect.

But I did love the title track of “Shine on Brightly.” I recorded it on the same kind of portable Norelco cassette deck that Keith Richards sang the riff of “Satisfaction” into in the middle of the night. It was a slim box. Cassettes were seen as lo-fi, but you could record on them. And I did, via a series of cables I purchased at Radio Shack. Not that I believed in that outlet, especially after it turned into the Sprint Store, but you could always find the cables and connectors you needed. Like a twenty five foot extension cord for your headphones.

And I’d be listening to WDRC FM in Hartford. Which I could get on my new Columbia all-in-one stereo (well, you could detach the speakers), and if I heard something I liked, I hit record. And always missed the very beginning of the track and got the deejay talking over the end, but I’d have it, and I’d listen to it, and one of those songs, as I said above, was “Shine on Brightly.”

Why did I like it?

Well, what can anybody say about music? It hit me a certain way. It was Matthew Fisher’s majestic keyboard (I bought his initial solo LP, were there more?) and the catchy chorus and Gary Brooker’s vocal on top of the entire concoction, his voice had character, without sacrificing any power.

And then came “A Salty Dog.” Which got great reviews. And I would have purchased it if I had had more money, or had heard it at a friend’s house, but at the time it was just too much of a risk.

And then came “Home.” The reviews said it was a different sound, harder rock, that Matthew Fisher had left and this allowed the guitarist Robin Trower to shine. Robin Trower? I hadn’t even known his name prior to this, and once members start leaving the band it’s a bad sign.

And it’s not like “Home” got any radio play, at least not on New York City radio. You didn’t even hear “A Salty Dog.” All those bands bitching they can’t get exposure today. Yesterday you didn’t even need a hit single, your fans could carry you, word was spread person to person, via mouth. And believe me, most of the fans of the initial hit, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” were not keeping the band alive, but others, who saw something in the act, and needed to own the albums.

So in July 1970, I sat stoned in the fraternity house bedroom of a Cornell student whose father ran the summer camp I was working at. This guy had more albums than anybody I knew. To the point where he bought them wholesale from Sam Goody, he even gave me the connection. But most of the albums were at camp, I remember he had “Cucumber Castle,” I didn’t know anybody who had that Bee Gees album, and he also had “Moondance,” that’s how I got into Van Morrison, it was the opening track, “And It Stoned Me.”

But in this bedroom, the only two albums that appealed to me were “McCartney” and “Home.” And at this point, I didn’t own “McCartney,” of course I knew “Maybe I’m Amazed,” but at the time, reviews were kind of middling, and like I said, I only had so much money, and to listen to that album stoned… “Teddy Boy” and “Every Night” revealed themselves to me.

As did “Whisky Train” from “Home.” You only had to hear it once, you were woken up immediately, the riff became emblazoned in your brain, hear it once and you never forgot it. (But for some reason, “Shine on Brightly” and “Home” are not on streaming services.)

But even better was the opening cut on the follow-up, “Simple Sister.” (“Broken Barricades” is also absent from streaming services, which is a crime, because if youngsters today could just hear “Simple Sister.”) And the opening track on the second side, “Power Failure.” The two were magic. I remember buying that album used, along with “John Wesley Harding,” from an upperclassman at college, those were the last two used albums I ever purchased, no one treated, nor respected, their vinyl like me.

And then the band split apart. Robin Trower had his own crew. I immediately had to buy “Twice Removed From Yesterday.” He didn’t really break through until his second LP, “Bridge of Sighs,” but I purchased them all, and I know it’s strange, but the one I played most, was the one that moved in a disco direction, “In City Dreams.” Listen to the opening cut, “Somebody Calling,” infectious. And while I’m on the Trower tip, I also want to recommend 1990’s “In the Line of Fire,” with Davey Pattison instead of James Dewar on vocals. It’s an Eddie Kramer production, and sounds like it, hits you right in the gut with power, but music was changing and it got little traction.

Meanwhile, Procol Harum soldiered on, did an album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and had a hit! “Conquistador” was everywhere, in an age where everybody did not have an FM radio in the car, I certainly didn’t in my ’63 Chevy. But the intelligentsia always wondered, why did Brooker sing the word as “quiz” as opposed to “keys”?

Although primed for further success, now with the best company extant, Warner Brothers, Procol Harum could not deliver. I purchased 1973’s “Grand Hotel” and 1974’s “Exotic Birds and Fruit,” and I preferred the latter over the former, but neither got any traction in the marketplace.

And then after the band faded away, they reformed in the nineties, and made an album for Lou Maglia’s Zoo, back when startup labels was a thing, and many people considered “The Prodigal Stranger” one of their best ever, but seemingly only fans ever heard it.

And then I heard Gary Brooker at the Universal Amphitheatre, which itself no longer exists. Believe me, he wasn’t the guy I wanted to see, I was not eager to hear “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and speaking of white, that was the color of his hair, long before Peter Frampton went bald and the rest of the classic acts’ hair either fell out or turned gray.

But the power of his voice! Man, he looked old, but when Gary Brooker sang he was the youngest star on stage, and certainly stole the show. And ever since, whenever his or his band’s name has come up I’ve testified about this appearance.

And now Gary Brooker’s dead. 76. Cancer.

Now our rock stars, we expect them to die young from misadventure, bad behavior. But when they don’t, we think they’ll be here forever, but this has turned out not to be true. They’re now dropping like flies. David Bowie and Glenn Frey were shockers, now when a star of the sixties and seventies goes…we realize they made it to their seventies, shorter than what we’d like, but they led a full life. But now they’re gone, and you know what that means, we’re next. Even worse, their music will probably die with us. It meant so much to us, it was not background, but foreground, the essence. We knew who the stars were, them, not us. We waited with bated breath for their new albums. Which we played over and over, trying to get deeper, to excavate all the meaning. And sure, we wanted to hear the greatest hits, but we loved that they played the new material in concert, that’s why we went to the show, we were diehards, not casual fans.

But now it seems only we know. Oh, Gary Brooker’s death is all over the news today, but it’ll be gone by next week, if not tomorrow. There won’t be follow-up stories, like there were with P.J. O’Rourke. And no disrespect to Mr. O’Rourke, but I’m sure if he were still here even he would testify that the written word paled in comparison to the music of the rock stars. Hell, rock music killed the Great American Novel. No, after “Sgt. Pepper” you wanted to make the Great American Album”!

That’s a passé concept today. Oh, people still make albums, but not only is physical a drop in the bucket, there aren’t two sides, with opening and closing tracks. And the albums of yore were long if they were forty minutes, now they’re an hour, or longer. And with money and distribution precious, you did your best to lay it all on the line, because you might not get another chance to record for a year, if ever!

So if you pull the lens back, Gary Brooker is the vocalist of one stone cold classic, that continues to live, a la the Moody Blues’s “Nights in White Satin,” but is “A Whiter Shade of Pale” forever? Well, it certainly doesn’t fit anywhere in today’s hit parade, but maybe synchs will keep it alive, a la “Don’t Stop Believin'” in “The Sopranos.”

And yes, all boomers know “Conquistador.” But youngsters do not.

And Procol Harum is not the Doors, with a cult of dark personality sustaining the act through the generations.

In truth, Procol Harum is just another rock band from when rock ruled the world. When your music spoke for you. We really have no idea who Gary Brooker was, he didn’t even write the lyrics, but that powerful voice, we thought we knew him. Did we? Lord only knows. But right there is the mystery and magic of classic rock.

I know who Gary Brooker was. I will continue to think about and play his music. But I am one of only a few who were shocked by his death. Well, not exactly shocked…I winced, another one is gone? I will remember. Because with one tune you can embed yourself in another person’s life, and Gary Brooker did this, more than once. Shine on brightly, you made us quite insane, AND WE LOVED IT!


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