Gary Brooker, the frontman for Procol Harum, the long-running band most famous for 1967’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” died Saturday at age 76. The cause of death was cancer.
The surviving members announced Brooker’s death in an obituary on the group’s official website, writing that the “brightly shining, irreplaceable light in the music industry… had been receiving treatment for cancer, but died peacefully at home.”
Brooker had been appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 2003.
Prior to Procol Harum, Brooker had founded the Paramounts in 1962 with future British blues-rock legend Robin Trower. He and Keith Reid formed Procol Harum in 1966, with Trower and organist Matthew Fisher as mainstays in the early days before they dropped out and left Brooker as the key driving force of the band.
Procol Harum broke up in 1977, but after becoming a solo artist and session man, Brooker led reunion tours in later decades.
He appeared on George Harrison’s recently reissued classic “All Things Must Pass” album, and continued to work with the former Beatle on “Gone Troppo” and “Somewhere in England.” After Harrison’s death, he appeared at the “Concert for George” and sang the honoree’s “Old Brown Shoe.”
In 1979, Brooker joined Eric Clapton’s touring band and appeared on the album “Another Ticket,” continuing to sit in with Clapton on special occasions through the years. Other credits include singing the lead vocal on a 1985 Alan Parsons project song, “Limelight,” from the “Stereotomy” album, and playing on two Kate Bush albums, 1993’s “The Red Shoes” and 2005’s “Aerial.”
Brooker also toured as a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band in 1997-99, taking a turn in the spotlight to sing “Whiter Shade of Pale” each night.
He appeared on screen as an actor in Alan Parker’s film adaptation of the stage musical “Evita,” singing alongside Antonio Banderas and playing the role of Juan Atilo Bramuglia.
“He lit up any room he entered, and his kindness to a multilingual family of fans was legendary,” the band wrote in its obituary. “He was notable for his individuality, integrity, and occasionally stubborn eccentricity. His mordant wit, and appetite for the ridiculous, made him a priceless raconteur (and his surreal inter-song banter made a fascinating contrast with the gravitas of Procol Harum’s performances). But for all his other interests and skills — prize-winning angler, pub-owner, lyricist, painter, inventor — he was above all a devoted and loyal husband to Franky, whom he met in 1965 and married in 1968. Our thoughts must be with her, their families and friends at this extremely sad time.”
Procol Harum was never nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to the consternation of many, but “A Whiter Shade of Pale” itself became part of the Hall as part of a Singles category in 2018. The song was originally credited to Brooker for music and Reid for lyrics, although Fisher brought a successful lawsuit in British court in 2009 that awarded him a portion of the royalties.
With a stately, slightly melancholy feel and a strong Bach influence, “Pale,” the band’s first single, went to No. 1 in the U.K. and reached No. 5 in the U.S. in July 1967. After the group’s debut album arrived in the fall, a second single, “Homburg,” went to No. 6 in Britain but only No. 34 in America. Nonetheless, their legend was cemented, with “Pale” continuing to be an oldies radio staple and synch favorite well into the 21st century.
“I had been listening to a lot of classical music, and I got particularly keen on what I call baroque music, that might have included Handel and Bach,” Brooker told Songwriter Universe in a November 2020 interview. “I also liked the Swingle Sisters who were doing treatments of Bach. … Also about that time, the Jacques Louissier Trio… made an album called ‘Play Bach.’ They were a jazz trio, and they’d start off with a piece of Bach, and they would improvise around it. Louissier had done a fabulous version of what was called ‘Air on a G String’ which was also used in a set of good adverts in Britain. And all those things came together one morning… a bit of Bach and ‘Air on a G String’ going through my head.”
The group released nine albums during its original 1968-1977 run, the most acclaimed of which was its third, “A Salty Dog,” released in ’69. The prog-rock-leaning title track employed strings, a direction that ultimately led to the 1973 album “Procul Harum Live: In Concert With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.” “It was almost unheard of at the time, for a rock band to play with an orchestra,” Brooker said.
The name of the band was a subject of some fascination over the years, though the answer was simple — it was lifted from a cat’s breeding certificate.
After a 14-year layoff from the recording studio, Procol Harum returned in 1991 with a new album, “A Prodigal Stranger,” which brought Brooker back together with Trower, Fisher and lyricist Reid after the death of drummer B.J. Wilson, to whom the album was dedicated. The album did not chart in the U.S. but the single made a minor showing on the rock airplay chart. Mostly, though, it served as a kickoff for this new incarnation of the group to hit the road for the first time since the ’70s.
Three more albums followed, the last of which, 2017’s “Novum,” did not include any early members other than Brooker. His last tour under the group banner took place in the spring and summer of 2019.
He is survived by Franky; the couple had no children.
The announcement of Brooker’s death on the band’s website said a private funeral would be followed later by a more public memorial celebration later, and asked fans to “please respect the privacy of Franky Brooker.” It asked for donations in Brooker’s name to be made to Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice Care.