Procol Harum's origins are as convoluted as their success was pronounced. Pianist Gary Brooker had formed a group at school called the Paramounts at age 14, with guitarist Robin Trower, bassist Chris Copping, singer Bob Scott, and drummer Mick Brownlee. After achieving some success at local youth clubs covering rock & roll hits, Brooker took over as vocalist from the departed Scott, and the group continued working after its members graduated; by 1962, they got a residency at the Shades Club in Southend. Brownlee exited the band in early 1963 and was replaced by Barry J. Wilson (aka B.J. Wilson), who auditioned after answering an ad in Melody Maker. Nine months later, bassist Chris Copping opted out of music and was replaced by Diz Derrick. The following month, the Paramounts' demo record got them an audition at EMI; they were signed to the Parlophone label with producer Ron Richards (best known for his work with the Hollies). The Paramounts' first single, "Poison Ivy," was released in January 1964 and reached number 35 on the British charts, and they got an important endorsement from the Rolling Stones, who called them their favorite British R&B band. However, none of the group's subsequent singles found any chart success, and in September 1966, the Paramounts went their separate ways.
Brooker chose to focus on his songwriting, which brought him into a partnership with lyricist Keith Reid, whom he met through R&B impresario Guy Stevens. By the spring of 1967, they had a considerable body of songs and began creating a band to play them. An advertisement in Melody Maker led to the formation of the Pinewoods, with Brooker as singer and pianist, Matthew Fisher on organ, Ray Royer on guitar, Dave Knights on bass, and Bobby Harrison on drums. Their first recording, produced by Denny Cordell, was of a piece of surreal Reid poetry called "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which Brooker set to music loosely derived from Johann Sebastian Bach's Air on a G String from the Suite No. 3 in D major. By the time this recording was ready for release, the Pinewoods had been rechristened Procol Harum. In early May, Cordell arranged for a release of the single on the Deram label. Cordell had sent a copy of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" to Radio London, one of England's legendary offshore pirate radio stations. After initial spins, Radio London was deluged with requests for the tune, while Deram rush-released the single in mid-May.
Procol Harum made their concert debut in London opening for Jimi Hendrix at the Saville Theatre on June 4, 1967. Four days later, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" reached the top of the British charts for a six-week run in the top spot, making them only the sixth recording act in the history of British popular music to reach the number one spot on their first release. The following month, the record reached number five on the American charts, with sales in the United States rising to over a million copies (and six million worldwide). As the record peaked in the United States, Royer and Harrison were sacked and replaced by Brooker's former Paramounts bandmates Robin Trower on guitar and B.J. Wilson on drums.
The "real" Procol Harum was now in place, and a second single, "Homburg," was released in October 1967 on EMI's Regal Zonophone label, peaking at number six on the British charts, while it made it to 34 in America. The group's debut album, Procol Harum, reached number 47 in America during October 1967, thanks to the inclusion of "A Whiter Shade of Pale," but a British version of the LP, without the hit, failed to attract significant sales. On March 26, 1968, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" won the International Song of the Year award at the 13th Annual Ivor Novello Awards. The group's next single, "Quite Rightly So," however, only reached the number 50 spot in England. A new American contract for the group was secured with AM Records, and by November, a second album, Shine on Brightly, was in stores. It rose to number 24 in America but failed to chart in England. The next month, they were playing the Miami Pop Festival in front of 100,000 people on a bill that included Chuck Berry, Canned Heat, Fleetwood Mac, and the Turtles.
In March 1969, David Knights and Matthew Fisher exited the line-up shortly after finishing work on the album A Salty Dog. Knights' departure opened the way for Paramounts bassist Chris Copping to join Procol Harum, playing bass and organ. Another American tour followed the next month, and in June 1969 A Salty Dog was issued. Combining high-energy blues and classical influences, it returned the band to the U.S. charts at number 32, while the title song ascended the British charts to number 44. The album subsequently reached number 27 in England, the group's first long-player to chart in their own country. It was a year before their next album, Home, was released in June 1970, ascending to the American number 34 and the British 49 spots. This marked the end of the group's contract with Regal Zonophone, and upon the release of Broken Barricades in July 1971, they were on Chrysalis in England. It reached number 32 in America and 41 in England, and also marked the departure of Robin Trower, who organized his own group, which had great success in America throughout the '70s.
Trower's replacement, Dave Ball, joined the same month, and the line-up expanded with the addition of Alan Cartwright on bass, freeing Chris Copping to concentrate full-time on the organ. This version of the band performed on November 18, 1971, in a concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the DaCamera Singers in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The concert was released as an official live album in 1972, and proved to be the group's most successful LP release, peaking at number five and drawing in thousands of new fans. A single lifted from the live record, "Conquistador," shot to number 16 in America and 22 in England that summer.
The group's line-up was again thrown into turmoil in September when Dave Ball left Procol Harum to join Long John Baldry's band. He was replaced by Mick Grabham, formerly of the groups Plastic Penny and Cochise. The band's next album, Grand Hotel, was a rich, melodic collection that featured guest backing vocals by Christianne Legrand of the Swingle Singers. The LP peaked at number 21; six months later, AM released the first compilation of the band's material, Best of Procol Harum. The group's next two albums, 1974's Exotic Birds and Fruit and 1975's Procol's Ninth (the latter produced by rock & roll songsmiths Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), performed moderately well, and "Pandora's Box," from Procol's Ninth, became a hit in England, rising to number 16. July 1976 saw Alan Cartwright leave the band, as Chris Copping took over on bass, while Pete Solley joined as keyboard player.
1977's Something Magic barely scraped the U.S. charts upon release, and the band split up following a farewell concert at New York's Academy of Music on May 15, 1977. Only five months later, Procol Harum were back together for a one-off performance of "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which had been named joint winner (along with "Bohemian Rhapsody") of the Best British Pop Single 1952-1977 at the Britannia Awards to mark Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee. Apart from Trower, Gary Brooker was the most visible of the former Procol Harum members, releasing three solo albums between 1979 and 1985. Meanwhile, B.J. Wilson died in October 1990 after a period of ill health following a drug overdose. In August 1991, Brooker re-formed Procol Harum with Trower, Fisher, Reid, and drummer Mark Brzezicki. The album Prodigal Stranger was released, and an 11-city tour of North America took place in September 1991. This lineup didn't last, and Brooker offered a new version of Procol Harum featuring himself, guitarist Geoffrey Whitehorn, keyboard man Don Snow, and Brzezicki on drums; this group toured the United States in 1992.
Procol Harum were inactive for several years before a 30th anniversary show was played in Surrey, followed by an open-air concert at New London Sinfonia in 2000. A live DVD appeared in 2002, followed a year later by a studio album entitled The Well's on Fire. The band featured Brooker, Fisher, Geoff Whitehorn (guitar), Matt Pegg (bass), and Mark Brzezicki (drums); Roger Taylor guested on backing vocals. They played festival gigs in the U.S., and recorded the audio/video package Live at the Union Chapel in London. Fisher left the band in 2004, and the following year, Josh Phillips took over the Hammond organ chair he vacated, leaving Brooker the only original member. This version of the group played sporadic gigs over the next 12 years, booking stand-alone shows or teaming up with symphony orchestras around Europe. They also underwent another personnel change as Geoff Dunn replaced Brzezicki on drums.
In 2010, Procol Harum toured the U.S. as openers for Jethro Tull. In 2012, after being nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (and failing to get in), they toured the U.S. again, this time as openers for Yes. In 2017, Procol Harum celebrated the beginning of their 50th year by playing a sold-out orchestral concert at the Royal Festival Hall. During the first half of the show, Brooker fell and injured his head and right hand (it was his third such incident since 2007). Undaunted, he returned, adorned in bandages, to play the second half. The same year, Procol Harum released their first album of new studio material in 13 years, Novum. Written collectively, all but two songs offered lyrics from Pete Brown, famous for his work for Cream and Graham Bond.
In the spring of 2018, Esoteric Recordings released an official limited-edition deluxe box set, Still There'll Be More: An Anthology 1967-2017. Comprising five CDs and three DVDs, the collection presented key tracks from the entirety of the band's career, as well as live concerts from 1973 and 1976. The DVDs featured over three-and-a-half hours of footage from 1967 to 1977; also included was a 68-page hardback book with an essay by Patrick Humphries and previously unseen photographs and memorabilia from Brooker's private collection. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced the band to put their touring activities on hold in 2020, they used the time to write and record new music, and a three-track EP, Missing Persons (Alive Forever), was released in May 2021. After leading the band for over 50 years, Gary Brooker died on February 19, 2022 after a battle with cancer. ~ Bruce Eder & Mark Deming, Rovi
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