Most people may only be able to name one Procol Harum song. But, a band with a history as long as theirs is sure to have several popular tunes. Right?
Many of their singles released in the 60s and 70s did well in both England and America. But maybe Procol Harum’s sound appealed to a specific type of music fan, and they only had one true hit.
We’re taking a deep dive into the history of this great oldies band to go beyond A Whiter Shade of Pale and find out if they really are a one-hit-wonder.
The Story of Procol Harum
Founding member Gary Brooker learned to play music at a young age. Born on May 29, 1945, in London, England, Brooker’s father, a professional pedal steel guitarist, was an early inspiration. By age ten, Gary played the piano, trombone, and cornet.
After finishing high school, Brooker began studying zoology and botany in college. But he dropped out early to follow his dreams of becoming a professional musician.
The first band Brooker formed was in 1960 called The Paramounts. Fellow Englishman Robin Trower joined the band as the guitarist while Brooker played piano.
The group became well-known in the British R&B scene. They even shared the stage with The Rolling Stones, who were fans of The Paramounts. But by 1966, the band only had one hit song and decided to call it quits.
With his new free time, Gary decided to focus on songwriting. A friend in the music business introduced him to lyricist Keith Reid. The writing duo became the foundation for Procol Harum.
Getting the Band Together
Reid and Brooker interviewed several musicians before deciding on the core group. The founding members included organist Matthew Fisher, guitarist Ray Royer, bassist David Knights, and Brooker on lead vocals.
The band named themselves after a friend’s cat, which was actually spelled Procul Harun. The group’s manager heard the name over the phone and wrote down what he understood. Hence, Procol Harum came to be.
In April 1967, Procol Harum recorded their debut single, A Whiter Shade of Pale. It became an instant worldwide hit upon its release the following month.
The band didn’t have a regular drummer when they made this single. Not long after, they hired Bobby Harrison. While Harrison had the skills they were looking for, he also had a great sense of humor. Keith Reid figured he’d round out the more serious band members.
Procol Harum played its first live show at London’s Speakeasy Club on May 12, 1967. It happened to be the same day A Whiter Shade of Pale hit the airwaves. Jimi Hendrix was in attendance as an early supporter of the band. In fact, he even joined them on stage for a song.
A few months later, the band went through a few lineup changes. Procol Harum announced Royer and Harrison had left the band. Robin Trower joined as guitarist, and Barry “BJ” Wilson replaced Harrison on drums.
The band released their second single, Homburg, in September 1967. While it did reasonably well on the charts in the US and UK, it didn’t reach the level A Whiter Shade of Pale did.
Their debut album, Procol Harum, released the same month in the US, endeared them to an American audience. Due to the band’s lineup and management changes, the UK release of the album didn’t happen until December.
The following year, their second album, Shine on Brightly, did well in the US but not as well in the UK. It appeared Procol Harum was looking at being a one-hit-wonder in their home country.
They focused most of their touring in the US for the next few years. It wasn’t until their third album Salty Dog in 1969 that they fell back into good graces with their UK fans.
Throughout the first half of the 1970s, the band experienced a few more personnel changes. Most notably, guitarist Robin Trower decided to leave to start his own band. Despite all this, Procol Harum continued to tour the US and UK, gaining fans along the way.
But when their ninth studio album, Something Magic, didn’t do well in the charts, the band called it quits. It was 1977, and they figured it was best to wrap it up rather than continue if success was waning.
Procol Harum eventually reunited in 1991 with Booker, Trower, Fisher, and Reid in the lineup. They released a tenth album, but sales weren’t significant. Once again, Robin Trower departed the band, and Brooker and Reid gathered new members.
Over the next 30 years, the band continued touring in various incarnations and produced two more studio albums. Gary Brooker was the one constant in all Procol Harum lineups.
Throughout all the changes in musicians, Procol Harum managed to stick to its signature classical and orchestral sound. However, it’s often classified as psychedelic and progressive rock.
Is Gary Brooker Still Alive?
Sadly, no. Gary Brooker passed away on February 19, 2022, from cancer. He was 76 years old. Procol Harum released a statement on their website saying Brooker was “a brightly shining, irreplaceable light in the music industry.”
The life-long musician died in his home in Surrey, England, which he shared with Franky, his wife of 54 years.
What Are Procol Harum’s Best Known Songs?
While their first single is their best-known song, Procol Harum released a few other hits. If you’re not familiar with them, now’s your chance to learn more about their other popular tunes.
A Whiter Shade of Pale
Released in May 1967, this was their debut single. It topped the music charts in the US and UK. Written entirely by lyricist Keith Reid, A Whiter Shade of Pale is a unique piece of music. It’s sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
Reid explains, “It’s sort of a film, really, trying to conjure up mood and tell a story. It’s about a relationship. There’s characters and there’s a location, and there’s a journey…it’s not a collection of lines just stuck together. It’s got a thread running through it.”
This tune, written by Brooker and Reid, appears on Procol Harum’s 1967 self-titled debut album. However, it wasn’t until five years later that people became familiar with it. They released the song as a single from their 1972 Procol Harum Live album.
Peaking at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Conquistador became the band’s second popular hit after A Whiter Shade of Pale.
This was Procol Harum’s follow-up single to A White Shade of Pale. Released in September 1967, Keith Reid wrote the lyrics while Gary Brooker composed the music. The words to Homburg resemble the dream-like imagery of their debut hit single.
Music magazine Cash Box called Homburg “a solid, slow-paced ballad with the same haunting quality in the melody and lyrics which made ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ such a big hit.”
What Does Skip the Light Fandango Mean?
If you’re like us, you’ve probably sung along to A Whiter Shade of Pale without too much thought to the words. But what does the opening line, “We skipped the light fandango,” mean exactly?
Fandango is a Spanish partner dance. As adults, skipping may not be as literal as when we did it as children. Maybe it’s like gleefully spinning around a dance floor with magical lights while flirting with your partner.
This is about as close to a definition of the first line as we could come up with. If you have a different meaning, we’d love to hear it!
So, Is Procol Harum a One-Hit Wonder?
The answer to that question could depend on who you ask. If someone doesn’t know any of Procol Harum’s other songs, they might likely consider them a one-hit-wonder.
However, as we’ve discovered, the band has a few other notable tunes that did well on music charts. If Conquistador and Homburg are new to you, take the time to give them a listen.
Do you have other favorite Procol Harum songs? Let us know what they are in the comments.
Sunday 5th of February 2023
I have most everything that exists by Procol Harum (that I know of) They did indeed have one of the biggest hits of all time but they were much more than that. Their music had many layers & textures along with excellent musicianship. The songwriting was superb & explored many facets of life & worldly culture. They were exponents of the blues and Gary Brooker mentioned it on more than one occasion. They had some awesome musicians in the band along with the great Gary Brooker. Robin Trower’s guitar playing alone worth the price of admission (just listen to Whiskey Train). It has been covered by the great Leslie West of Mountain and others. Then you have the great Matthew Fisher on the Hammond who was steeped in Baroque & other forms of classical music, a lifelong student of the music and his instrument. Last but not least, the incredible B.J. Wilson on drums. I consider him to be the best rock drummer ever. He had a style & sound all his own. Listen to Power Failure on Broken Barricades & Memorial Drive and it is readily apparent for all to see, superb use of cowbell to color his textures. Yes, they had their orchestral side but when they really wanted to rock they were as good as anyone in the world.
An old issue of Melody Maker, a top British music magazine once had the front cover headline “Procol Harum Greatest Rock n Roll band in the World?” It was from 1971 & coincided with the release of their album “Home” which leaned more in a heavier rock direction. Also, if one goes back and looks up the concerts that happened throughout the late 60’s & 70’s at the Fillmore concert halls in New York & San Francisco they will see Procol played them frequently. The Fillmore’s were THE PLACE to play in America back in those days. Bill Graham, the owner & great promoter booked them regularly. On one occasion they were on the bill with the Allman Brothers and I’m told the jam sessions went well into the wee hours after both had played their sets. Would love to have seen that!! To catch Procol live was always a rare treat, they were amazing, You never knew what old rock classic or blues that they might throw out but you can be sure it was played in the great Procol style with superb musicianship along with their wonderful catalogue of original songs. I rest my case!
Sunday 29th of January 2023
TV Caesar. Toujours L'Amour. A Salty Dog. Shine on Brightly.
Monday 23rd of January 2023
Shine on Brightly and Quite Rightly So are two of my favs
Sunday 17th of July 2022
Far from it! I saw them open for King Crimson in 1974 and it was one of the best concerts I ever saw. Their album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra was great, so were Grand Hotel and Exotic Birds and Fruit. They had a lot of competition from other excellent bands in those glorious days but they held up very well on their own.
Monday 18th of July 2022
Saturday 4th of June 2022
I remember Conquistador. Well-researched and well-written article! Listening to PC right now!
Monday 6th of June 2022