The song, A Whiter Shade of Pale, spoke to a whole generation during the Summer of Love.
But what does a whiter shade of pale mean?
Skip the light fantastic with us as we explore the deeper meaning of this great oldie.
Let’s jump in!
Who Originally Wrote Whiter Shade of Pale?
Named after a friend’s cat, Procol Harum released A Whiter Shade of Pale in May 1967. The band’s first single hit the charts in the UK and was an immediate success.
The tune topped out at #1 on the UK charts and #5 on the US Billboard Hot 100. Selling over 10 million copies worldwide, A Whiter Shade of Pale is one of the most successful singles ever.
Part of the ballad’s composition comes from Bach, and for audiences who grew up on classical music, it’s a familiar tune. But what made this song such a big hit, and what inspired it?
While not someone you’ll recognize from videos of the band’s performance, Keith Reid was one of the most important members of the band. Born in 1946 to Holocaust survivors, Reid grew up in London and left school at 15.
Inspired by Bob Dylan, Reid struck out on his own to start a career as a lyricist. In 1966, Reid met Gary Brooker, and the two formed a songwriting duo. Together they wrote A Whiter Shade of Pale after Reid overheard someone say the phrase at a party.
Brooker formed a band when they couldn’t find anyone to record the song and went into the studio. Amidst the tremendous success of the single, Reid was a member of the band even though he didn’t play a note.
Gary Brooker was born in 1945 in East London to a professional musician father. He started young on piano but soon added coronet and trombone. Over his lifetime, Brooker was also proficient on the organ, accordion, and Bengal flute.
After dropping out of college to pursue a career as a professional musician, Brooker formed The Paramounts in 1962. Part of the British R&B scene, they shared the stage with great bands of the era, including The Rolling Stones.
In 1964, The Paramounts disbanded, and Brooker formed Procol Harum with some of his former bandmates. Sadly, in February 2022, Brooker passed away at the age of 76 after a battle with cancer.
What Was the Creative Process for the Song?
The story goes that Reid was at a party and overheard a man say to a woman that her face turned a “whiter shade of pale.” Reid thought that was a fascinating idea.
Lyrically, the dreamy poem he wrote references a room spinning out of control and the roof flying away. Fans assumed that he was writing under the influence of marijuana. In a 2009 interview for Uncut Magazine, he said, “it was influenced by books, not drugs.”
After Reid finished the lyrics, he brought them to his new writing partner Brooker. Using classical ideas as his starting point, Brooker and his bandmates recorded the song in two takes with Brooker on lead vocals.
Matthew Fisher played the Hammond organ on the track. For his contribution to the song, the band awarded 40% of the royalties to Fisher.
Fans have long wondered what the song is about, and theories abound. Most of them conclude that the song is about a failed relationship. But other ideas hint at a more studied source of inspiration.
Is Whiter Shade of Pale about The Canterbury Tales?
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Miller’s Tale as one of The Canterbury Tales in the 14th century. In Reid’s lyrics, the line “as the miller told his tale” hints at this connection.
But in a 2009 interview with Uncut Magazine, Reid debunks that claim. “I’ve never read The Miller’s Tale in my life,” Reid said. So maybe there was a subconscious connection?
The Canterbury Tales were taught in British schools at the time, so it’s a distinct possibility. Or perhaps just a case of subconscious name dropping.
What Bach Tune Is Whiter Shade of Pale?
Brooker admits that Bach was an inspiration when he wrote A Whiter Shade of Pale. The song isn’t a direct quotation, however. Bach’s Air on the G String from the second movement of Orchestral Suite No. 3 is the spark that Brooker used when he wrote the tune.
Like Reid and Chaucer, Brooker says he wasn’t trying to combine classical and rock. “Bach’s music was just in me,” he told an interviewer in a 2009 Uncut Magazine article.
What Popular Covers Are There of Whiter Shade of Pale?
Over 1,000 covers exist of A Whiter Shade of Pale. You have many versions to choose from when looking for a favorite.
Annie Lennox has perhaps the most famous cover. Released in 1995 on her album Medusa, Lennox’s rendition was a top forty hit in Europe and Canada. In the 1995 film The Net, Lennox’s version plays over the ending credits.
Other covers of note include Sammy Hagar’s supergroup HSAS (Hagar Schon Aaronson Shrieve). Released in 1984, this was HSAS’s only single and reached number 94 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
Joe Cocker also covered the tune and reinvented it as a blues and rock burner in 1978. Other notable covers include Santana and Willie Nelson.
So, What Is a Whiter Shade of Pale?
With all of this in mind, what is a whiter shade of pale? Is it a color? Is it a mood? If you look at the lyrics, the song is about a couple falling out of love.
Reid plays with the idea that the man doesn’t see what the woman means, and his eyes “might as well have been closed.” We think everyone could take a little something from that. Open your eyes and see the good things around you before they’re gone.
If you can manage that, you may avoid the “later” that Reid talks about. When your partner’s face turns a whiter shade of pale, you’ve already missed the pale.
What does A Whiter Shade of Pale mean to you? Let us know in the comments.