After the demise of The Paramounts, Pianist/vocalist Gary Brooker formed a new version of the group, calling on lyricist Keith Reid to come up with some esoteric musings to match the new psychedelic rock. Along with a new line up, a new name was needed.
Gary Brooker explains, "We didn't invent it, our manager at the time 'phoned up and said he'd found a name. We said, 'What is it?' 'Procol Harum.' 'Oh, great.' And it sounds like us, in fact, sounds like what we sound like, so that was that. He didn't just pluck it out of the air, it was the name of a Pedigree name of a cat of a friend of his. And of course everyone went, 'What does it mean? What does it mean?' We didn't know it, so we had to find out. We did find out that we actually had got the name wrong over the telephone, we spelt it wrong. But in Latin, the cat's name was 'Procul' with a 'u' and 'Harun' with an 'n' on the end, and it meant 'Beyond these things' in Latin. We got round to saying that Procol Harum in fact meant 'Beyond these things', which was a nice coincidence".
By now the band's line up was made up of singer / keyboardist Gary Brooker, non-performing lyricist Keith Reid, organist Matthew Fisher, bassist David Knights, guitarist Ray Royer and drummer Bobby Harrison. The bands first single was "A Whiter Shade Of Pale". It shot up the record charts on both sides of the Atlantic and by July, 1967, it was the number one selling song in the world and instantly defined something new: 'classical rock'. It's the melding of rock's electric guitar, powerful vocals and bombastic drums with thoughtful lyrics and the artful complexities of classical melody and arrangement.
At the height of the song's popularity, the group was already fractured by changes in personnel, as two band members were let go in favour of two former Paramounts. (drummer Bobby Harrison had been replaced by session man Bill Eyden for the recording of "A Whiter Shade Of Pale") By the time people learned what the band's name meant, the group's stunning #1 reign was over.
Their subsequent singles were compared to Procol Harum's early success and hopes for more million-sellers led to frustration. 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' was the hit of 1967 and it burdened the band with a legend they couldn't live up to. At the time, the idea of an 'album band' was just becoming a reality; record companies still were obsessed with the 'hit single.' As the 60's ended and the 70's began, the band went five years without a 'hit.' But they produced consistently rewarding albums.
'A Salty Dog,' the third album, turned out to be one of the group's most accessible, best-selling efforts. After the album was completed, producer-writer-singer Matthew Fisher departed. He had not had much opportunity to sing (a solo on one or two songs at best) and most of the songs were Brooker-Reid's. There wasn't even a Brooker-Reid-Fisher credit for 'A Whiter Shade of Pale,' despite Matthew's trademark organ work (which, contrary to popular belief, was not lifted directly from anything in Bach, but was only inspired by a few passages in old Johann's work).
At the turn of the 70's, Chris Copping came in to replace both Fisher on organ and David Knights on bass. This turned Procol Harum into The Paramounts again! Chris had actually been an original member of the old group, but left in 1962 before the band began recording (with Diz Derrick his replacement on bass). Reforming the former band mates seemed to signal a return to R&B.
Although it had seemed that the band was rock solid, the old friends were not getting on that well. Years later, Robin Trower would say that he was simply sick of 'that organ and piano sound.' His efforts to add more guitar were not always met with enthusiasm. Not only were his band mates less than happy, critics voiced opposition as well.
Musically, Procol Harum had always been split between hard rock and classical rock. Although the group often combined the two into a brilliant fusion, the albums always leaned toward one side or the other. After Trower's departure, Procol turned completely to the classical side with 'Live at Edmonton,' a symphonic exercise released in the winter of 1972. For the first time in five years, the band cracked the American Top 20 with their rousing new version of 'Conquistador.' The song, ironically enough, was on that first album from 1967. With bold brass and violin'd percussion, the Edmonton orchestra helped turn the album a dazzling shade of gold.
The group's new-found mass appeal allowed them to join Warner Brothers / Chrysalis with a bigger budget to explore their classical-rock identity. The result 'Grand Hotel,' an exquisite blend of elegant classicism wired with the gut of rock. It drew instant acclaim and was in Billboard's Top 100 for five months. Gary Brooker's enthusiasm for re-creating a classic-rock fusion had restored the band to fame.
There were more mediocre albums which were soon forgotten, especially by Warner Bros./Chrysalis, who barely showed much interest in promoting them. There was no 'official' announcement of the band's break-up. After about a decade, Procol Harum was simply 'beyond these things.'
Brooker and Fisher emerged as a solo artists, and were reduced to making a guest appearance on somebody else's record, producing a semi-unknown singer, or playing in the background at somebody else's concert.
On September 25, 1991, Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher began touring again as Procol Harum. Robin Trower had declined to join them, and the guys who had been on Brooker's last solo album were now Procol band members. There was an ominous note in the booklet of the new album declaring it was 'dedicated to Barrie James (B.J.) Wilson who will always be with us.' Most Procol fans, had no idea that he had been in a coma for some time. And that, on October 8, 1990, he had passed away.
The new 'Prodigal Stranger' album showed early promise, but didn't sell well. The 1995 'Symphonic Procol Harum' wasn't an official Procol Harum release, but it did have Gary Brooker, Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower and some guest vocalists. It was followed by 'Within Our House,' a solo CD from Gary that included the new Brooker/Reid title track and a few old and new Procol numbers backed by a choir, string quartet and various Procol band members, including bassist Dave Bronze and drummer Mark Brzezicki.
The band was back in the news in May, 2005 when original keyboard player Matthew Fisher launched a lawsuit claiming that his organ solo entitled him to a share of the royalties for "A Whiter Shade Of Pale". The ruling came down in December, 2006, when the judge agreed with Fisher, granting him both song writing credit and 40% of the royalties earned from the song from the time the suit was launched. The judge said the organ solo in the song "is a distinctive and significant contribution to the overall composition and quite obviously the product of skill and labour on the part of the person who created it." Lead singer Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid have always claimed credit for the hit and say they wrote the song before Fisher joined the band in March, 1967. In a statement, the two said Fisher's court victory created a dangerous precedent because it meant any musician who had played on any recording in the last 40 years could claim joint authorship. They immediately filed an appeal, however, in July, 2009, Matthew Fisher won a British court judgment awarding him 40% of the music royalties from 2005 onwards.
Procol Harum had toured Switzerland, Norway and Denmark in 2006 and much of Europe in 2007, but there was no band activity in 2008. Shows in Norway and Finland were scheduled for July, 2009, but Gary Brooker's vocals were severly hampered after he fell off a pile of road-side logs in Finland and broke several ribs. It took until October of that year before Brooker was fully recovered, and the band went on to four concerts — in Hagen (Germany), Drammen (Norway), Moscow and St Petersburg. A four disc retrospective called "All This and More", was released in the Fall of 2009.
2010 brought the group to Canada, Italy, Germany, Poland and the UK before returning to the United States. Over 13,000 people saw eight concerts with the Danish Radio Orchestra in Copenhagen and other Danish cities in January 2011 and 2012 had them booked in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Denmark.
For more about Procol Harum, be sure to read Gary James' Interview With Robin Trower