Procol Harum was formed in April 1967. Gary Brooker began working as a singer-songwriter and formed Procol Harum with Keith Reid (poet), Hammond organist Matthew Fisher, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David Knights. Guy Stevens, their original manager, named the band after Gus Dudgeon’s (Elton John’s producer) Burmese cat. The cat’s name was Procul Harun, Procul being the breeder’s prefix.
At Olympic Studios, southwest London, with session drummer Bill Eyden, producer Denny Cordell and sound engineer Keith Grant, the group recorded “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, and it was released on 12 May 1967. With a structure reminiscent of Baroque music, a countermelody based on J. S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite N° 3 in D Major played by Fisher’s Hammond organ, Brooker’s vocals and Reid’s lyrics, the single reached No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart and the Canadian RPM Magazine chart. It did almost as well in the United States, reaching No. 5. In Australia, it was No. 1 for many weeks, setting a record of 8 weeks in Melbourne.
Keith Reid got the title and starting point for the song at a party. He overheard someone at the party saying to a woman, “You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale”, and the phrase stuck in his mind. The original lyrics had four verses, of which only two are heard on the original recording. The third verse has been heard in live performances by Procol Harum, and more seldom also the fourth.
Here is a live recording with all four verses (with lyrics):
In an interview, Keith explained:
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. You get the sound of the room and the feel of the room and the smell of the room. But certainly there’s a journey going on, it’s not a collection of lines just stuck together. It’s got a thread running through it.” Reid got the idea for the title when it came to him at a party, which gave him a starting point for the song. Says Reid: “I feel with songs that you’re given a piece of the puzzle, the inspiration or whatever. In this case, I had that title, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale,’ and I thought, There’s a song here. And it’s making up the puzzle that fits the piece you’ve got. You fill out the picture, you find the rest of the picture that that piece fits into.
I used to go and see a lot of French films in the Academy in Oxford Street (London). Pierrot Le Fou made a strong impression on me, and Last Year In Marienbad. I was also very taken with surrealism, Magritte and Dali. You can draw a line between the narrative fractures and mood of those French films and ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale.’ I’d been listening to music since I was 10, from ’56 to ’66-The Beatles, Dylan, Stax, Ray Charles. The period of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ was the culmination of that 10 years of listening. But my main influence was Dylan. I could see how he did it, how he played with words. I’d met Pete Townshend through Guy Stevens (A&R man and Procol Harum’s original manager), and he’d put my name forward when Cream were looking for a lyricist. Then Guy put me and Gary together. I was writing all the time. ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ was just another bunch of lyrics. I had the phrase ‘a whiter shade of pale,’ that was the start, and I knew it was a song. It’s like a jigsaw where you’ve got one piece, then you make up all the others to fit in. I was trying to conjure a mood as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story. With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene. I wasn’t trying to be mysterious with those images, I wasn’t trying to be evocative. I suppose it seems like a decadent scene I’m describing. But I was too young to have experienced any decadence, then, I might have been smoking when I conceived it, but not when I wrote it. It was influenced by books, not drugs.
Vocalist Gary Brooker recalled the writing of the music in an interview:
I’d been listening to a lot of classical music, and jazz. Having played rock and R&B for years, my vistas had opened up. When I met Keith, seeing his words, I thought, ‘I’d like to write something to that.’ They weren’t obvious, but that doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know what he means, as long as you communicate an atmosphere. ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ seemed to be about two people, a relationship even. It’s a memory. There was a leaving, and a sadness about it. To get the soul of those lyrics across vocally, to make people feel that, was quite an accomplishment. I remember the day it arrived: four very long stanzas, I thought, ‘Here’s something.’ I happened to be at the piano when I read them, already playing a musical idea. It fitted the lyrics within a couple of hours. Things can be gifted. If you trace the chordal element, it does a bar or two of Bach’s ‘Air on a G String’ before it veers off. That spark was all it took. I wasn’t consciously combining rock with classical, it’s just that Bach’s music was in me.
A live version with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and choir. They didn’t have time to rehearse this piece with Procol Harum before playing it live.
Rolling Stone placed “A Whiter Shade of Pale” 57th on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The United Kingdom performing rights group Phonographic Performance Limited in 2004 recognised it as the most-played record by British broadcasting of the past 70 years. In 1977, the song was named joint winner (along with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”) of “The Best British Pop Single 1952–1977” at the Brit Awards. In 1998 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and in 2018, the band was honoured by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was inducted into the brand-new Singles category. More than 1000 recorded cover versions by other artists are known.