Gary Brooker - 1945-2022

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 12 / 4 / 2022

Gary Brooker - 1945-2022

Nick Dent-Robinson pays personal tribute to Gary Brooker, the frontman with Procol Harum, who died in February.


Gary Brooker, legendary singer and pianist with Procol Harum, died on Saturday 19 February. He was 76 and had been receiving treatment for cancer. He was happily married to Francoise Riedo who was a Swiss au pair when he met her in 1965; the couple married in 1968. Born in London's East End, Brooker was the son of a professional musician and from an early age was himself a talented classical pianist. He could also play cornet, trombone, drums and guitar. By the age of ten, Gary Brooker and his family had moved out of London to Southend-on-Sea in Essex. Sadly, his father died suddenly soon after Brooker had started at the local Westcliff High School for Boys – and from then on Gary Brooker was determined to help his mother by earning money from his musical ability. He later dropped out of education to become a professional musician. He played local gigs with various bands, did some session work and then in 1962 joined forces with his friend, the capable guitarist Robin Trower (later notable for his work with Jethro Tull and Cream's Jack Bruce) to create the Paramounts, an early British R & B band. The Paramounts quickly gained huge respect within the burgeoning UK R & B scene with members of The Beatles, the Animals, the Spencer Davis Group and the Rolling Stones plus Eric Clapton often attending Paramount gigs and sometimes (particularly the Stones) giving them guest billing on some memorable early 1960s concerts. By 1966 Gary Brooker had founded Procol Harum with Robin Trower plus their friend Keith Reid and Hammond organist Matthew Fisher. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was the band's biggest hit (in 1967). As he told me years later, Brooker wrote the music for this, inspired by his earlier love for Bach, Handel and baroque music and his instinct to try to improvise around it. There were also Procol Harum concerts with classical orchestras - something that was almost unheard of at that time....rock bands performing with a full symphony orchestra. The name of the band was a constant source of fascination at the beginning - until Gary casually explained....the name was just lifted from a pet cat's breeding certificate! Throughout the band's successful years, Brooker's melancholic vocals and emotive, eclectic style of piano-playing were key ingredients. Gradually, however, there were disagreements within the band about its style and direction and Fisher and Trower left. Gary Brooker continued to lead the band (often now playing Hammond organ as an alternative to piano) until their eventual break-up in 1977. After that, Brooker would work regularly with George Harrison (after Harrison's death he would be a performer at the 2002 Concert for George, singing lead vocals on 'Old Brown Shoe') and with Eric Clapton, recording the studio album 'Another Ticket' with him. Over the years he would work with Bill Wyman, Joe Brown, Jeff Lynne and many, many more. Gary Brooker also appeared on screen as an actor in Alan Parker's 1996 film adaptation of the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd-Webber stage musical, 'Evita'. He played the role of Juan Atilo Bramuglia and received very positive reviews. As he said later, “It was an interesting experience and something very, very different for me. How successful I was, I don't know. But I can tell you that I have never, ever, been paid so much for a single performance as I was for that film!” Procol Harum would also reappear from time to time. In 1991 Brooker was rejoined by Trower, Fisher and Reid to make a new album, 'A Prodigal Stranger' which was dedicated to their former drummer, B.J. Wilson who had died. Three further albums followed with various line-ups of the band and in 2019 Brooker toured with Procol Harum – their last tour before the pandemic struck. For those of us lucky enough to have met Gary Brooker, it is his genuine warmth and kindness that will be most remembered. He was a brilliant musician but he had great integrity, was always highly individual with a mordant wit and a great appetite for the ridiculous – which made him a wonderfully entertaining raconteur. I will always recall a summer's evening a decade or so ago, at a little Oxfordshire pub, well-loved by musicians from the local area. Chas Hodges (of Chas'n'Dave) was performing a solo music night and keeping the several dozen guests entertained as they sat at tables on the lawn outside. Suddenly, an attractive young woman - who had clearly been enjoying several glasses of wine - decided to ask various men in the audience for a dance. Several politely declined but then she targeted a corner table where vintage rockers Joe Brown, Tony Hicks (of The Hollies) and Gary Brooker were sitting with their families. She clearly had no idea who these people were – but she dragged Gary to his feet, insisting on dancing with him – to the huge amusement of Joe and Tony. Gary kindly obliged, gently steering the young woman around the uneven turf of the lawn...and suddenly Chas, playing electronic piano and hugely amused by the whole spectacle, broke into an impromptu version of 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' - which had diners at every table roaring with laughter and standing up and clapping and cheering. Gary's dance partner was unsure what the fuss was about - but he just waved happily at everyone and gently steered the woman back to her own table of friends, ever the perfect gentleman. Joe, Tony and the others slapped him on the back as he returned to them whilst Chas, tears of laughter running down his cheeks, called out..... “Mr Gary Brooker, ladies and gentlemen, Mr Gary Brooker”. Definitely a night to remember!

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