Tail of the Weak 4.28
Updated: Jan 26
Tail of the Weak is a series of insights and musical memories from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin, singer/songwriter and founder of the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival, from Waycross, Georgia.
Over the course of my life, I've listened to a lot of music. In the early years, it was my daddy's expansive record collection—albums by Hank Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Patti Page, and Guy Lombardo; 45 rpm records of Marty Robbins, Webb Pierce, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Horton.
By the time I was eight, me and my older brother, Gary, were buying records of our own—The Four Seasons with Frankie Valli, Elvis's King Creole, and The Dave Clark Five.
Upon reaching my junior year at Ware County High School in Waycross, Georgia,
I was a young man on a mission—buying up all of The Beatles catalog, albums by Crosby Stills and Nash, Neil Young, and Tommy, the rock opera by The Who.
I suppose every generation has its songs that speak to the minds and ears of its audience. While most of the music of your time is casually forgotten, some songs resonate for years, coupled with memories of personal trials and tribulations. Only a few are timeless. Procol Harum's “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is one such classic.
Gary Brooker, lead singer of this ageless song—along with future guitar rock star, Robin Trower—formed an English band in 1964, calling themsleves The Paramounts. With only one chart success—Lieber and Stoller's “Poison Ivy”—the group disbanded in '66.
One year later, Brooker put together a new band with songwriter Keith Reid; Hammond organist Matthew Fisher; guitarist Ray Royer; and bassist David Knights. The band's manager, Guy Stevens, came up with a name for the group—inspired by a Burmese cat belonging to acclaimed Elton John record producer, Gus Dudgeon. The cat's name was Procul Harun.
Procol Harum's debut album, recorded at Olympic Studios in London, was produced by Denny Cordell—who, with Leon Russell in 1969—formed Shelter Records in Tulsa, Oklahoma, signing J. J. Cale, Phoebe Snow, Leon himself, Joe Cocker, and Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
“A Whiter Shade of Pale”, the first single from the self-titled album, was released on May 12, 1967 and quickly ascended to number one in the United Kingdom, staying at that position for the next six weeks during the Summer of Love.
On June 8, 1967—the same day it reached UK's top singles spot—The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band climbed to the top of Britain's albums chart.
Over here on my side of the ocean, the song went to number five on Billboard's Hot 100 and reached 22 on the U.S. soul charts—not surprising at all, considering the soulful delivery of Gary Brooker's lead vocal.
The words—haunting, mysterious, and the subject of constant interpretation—
were written by the band's resident poet, Keith Reid, inspired after overhearing
someone at a party say to a girl, “You look a whiter shade of pale, love”.
Says Reid, “I was trying to conjure a mood as well 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 was 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 was influenced by books, not drugs”.
The brilliant Hammond organ line, played by Matthew Fisher and repeated throughout the song, has a very classical feel, reminiscent of a Johann Sebastian Bach air.
Fisher was never given credit for writing the magical music until 2009―following a series of copyright lawsuits and appeals in the High Court of England―when the Law Lords granted him rights to future royalties from the song.
Well over 10 million copies sold throughout the world, making “Whiter Shade of Pale” one of the best-selling singles in history. With a white soul vocal performance that sounds as if it's yearning and pleading for some kind of salvation―psychedelic and evocative words that stir vivid images in the mind's eye―a dreamlike, classical organ melody that cuts its way into the ageless heart of every man's soul―it's never grown old to me.
22nd Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival
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Memories straight from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin
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