Friday, August 12, 2011

Jerry Garcia and Gary Brooker (Robert Hunter and Keith Reid)

The sleeve to the original 45 of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," released on Deram Records in May 1967. Singer Gary Brooker is in the middle
Former Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully's 1995 book Living With The Dead (Little Brown & Co with David Dalton) was a fascinating if troubling work for many Grateful Dead scholars. On one hand, Scully had a confusing history as one of Jerry Garcia's principal co-conspirators in unhealthy habits; on the other hand, Rock was actually there. On one hand, Rock's memory of the preceding 30 years seems to have been fogged up, as would anyone's--"what exactly, were you doing on May 29, 1971, and be specific!"--, on the other hand, just because his book merges some stories and has some other narrative confusions, it doesn't in itself make everything that Scully says wrong.

Speaking for myself, I have always been unconcerned with Scully's memory of specific events in the timeline, as a manager in his position was never in a good position to recall specific dates. As an historiographical note, truck drivers and road managers are the ones who recall specific venues and shows, as they had to focus on deadlines and load-ins, whereas someone like Rock, on the booking and promotion side, was not professionally required to be concerned with whether the band was playing, say, the Shrine Exposition Hall or the Shrine Auditorium (not the same venue, but located at the same address). While I am aware that Rock may not have been straight as an arrow, that is true of every other source from the sixties as well, and not an area that I focus on.

The aspects of Scully's book that interest me the most are the incidental things, the facts that only an eyewitness could recall. Even if some of the details are murky or incorrect, the essential memory remains interesting in its own right. Much Grateful Dead scholarship seems to lose sight of how memory actually works. People live their lives as they happen, and it's only later when any of it might seem important or interesting. If you review the history of your own family, you will find that there is rarely any agreement about the order of events. Ask a family member about how they celebrated their 12th birthday, and they will only have the foggiest memory. And whatever memory comes to mind is likely or not to be a fragment from different birthday, mixed or merged with some other events.

Someone like Scully, quizzed 25 years after the fact, about whether or not the Dead played one night or two in Chicago in 1969 has only a vague memory. For me, it would be similar to the time I went to Candlestick Park for "Bat Day" for my birthday around the same time (I got a Jack Hiatt bat, which I gave up, much to my subsequent dismay, for those of you who can appreciate the enormity of having a bat "signed" by a backup catcher). I remember some aspects clearly (I got a Hiatt bat, and my friend graciously traded his Willie McCovey bat as it was my birthday) but I can't even say what year it was, or who the Giants played.

Procol Harum
One incidental remark that has always stuck in my mind from Scully's book was some comments about Garcia's influences. Scully mentioned various influences on Garcia's guitar playing, and while it is interesting to hear that Garcia liked Django Reinhart and Wes Montgomery, both of those players were titans that any aspiring player would check out. The note of Scully's that I have ruminated on the most was an indication that Garcia took some inspiration as a vocalist from the singing of Procol Harum's Gary Brooker.

Now, while it is impossible to know whether Garcia was grooving in his house to Shine On Brightly album all day long or simply made a positive comment to Rock about Procol's most famous hit "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," it has always been a striking remark. To my knowledge, Procol Harum and the Grateful Dead never shared a bill (unless perhaps at a big rock festival), Garcia and Brooker never met, and there were no direct social connections between the bands. I'm not aware of Garcia ever mentioning it in an interview, so the sheer randomness of it suggests that Garcia at least had some appreciation of Gary Brooker's singing, or else Scully would have had no way to reference it all, even by mistake. Thus some contemplation of Gary Brooker's singing with Procol Harum in comparison to Garcia's singing with The Dead seems to be in order.

The Paramounts
From about 1964 to 1966, Gary Brooker was the lead singer for an English R&B group called The Paramounts, from the Essex area on the coast just East of London. In 1964, they even had a modest hit with the Lieber/Stoller classic "Poison Ivy." Other members of the group included guitarist Robin Trower, drummer B.J. Wilson and bassist Chris Copping, although apparently other members came and went. Soul and blues covers were a dead end, however, and by the end of 1966 Brooker had left The Paramounts and was focused on being a pop singer/songwriter.

Brooker has a soulful, flexible voice, and he is a solid piano player, but his gift was for composition rather than lyrics. At some point in 1966 Brooker's producer (Guy Stevens) put him in touch with an aspiring lyricist named Keith Reid. Reid played a little music but was mainly a writer. The combination of Reid and Brooker made for an interesting blend of soul music and beat poetry. Few individuals have a successful background in both soul music and poetry, but two songwriters makes for a richer palate than one (the same formula lead to the success of Reg Dwight, better known today as Elton John, but that is way beyond my scope here).

Brooker had started to work with an organ player named Matthew Fisher, and between Brooker, Reid and Fisher they came up with a song called "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." Recorded with a few session musicians, the song was an instant sensation when the single was released in May, 1967 (the band was named after a friend's pedigreed cat). Brooker provided a simple, soulful melody, but Fisher's organ part, based on some Bach Cantatas, gave the record a rich, musical feel that made it seem like a hymn rather than a lament. Keith Reid's literate, evocative lyrics were fraught with meaning, yet it was impossible to draw a precise conclusion from the song. Yet Brooker's soulful, knowing vocals embedded the song with an emotional complexity that magnified its power while retaining its mystery:
But I wandered through my playing cards

and would not let her be

one of sixteen vestal virgins

who were leaving for the coast

and although my eyes were open

they might have just as well've been closed

And so it was that later

as the miller told his tale

that her face, at first just ghostly,

turned a whiter shade of pale
Keith Reid's lyrics are carefully sculpted, but they neither fall into rock and roll doggerel nor pretentious poetry. They require a different singing technique than just shouting "Maddy told Hattie/bout a thing she saw," and Brooker comfortably soars across the metrical lines to provide tremendous emotional depth to a very ambiguous song. "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" was a huge, worldwide hit, reaching #1 in the UK, #5 in the US and plenty of airplay on new FM radio stations throughout the balance of 1967.

Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, Fall 1967
Jerry Garcia wasn't deaf, and he surely heard "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" along with every other hip listener in the Fall of '67. The biggest change for Garcia as a vocalist during this period, as we all know, was the return of Robert Hunter from New Mexico to take up residence as the Grateful Dead's in-house lyricist. Suddenly Garcia was grappling with a need to sing literate lyrics with emotional power, but without a sentimental hook to hang them on. Garcia sings "Dark Star" with meaning, but what does it mean? I'm not one to plumb the lyrical depths of songs, but it's a tribute to Garcia that he invests "Dark Star" with meaning despite its detachment from daily emotional life.

Whatever Garcia's model might have been for singing "Dark Star," "St. Stephen" and "China Cat Sunflower," it wasn't bluegrass and blues. Folk music had more complex emotional themes, but even obscure folk songs are often built around story-like structures, even if those stories don't always make narrative sense. I think Rock Scully's memory of Garcia's interest in Gary Brooker's singing was not random at all. I think Garcia heard Brooker's sophisticated handling "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" and when he saw Hunter's lyrics, Garcia applied one model to another and found a way to soar over the metrical lines of Hunter's lyrics. I only wish that the Dead or the Garcia Band had actually taken on "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" itself--I would have liked to hear Jerry sing "One of sixteen vestal virgins/Who were leaving for the Coast."

Both Robert Hunter and Keith Reid were around the same age, inspired by Beat poets and modern (post WW2) literature, but too young to have actually participated. They were both knowledgeable about folk and blues traditions, and liked pop music, but wanted to imbue rock with some literary depth instead of falling into traditional cliches. While Jerry Garcia's and Gary Brooker's music were not outwardly similar, they were both vocalists coming out of traditional music that they were expanding to allow a richer palate of music and lyrics, so the comparison is an apt one indeed.

The cover to the 1974 Procol Harum Chrysalis Records album Exotic Birds and Fruit
Procol Aftermath
I have no way of knowing whether Garcia heard more Procol Harum beyond "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." The album (of the same name) was released in September 1967. By this time, Brooker had his old mates Robin Trower (guitar) and BJ Wilson (drums) from The Paramounts join the proper band, and Procol Harum was thus a mixture of three soulful Paramounts (Brooker, Trower, Wilson) a classically oriented organist (Fisher) and a session bassist (David Knights). Procol Harum toured America starting about September 1967, but I don't think they ever played with the Grateful Dead. The band stayed together continuously through 1976, releasing 9 more albums. There were various changes in the band, but most notably drummer BJ Wilson stuck with them the whole time. This is significant, since in mid-1968 session guitarist Jimmy Page asked him to join his new, unnamed band, and Wilson turned him down (Page found a guy named John Bonham instead). Procol Harum's only other big hit was an orchestral version of their song "Conquistador," a hit in 1972, but the band never reached the peak they started with from their first great single.

Procol Harum broke up in 1976, not without a following but unable to climb high enough to make themselves a perennial proposition. The various band members had various degrees of success: Robin Trower had a successful solo career following his departure from the band in 1972, and Gary Brooker recorded and toured with Eric Clapton for many years in the 1980s. Procol Harum reformed in the early 1990s, and various versions of the band have toured intermittently throughout the years, sometimes even performing the rarely heard third and fourth verses of "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." Procol Harum isn't forgotten, but they aren't in the rarified zone accorded Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead. For what it's worth, there is a mysterious version of Procol Harum performing "Morning Dew," possibly from 1967, so perhaps there was some implicit two way discourse between the Procols and the Dead, although the Procol arrangement seems to owe more to the Jeff Beck Group than the Dead.

I realize its unlikely that there are secret rehearsal versions of the Grateful Dead playing "Conquistador" or the Jerry Garcia Band playing "Nothing But The Truth" (from the very underrated 1974 album Exotic Birds And Fruit). I'd like to think, however, that Jerry spun a Procol album once in a while, and even if he didn't play "Whisky Train" or "In Held Twas I" himself he appreciated Brooker's ability to add majesty to literate lyrics without removing their emotional power.


  1. My impression of Scully's book was that it was most accurate in the early years, and tended to hit more "wrong notes" as it headed into the seventies... (I also suspect many of the hyperbolic descriptions or dialogues may come from the co-writer, as Scully seemed to be steadier in interviews.) That said, it was an openly impressionistic account, not really about names/dates/places and so forth, and full of interesting details only an insider would know - so it's perhaps best approached either by casual readers who know nothing of the Dead, or by Dead-experts who know enough to put this narrative in context.

  2. I agree with you that it's impressionistic and needs to be put in context. That being said, odd little tidbits like the reference to Gary Brooker make it interesting to me.

  3. I was wrong about the Dead and Procol Harum not having played together. They shared the bill at the Kinetic Playground in Chicago on November 27-28, 1968.