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A grayer shade of Procol Harum

Procol Harum can thank J.S. Bach's 'Air on the G String' for launching their career with 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' in 1967 and the Internet for reviving it in 1989.

The band broke up in 1977, but Internet traffic between fans a dozen years later prompted singer-piano player Gary Brooker to reform the band with founding member and organist Matthew Fisher, along with guitarist Geoff Whitehorn, drummer Mark Brzezicki and bassist Matt Pegg.

Lyricist Keith Reid sharpened his pen again, and the band has been on the road ever since.

At 58, Brooker still pinches himself at the idea that he's playing rock 'n' roll 40 years after he started with the Paramounts in southeast England.

'We played a gig last night that was packed and not just fans from 1970,' he says. 'There were lots of young people there. Who'd have thought it possible when we started 35 years ago? We were just youngsters doing what we liked and when people started paying us we realized we could make a living.'

Brooker says his mother didn't want him to be a musician because his father was one. 'He was very successful, but the business has its ups and downs and he was away from home a lot.'

But she's come around, he says, especially since he was just honored with a Member of the British Empire award by Queen Elizabeth.

Procol Harum is best remembered for 'A Whiter Shade of Pale,' which Reid reportedly wrote after somebody remarked how pasty he looked at a party. The band followed up with songs such as 'Homburg,' 'A Salty Dog' and 'Conquistador.' Reid still writes the lyrics first and gives them to Brooker, who figures out the tune.

The band just recorded its 12th album, 'The Well's on Fire,' and Brooker is delighted with the result.

'We came of age playing together on stage, so there was this spontaneity when we went into the studio,' he says. 'We'd been playing these old Procol Harum songs but when we played the new ones, they still sounded like Procol Harum.'

Eastern Europe is in the mainstream for rock 'n' roll tours now. But when Procol Harum first went east in the 1970s it was all still Communist.

'We played in Poland once,' Brooker says, 'and I remember the money wasn't anything Ñ you couldn't exchange it Ñ but you should have seen their faces.'

Declining stock portfolios may have driven old rockers back on the road, but Brooker thinks there wouldn't be any work if young musicians were as genuine as the classic rock acts. When he's not with Procol Harum, he plays with both Ringo Starr's and Bill Wyman's all-star bands.

He also thinks classic rock stations do older bands a disservice.

'All they play are the same two or three songs. Procol Harum and Traffic didn't just record two songs, we made many albums,' Brooker says. 'I'm surprised nobody's picked up on that; a station which played a wider range would do very well.'

By the way, Procol Harum is reputedly named after a friend's cat.