Legendary ’60s rock band Procol Harum, known for the 1967 hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” will play its first Long Island show in five years at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury on February 28. Lead singer and pianist Gary Brooker expects nothing less than a very warm welcome.
“I think Long Island has always had a soft spot for Procol Harum and vice versa,” the 73-year-old Brooker tells the Press from his home in London.
He’s long regarded LI as a staple of the band’s East Coast tour, but audiences should not expect only a play-the-hits nostalgia trip. The band has incorporated several cuts from its most recent album, 2017’s Novum, a collaboration between the band and songwriter Pete Brown.
The group in its current incarnation includes jazz-rock virtuoso Geoff Whitehorn on guitar, Jethro Tull bassist Matt Pegg, session organist and composer Josh Phillips, and ex-Manfred Mann’s Earth Band drummer Geoff Dunn. Despite the numerous lineup changes, Brooker’s dexterous, jazz-inflected piano work and soulful, plaintive vocals have been a hallmark of the band’s sound.
The son of a virtuoso Hawaiian steel guitar player, Brooker spent his formative years in Middlesex, a small county in southeast England, where he was fully immersed in music, his father’s influence readily apparent.
“My father sent me to piano lessons when I was five, but I grew up thinking that all music was Hawaiian,” he recalls.
But even at a very young age, Brooker was attracted to the American music emanating from the family radio and from café jukeboxes.
“The first records that really caught my attention were the early rock ’n’ roll records,” Brooker says. “It might’ve been something by Little Richard, or Jerry Lee [Lewis] or Ray Charles.”
Never once, however, did Brooker imagine that playing music would lead to a career in it, a feeling that followed him to the formation of one of his early bands, The Paramounts, along with his childhood friend (and future Procol Harum guitarist) Robin Trower.
“We used to do it just because we liked doing it,” Brooker says. “One day somebody actually paid us to do it, so that was quite nice.”
Earning his keep in the same rough-and-tumble British R&B scene that birthed bands like The Beatles, the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, Brooker eventually tired of performing covers and helped form Procol Harum, sporting a multilayered fusion of rock with progressive elements such as baroque and soul music. Every album that the band releases is meant to sound different from the last and push the group forward creatively.
“We always try to move forward in some way, rather than keep on doing the same old thing,” Brooker notes.
One of the things that Brooker has learned in his nearly 52 years in the business is how to forge a personal connection with the audience. In his view, getting to know the crowd, even if only for a short while, makes for better music. In the end, it is the positive reactions he strives for while under the bright lights.
“I like to see people smile,” Brooker says.