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Keith Reid, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ lyricist, dies at 76



Keith Reid, who wrote the lyrics for “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and about 100 subsequent songs by the British band Procol Harum, died March 23 at a hospital in London. He was 76.

The cause was colon cancer that had metastasized to his liver, according to his wife, Pinkey Reid.

“A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum’s first song and its greatest popular success by far, was issued in May 1967, at the beginning of what would later be remembered as the “Summer of Love.” It went immediately to the top of the charts in much of the world and remains one of the songs most closely associated with the hippie movement.

For his part, Mr. Reid disclaimed any psychedelic influence and said that his abstract, melancholy words came from “books, not drugs.”

“I had the phrase ‘a whiter shade of pale’,” he said in a 2008 interview with the website “That was a start, and I knew it was a song.”


“It’s like a jigsaw where you’ve got one piece, then you make up all the others to fit it,” he continued. “I was trying to conjure a mood as much 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.”

The music was derived by pianist and vocalist Gary Brooker from J.S. Bach and played on what sounded like a pipe organ. It was a flash hit: As Mr. Reid remembered, the group went from rehearsing in a local church hall to the British TV music show “Top of the Pops.”

“We were constantly trying to catch up with the pace,” he said. “I don’t think we ever did. The royalties we got then would be considered laughable now. But we were just so happy to make a record. We were just a bunch of kids, really.”

“A Whiter Shade of Pale” sold more than 10 million copies in its first five years — it was reissued and became a hit again in 1972 — and was later rerecorded in arrangements for string quartet and full orchestra, for mariachi band and sitar ensemble. Artists as disparate as Mantovani, Percy Sledge, Annie Lennox and Sarah Brightman recorded the song, and tens of thousands have sung it to karaoke accompaniment.

Procol Harum was not a “one-hit wonder” band. “Homburg” was popular in Europe in 1968 and another early song, “Conquistador,” rerecorded by the group with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Canada, was a middling hit in the summer of 1972.

The group’s albums were much admired for their mixture of classical and blues elements, along with screaming dissonances from Robin Trower’s guitar, a searing backdrop from Matthew Fisher’s organ and the terse precision of B.J. Wilson’s drumming.

The self-titled first album was followed by “Shine on Brightly” (1968), “A Salty Dog” (1969), “Home” (1970) and “Broken Barricades” (1971), among others. The group broke up originally in 1977 but re-formed on several occasions.


Although the name Procol Harum was said to be Latin for “beyond these things” — perhaps befitting the elevated, otherworldly qualities of the band’s songs — it was actually the name of a friend’s cat.

“We actually misspelled the name; we should have spelled it ‘Prucul Harum,’” he told the Toronto Star in 1991. “By the time we found out we’d spelled it wrong, they’d already pressed the records and ‘Procol’ was in the charts, so we had to stick with it.”

Keith Stuart Brian Reid was born in Welwyn Garden City, north of London, on Oct. 19, 1946. He was raised in an observant Jewish household.

His father was a lawyer in Vienna until he was arrested during the antisemitic attacks on Kristallnacht in November 1938. He was taken to the Dachau concentration camp for months until he was eventually permitted to emigrate to England with his younger brother; his parents disappeared in the Holocaust.

“The tone of my work is very dark,” Keith Reid said in a 2003 interview with Scott R. Benarde, the author of a study of Judaism and rock. “I think it’s probably from my background in some subconscious way.”

A mutual friend introduced Mr. Reid to Brooker at a concert the singer was playing in 1966 with another band, the Paramounts. Mr. Reid gave Brooker the words, and a celebrated team was born when the two men decided to build a band around their songs. (As time went on, Mr. Reid also wrote music for Procol Harum songs by Trower and Fisher.)

The lyrics always came first, with Mr. Reid’s words setting the mood for Brooker’s imagination. “I have not found it possible to write words to suit a piece of Gary’s music,” Mr. Reid told Melody Maker magazine in 1973. Indeed, like their legendary predecessors Gilbert and Sullivan, the men were never close friends.


“I don’t know Keith from Adam,” Brooker told the Washington Times in 2003. “He’s a very deep person and a very private person. Although we work together, and we sometimes communicate in a very intimate way. Sometimes baring our souls. But at the end of the day, I don’t know who he is.”

When the group broke up for the first time, Mr. Reid was at sea. “I hadn’t written with anybody else, and so everything I did was Procol Harum music,” he later said. Yet in the 1980s, he teamed up with fellow songwriters Andy Qunta, Maggie Ryder and Chris Thompson to create a song called “You’re the Voice” that was recorded by the Australian singer John Farnham. It was a hit in most of the world but barely charted in the United States.

Survivors include his wife, the former Pinkie Sidhu, his companion of 38 years whom he married in 2004.

In 1986, Mr. Reid moved to New York and began writing with many other musicians. In 2008, he started the Keith Reid Project, in which other songwriters recorded songs to Mr. Reid’s lyrics; two albums have been issued so far, “The Common Thread” (2008) and “In My Head” (2018).

Source: Washington Post


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