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

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

According to his wife, Pinky Reid, the cause was colon cancer that had metastasized to his liver.

“A Whiter Shade of Pale”, Procol Harum’s first song and by far his biggest hit with the public, was released in May 1967, at the beginning of what would later be remembered as “Summer of Love”. It immediately went 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 denied any psychedelic influence, saying his abstract, melancholy words came from “books, not drugs”.

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

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where you have one piece and then you put all the others together to fit,” he continued. “I tried to both evoke a mood and tell a simple girl-leave-boy story. As the ceiling flies away and the room hums more, I wanted to paint a picture of a scene. I wasn’t trying to be mysterious with these images, I was trying to be impressive.”

The music was derived from JS Bach by pianist and singer Gary Brooker and played on what sounded like a pipe organ. It was a lightning bolt: as Mr Reid recalled, the group went from rehearsal at a local church hall to the British TV music show Top of the Pops.

“We kept trying to catch up the pace,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever done that. The royalties we were getting back then would be considered ridiculous today. But we were just so happy to make a record. We really were just a bunch of kids.”

“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 later re-recorded in arrangements for string quartet and large orchestra, for mariachi band and sitar ensemble. Artists as diverse as Mantovani, Percy Sledge, Annie Lennox and Sarah Brightman have recorded the song, and tens of thousands have sung it to the karaoke accompaniment.

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

The group’s albums have been widely admired for their blend of classical and blues elements, along with screaming dissonance from Robin Trower’s guitar, a searing backdrop from Matthew Fisher’s organ, and the tight precision of BJ 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 originally disbanded in 1977 but re-formed several times.

Although the name Procol Harum is supposed to be Latin for “beyond these things” – perhaps fitting the sublime, 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 had spelled it wrong, they had already hit the records and ‘Procol’ was on the charts, so we had to stick with it.”

Keith Stuart Brian Reid was born on October 19, 1946 in Welwyn Garden City, north of London. He grew up in a devout Jewish household.

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

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

A mutual friend introduced Mr. Reid Brooker at a concert the singer played with another band, the Paramounts, in 1966. Mr. Reid provided the words for Brooker and an acclaimed team was born when the two men decided to form a band around their songs. (Over time, Mr. Reid also wrote music for Trower and Fisher’s Procol Harum songs.)

The lyrics always came first, with Mr. Reid’s words setting the mood for Brooker’s imagination. “I didn’t find it possible to write words to go with a piece of Gary’s music,” Mr. Reid told Melody Maker magazine in 1973. In fact, 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 sometimes communicate very intimately. Sometimes we bare our soul. But at the end of the day, I don’t know who he is.”

When the group first disbanded, Mr. Reid was at sea. “I hadn’t co-written with anyone else, so all I did was Procol Harum’s music,” he later said. But 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” which was recorded by Australian singer John Farnham. It was a hit in most parts of the world but barely charted in the United States.

Survivors include his wife, the former Pinkie Sidhu, his 38-year-old partner, 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 based on Mr. Reid’s lyrics; two albums have been released so far, “The Common Thread” (2008) and “In My Head” (2018).


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