Procol Harum's lyricist Keith Reid wrote the words to this song. In a Songfacts interview, he explained: "It's sort of a film, really, trying to conjure up mood and tell a story. It's about a relationship. There's characters and there's a location, and there's a journey. You get the sound of the room and the feel of the room and the smell of the room. But certainly there's a journey going on, it's not a collection of lines just stuck together. It's got a thread running through it." Reid got the idea for the title when it came to him at a party, which gave him a starting point for the song. Says Reid: "I feel with songs that you're given a piece of the puzzle, the inspiration or whatever. In this case, I had that title, 'Whiter Shade of Pale,' and I thought, There's a song here. And it's making up the puzzle that fits the piece you've got. You fill out the picture, you find the rest of the picture that that piece fits into."
Reid formed Procol Harum in 1967 with Gary Brooker, becoming an official member even though he didn't sing or play any instruments. "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" was one of about 15 songs that he wrote for their first album.
Says Reid: "We were really excited about it and liked it a lot. And when we were rehearsing and routine-ing our first dozen songs or so, it was one that sounded really good. But there were a few others that we liked I would say equally - we have a song on our first album called 'Salad Days (Are Here Again)' that was a strong contender. At our first session, we cut four tracks, and 'Whiter Shade of Pale' was the one that recorded best. In those days it wasn't just a question of how good is your song? It was how good of a recording can you make? Because it was essentially live recording, and if you didn't have a great sound engineer or the studio wasn't so good, you might not get a very good-sounding record. And for some reason everything at our first studio session came out sounding really good."
Procol Harum had a few more modest hits, including "Homburg" and "Conquistador," but they attracted a devoted following, releasing 10 albums before breaking up in 1977 (they would re-form in 1991). The band was always more concerned with the quality and integrity of their music than with serving the singles market, which them unlikely candidates for one of the most successful singles of all time. When Songfacts spoke with Gary Brooker on the subject in 2010, he explained: "What is a hit? I think that any song that's going to immediately capture people and stay with them for a bit. What happens with a song that becomes a hit is that people want to hear it again, they've got to hear it again. Therefore, that requires what we call 'hooks,' doesn't it? And hooks can be all sorts of things, they can be just a little turnaround in the song. Often the people that aren't musicians, the producers and the people at record companies, are the ones that pick up on what is the hook. It might be an unimportant part of the song to you, but suddenly that is the part of the song that captures you. That's the part that hooks you and gets you in. So if you're thinking of a single, then you've got to have hooks and/or you've also got to have something that's quite different to everything else that's around. I think 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' fell into that category, something like - what's the one by the Irish girl that was a Prince song? 'Nothing Compares'? That's got lots of hooks in it, also. It was very different to whatever else was around musically, off the wall and interesting. We don't always want what we heard last week. It doesn't mean to follow the fads and fashions is what makes a success, often it's the complete opposite of that. The go-where-no-man-dares-to-tread."
Gary Brooker recalled the writing of the music in an interview with Uncut magazine February 2008: "I'd been listening to a lot of classical music, and jazz. Having played rock and R&B for years, my vistas had opened up. When I met Keith, seeing his words, I thought, 'I'd like to write something to that.' They weren't obvious, but that doesn't matter. You don't have to know what he means, as long as you communicate an atmosphere. 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' seemed to be about two people, a relationship even. It's a memory. There was a leaving, and a sadness about it. To get the soul of those lyrics across vocally, to make people feel that, was quite an accomplishment.
I remember the day it arrived: four very long stanzas, I thought, 'Here's something.' I happened to be at the piano when I read them, already playing a musical idea. It fitted the lyrics within a couple of hours. Things can be gifted. If you trace the chordal element, it does a bar or two of Bach's 'Air on a G String' before it veers off. That spark was all it took. I wasn't consciously combining rock with classical, it's just that Bach's music was in me."
In the same Uncut interview, Keith Reid recalled the writing of the lyrics: "I used to go and see a lot of French films in the Academy in Oxford Street (London). Pierrot Le Fou made a strong impression on me, and Last Year In Marienbad. I was also very taken with surrealism, Magritte and Dali. You can draw a line between the narrative fractures and mood of those French films and 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale.'
I'd been listening to music since I was 10, from '56 to '66-The Beatles, Dylan, Stax, Ray Charles. The period of 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' was the culmination of that 10 years of listening. But my main influence was Dylan. I could see how he did it, how he played with words. I'd met Pete Townshend through Guy Stevens (A&R man and Procol Harum's original manager), and he'd put my name forward when Cream were looking for a lyricist. Then Guy put me and Gary together. I was writing all the time. 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' was just another bunch of lyrics. I had the phrase 'a whiter shade of pale,' that was the 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 in. 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 wasn't trying to be evocative. I suppose it seems like a decadent scene I'm describing. But I was too young to have experienced any decadence, then, I might have been smoking when I conceived it, but not when I wrote it. It was influenced by books, not drugs.
It was twice as long, four verses. The fourth wasn't any great loss, but you had the whole story in three. When I heard what Gary'd done with them, it just seemed so right. We felt we had something very important. As soon as we played it for anyone, we got an immediate response.
In rehearsal, instrumentation was added. We had this concept for the sound of Procol Harum to be Hammond organ, piano and blues guitar. No other band had that; it gave us a bigger sound. It's a live recording… I think we did three takes. It's equal parts Dylan and Stax. On our own terms, we were always trying to make a soul record. Funnily enough, Otis Redding wanted to do it, but we wanted our record out first, and Stax wanted the exclusive."
The "Vestal Virgins" were the virgin holy priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home. There were six of them chosen by lot and they were sworn to celibacy. Their main task was to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta. The Vestal duty brought great honor and afforded greater privileges to women who served in that role. The Vestals lived in the Atrium Vestae near the circular Temple of Vesta at the eastern edge of the Roman Forum.
This was the first song Procol Harum recorded. After it became a hit, they fired their original drummer and guitarist, replacing them with Barry Wilson and Robin Trower - more experienced musicians who could handle the subsequent touring.
Nearly 40 years after this song was released, Matthew Fisher, who played the organ in the recording, filed a lawsuit claiming that he deserved songwriting royalties for his contributions. In 2006, a judge agreed and awarded Fisher part of the copyright. In 2008, the British court of appeals overturned Fisher's right to collect royalties due to the delay in filing his claim, but it upheld, by a unanimous decision, his composer credit which had been awarded by the High Court, confirming that Fisher's organ solo was part of the song's composition. Fisher was granted permission to appeal this decision in the House of Lords and on July 30, 2009 the Law Lords unanimously ruled in the organist's favour, pointing out that there were no time limits to copyright claims under English law. The ruling means that he now receives a share of future royalties for the track. A delighted Fisher commented: "This was about making sure everyone knew about my part in the authorship." One of the five judges who heard the case, Baroness Hale, said: "As one of those people who do remember the '60s, I am glad that the author of that memorable organ part has at last achieved the recognition he deserves."
On July 24, 2008, Matthew Fisher's friend and collaborator Alan Fox told Songfacts why Fisher waited nearly 40 years to bring his lawsuit: "In fact, Matthew did not wait 40 years to bring this case to court. He tried four times between 1972 and 2005, but was told each time by counsel that he had absolutely no chance of making a successful claim. This of course was never reported. It wasn't until he met his current lawyers Jens Hill, that he was told that he had a very strong claim and decided to proceed."
This was one of the biggest hits of the "Summer Of Love" (1967). John Lennon was a big fan of the song.
A video was filmed for this song showing Gary Brooker singing it in various London locales as his bandmates look on stoically. It was made for video jukeboxes, which were popular in the '60s. The companies that made these machines typically paid for the videos. Since these were usually seen in bars, videos like Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" were ideal, but five dandy-looking Englishmen could also earn some quarters with a song like "A Whiter Shade Of Pale."
There are two additional verses that Procol Harum used to sing at live events. They're listed on the lyrics page. Reid told us why they were removed: "Originally it was twice as long, and that was partly because at that time there was somewhat of a vogue for really long songs, whether it be Dylan or The Beatles "Hey Jude." So I was trying to write a really long song. But as we started routine-ing it and getting it ready to record, one of the verses just fell away pretty naturally - we dropped it pretty early on in the process. We felt it was just a bit too long, because, the song was like nearly 10 minutes. We were rehearsing it with three verses, so it was running about 7 minutes or so, and our producer said, 'Look, if you want to get airplay, if you want this record to be viable, you probably should think about taking out a verse.' And we did. I didn't feel badly about it because it seemed to work fine. It didn't really bother me."
This song has a chord progression that is similar in spots to that of "When A Man Loves A Woman" by Percy Sledge, although its melodic line is quite different. It is the chord progression, melodic line and song lyrics working together that make a song into a unique artistic entity.
The lyric, "As the miller told his tale" sounds like a reference to "The Miller's Tale," from Chaucer's English novel The Canterbury Tales. This tale is well known to English students as a vulgar or bawdy story, told by the miller. Given this, the line, "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" is an attempt by a young man, who has just caused a girl to turn pale by telling some vulgar story, to explain away her signs of disgust as due to other things. Such as the dancing, the drinking.
Reid, however, disproves this theory. He told us: "I'd never read The Miller's Tale in my life. Maybe that's something that I knew subconsciously, but it certainly wasn't a conscious idea for me to quote from Chaucer, no way."
Annie Lennox released the most widely known cover version on her 1995 album Medusa, taking the song to #16 in the UK and #101 in America. These are the other versions that charted in the US:
The Hesitations #100, 1968
R.B. Greaves #82, 1970
Hagar, Schon, Aaronson, Shrieve #94, 1984
Other artists to cover the song include Willie Nelson, The Everly Brothers, Bonnie Tyler, Joe Cocker and Sarah Brightman.
An instrumental version by the saxophonist King Curtis plays behind the opening credits of the 1988 film Withnail & I.
The song was heard in the NBC and Hallmark Entertainment Miniseries The 10th Kingdom, a five-hour miniseries about a teenage girl and her father who are engaged in a fantasy world of the Grimm Fairy Tales coming to life. The scene has John Larroquette and Kimberly Williams, as the father and daughter, entering a swamp, where Talking Mushrooms trick the two to eat them. The song "A Whiter Shade of Pale" plays from just a faint sound to a full audio clip.
In 2004, the UK performing rights group Phonographic Performance Limited named this the most-played record on British TV and radio of the past 70 years. In 2009 it was announced that this song is still Britain's most played record. The runner-up in the list was Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." The two songs share one unusual similarity-on both of them the word "fandango" crops up in the lyrics.
In the UK, this was re-released in 1972, reaching #13.
This song also won a Brit award for Best British Pop Single 1952-1977. It was the joint winner along with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Denny Cordell produced this track. He became Joe Cocker's manager and in the '70s started an independent record label called Shelter Records, whose acts included Leon Russell, J.J. Cale and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
The German hard rock singer Doro Pesch covered this song on her 1989 solo album Force Majeure.
Greg Kihn's novel Shade of Pale takes it's title from this song. The song itself is referenced quite a few times within the story.
This is one of Billy Joel's favorite songs. He performed it on his 2014 town hall special with Howard Stern, where he said: "It sounded different from anything else that was on the radio at that time. It had a keyboard part that was the main theme through the record - Matthew Fisher's organ part. There was an element of classical music in it; I didn't know what the lyrics were about, but it took me to another place, it was atmospheric. I lot of the music speaks to you."