Keith Reid, forever associated with one of pop’s most enduring songs as the lyricist of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and almost all of the subsequent Procol Harum catalog, has died in a London hospital at the age of 76. He had been suffering from colon cancer that had metastasized to his liver.
His death comes just over a year after that of Gary Brooker, the frontman with the British progressive rock band, with whom he shared countless writing credits despite the fact that their relationship was never close. Brooker told the Washington Times in 2003: “I don’t know Keith from Adam. 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.”
Reid’s descriptive style as a wordsmith was often esoteric and surreal, as best remembered in such lines of Procol’s multi-million-selling 1967 signature as “The room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away” and “sixteen vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast.” His opaque tone also informed such subsequent band favorites as “Homburg,” “Conquistador,” “A Salty Dog,” “Grand Hotel,” and their final UK hit single, 1975’s “Pandora’s Box.”
As “Whiter Shade” was conquering the world, Reid told the New Musical Express of the group’s evolution: “One day I just sat down and did some writing, and then I put the words in an envelope and gave them to Gary. Then I didn’t see him for six months except by chance – he said: ‘Oh, I’ve written some music to your words.’ After that, I didn’t see him for another six months. Then I heard the Paramounts had broken up, so I got in touch. We didn’t know it, but Procol Harum and ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ were beginning to take shape.”
‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ is just one of the songs we’ve done’
Even if their introductory mega-hit threatened to overshadow the band’s admirable and extensive catalog as a whole, Reid was well-adjusted to it. “We’ve got it in perspective,” he told Music Now in 1970. “We know we have done a lot of good things since that record. It does get frustrating at times, but to the people who go out and buy our albums, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ is just one of the songs we have done.”
After Procol’s first split in 1977, and a number of solo albums by Brooker, the band reunited in 1991. They continued to perform and record with numerous changes in line-up, but with the “Brooker-Reid” stamp on all of their recordings until their 12th studio set, 2017’s well-received Novum, which was the first not to feature Reid’s lyrics. That role was filled instead by former Cream wordsmith Pete Brown.
Reid was born in Welwyn Garden City, to the north of London, on October 19, 1946. He met Brooker, who had been fronting rhythm and blues band the Paramounts, in 1966, and was the “unseen” member of the group as they made their unforgettable debut with “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in May 1967, when he was still only 20. It’s said to have sold ten million copies in its first five years.
Finding another voice
During the band’s hiatus, Reid eventually gravitated to writing for other artists, and had a notable success in 1986 as the co-composer, with Andy Qunta, Maggie Ryder, and Chris Thompson (the latter of Manfred Mann’s Earthband fame) of the anthemic “You’re the Voice” by English-born, Australian-based singer John Farnham. The song was a big hit in almost every major terrritory except the US.
Thompson was one of the guest vocalists, along with John Waite, Southside Johnny, and others, on the 2008 album The Common Thread, under the name the Keith Reid Project, featuring Reid’s lyrics and co-production. A second such project, In My Head, came out in 2018.