"A Whiter Shade of Pale" is the debut single by the English rock band Procol Harum, released 12 May 1967. The record reached number one in the UK Singles Chart on 8 June 1967, and stayed there for six weeks. Without much promotion, it reached No. 5 on the US charts, as well. One of the anthems of the 1967 Summer of Love, it is one of fewer than 30 singles to have sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
With its haunting Bach-derived instrumental melody, soulful vocals, and unusual lyrics—by the song's co-authors Gary Brooker, Keith Reid, and organist Matthew Fisher — "A Whiter Shade of Pale" reached No. 1 in several countries when released in 1967. In the years since, it has become an enduring classic. It was the most played song in the last 75 years in public places in the UK (as of 2009), and the United Kingdom performing rights group Phonographic Performance Limited in 2004 recognised it as the most-played record by British broadcasting of the past 70 years. Also in 2004, Rolling Stone placed "A Whiter Shade of Pale" No. 57 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
In 1977, the song was named joint winner (along with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody") of the Best British Pop Single 1952–1977 at the Brit Awards. In 1998 the song was inducted into theGrammy Hall of Fame. More than 1000 recorded cover versions by other artists are known. The song has been included in many music compilations over the decades and has also been used in the soundtracks of numerous films, including The Big Chill, Purple Haze, Breaking the Waves, The Boat That Rocked and notably in Martin Scorsese's segment of New York Stories. Cover versions of the song have also been featured in many films, for example by King Curtis in Withnail and I and by Annie Lennox in The Net.
The original writing credits were for Brooker and Reid only. On 30 July 2009, Matthew Fisher won co-writing credit for the music in a unanimous ruling from the Law Lords.
The song was performed and recorded at Olympic Studios in London, England with Gary Brooker providing the vocals and piano, Matthew Fisher on a Hammond M-102 organ, David Knightson bass and Ray Royer on guitar. Drums were by session drummer Bill Eyden. A few days later, the song was re-recorded with the band's then newly-recruited drummer Bobby Harrison, but that version was discarded and one of the original mono recordings was chosen for release.
The song was included on the original U.S. release of the Procol Harum album, but not on the UK version.
Reid got the title and starting point for the song at a party. He overheard someone at the party saying to a woman, "You've turned a whiter shade of pale," and the phrase stuck in his mind. The original lyrics had four verses, of which only two are heard on the original recording. The third verse has been heard in live performances by Procol Harum, and more seldom also the fourth. The author of Procol Harum: beyond the pale, Claes Johansen, suggests that the song "deals in metaphorical form with a male/female relationship which after some negotiation ends in a sexual act." This is supported by Tim de Lisle in Lives of the Great Songs, who remarks that the lyrics concern a drunken seduction, which is described through references to sex as a form of travel, usually nautical, using mythical and literary journeys. Other observers have also commented that the lyrics concern a sexual relationship. One recent interesting interpretation was documented on the songlyrics website songmeanings.com, stating that the song is about the sinking of H.M.S. Titanic in 1912, especially referring to the sentence "One of sixteen vestal virgins, Who were leaving for the coast". It is suggested that "vestal" should in fact be "vessel" (which is possible listening to the audio), arguing that there were 16 new ships making their first voyages in 1912 to the United States east coast. Another hint pointing in this direction is the last sentence of the unpublished fourth verse of this song "So we crash-dived straightway quickly and attacked the ocean bed".
Structurally and thematically, the song is unusual in many respects. While the recorded version is 4:03 long, it is composed of only two verses, each with chorus. The piece is also more instrument-driven than most songs of the period, and with a much looser rhyme scheme. Its unusually allusive and referential lyrics are much more complex than most lyrics of the time (for example, the chorus focuses on Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale"). Thus, this piece can be considered an early example of progressive rock.
The phrase a whiter shade of pale has since gained widespread use in the English language, noticed by several dictionaries. As such, the phrase is today often used in contexts independent of any consideration of the song. (See  for many annotated examples complete with links to original sources.) It has also been heavily paraphrased, in forms like an Xer shade of Y, to the extent that it has been recognised as a snowclone – a type of cliché and phrasal template.
The song is in moderate time in C major, and is characterised by the bassline moving stepwise downwards in a repeated pattern throughout. In classical music this is known as a ground bass. The harmonic structure is identical for the organ melody, the verse and the chorus, except that the chorus finishes with a cadence. The main organ melody appears at the beginning and after each verse/chorus. But it is also heard throughout, playing variations of its theme and counterpointing the vocal line. The vocal and organ accompaniment reach a high point at the beginning of the chorus "And so it was, and later ..."; where the organist rapidly runs his finger down and up the entire keyboard. The final instrumental fades out to silence – a common device in pop music of the time.
Classical music expert Maarten 't Hart calls A Whiter Shade of Pale an "original adaptation" of Johann Sebastian Bach's Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156. Besides, the Hammond organ line of the song came from Bach's "Sleepers, Wake!" and "Air on the G String" – both of which use a similar stepwise bass motion. The similarity is referred to in the 1982 play The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard and 1991 film The Commitments. The music also borrows ideas from "When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge.
The single was released on 12 May 1967 by Deram Records and entered the UK charts on 25 May. In two weeks it reached number one where it stayed for six weeks, and on the UK chart for a total of 15 weeks. A May 1972 re-release on Fly Records stayed in the UK charts for a total of 12 weeks, and reached number 13 as highest. In the US, it reached No. 5 and sold over one million copies. In the Netherlands it entered the chart at number one in June 1967 and again reached number one in July 1972.
Chart positions: No. 1 (UK), No. 1 (the Netherlands), No. 1 (Germany), No. 1 (Ireland), No. 1 (Australia), # 1 (World), No. 3 (Norway VG-lista), No. 5 (USA Hot 100). "A Whiter Shade of Pale" also managed to peak at number twenty-two on the soul charts in the U.S.
Over time, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" has earned extensive critical acclaim:
- John Lennon was a great fan of the song and was known to have played it repeatedly in his Rolls Royce. When it was released in England, Lennon (and friends in his circle) reportedly confused Brooker's soulful vocals with Steve Winwood, who had popularity at the time with The Spencer Davis Group.
- It was named joint winner (along with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", which also uses the word "fandango") of the Best British Pop Single 1952–1977 at the BRIT Awards, part of Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee.
- In 1998 the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
- No. 57 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2004.
- British TV station Channel 4 placed the song at No. 19 in its chart of the 100 greatest number one singles.
Fisher won the case on 20 December 2006 but was awarded 40% of the composers' share of the music copyright, rather than the 50% he was seeking and was not granted royalties prior to 2005.
Gary Brooker and publisher Onward Music were granted leave to appeal, and a hearing on the matter was held before a panel of three judges during the week of 1 October 2007. The decision, on 4 April 2008, by Lord Justice Mummery, in the Court of Appeal upheld Fisher's co-authorship but ruled that he should receive no royalties as he had taken too long (38 years) to bring his claim to litigation. Full royalty rights were returned to Brooker.
On 5 November 2008, Matthew Fisher was granted permission to appeal this decision to the House of Lords. Lawyers say it is the first time the Law Lords have been asked to rule on a copyright dispute involving a song. The appeal was heard in the House of Lords on 22–23 April 2009.
On 30 July 2009 the Law Lords unanimously ruled in Fisher's favour. They noted that the delay in bringing the case had not caused any harm to the other party; on the contrary they had benefited financially from it. They also pointed out that there were no time limits to copyright claims under English law. The right to future royalties was therefore returned to Fisher. The musicological basis of the judgment, and its effect on the rights of musicians who contribute composition to future works, has drawn some attention in the music world.
The first video for the song was shot in the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire, England. The Witley Court video features four of the five musicians who played on the hit single: Gary Brooker, Matthew Fisher, David Knights and Ray Royer, in performance and walking through the ruins. Only the drummer in the video isn't on the record: early band member Bobby Harrison is seen miming to session man Bill Eyden's drumming. According to Shindig! Magazine's Procol Harum cover story by Alan Robinson (November–December 2009 issue – page 55), the video was directed by Peter Clifton whose insertion of Vietnam War newsreel footage caused it to be banned from airplay on the "Top of the Pops" TV show. The band subsequently made another video using "Scopitone" technology, but by this time, Robin Trower and B.J. Wilson had replaced Royer and Harrison in the band, so only three of the five musicians on the recording are represented, and no performance footage included – only the five musicians cavorting around London, running across fields, etc. This lineup, with Fisher in a monk's cowl, also mimed to the song on Top of the Pops, (though Gary Brooker sang live) and black and white footage of this performance has been shown online, perhaps constituting the third video of the song from 1967.
There was also a video shot as part of Joel Gallen's Deja-View music video series. Originally airing on various networks in late 1985 through 1986, this video starred Harry Dean Stanton and Bernie Taupin, but featured no member of the band. It has also aired on VH1 Classic, and has recently surfaced online.