Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Accidentally great on purpose: Noel Harrison's "Whiter Shade of Pale"

Noel Harrison, son of Rex, had quite the singing career.

Between 1988 and 1997, Rhino Records released a series of albums called Golden Throats which compiled cover versions of famous rock, pop, and country songs by moonlighting Hollywood celebrities, mainly movie and TV stars who somehow thought they could sing. I collected and cherished these records, for this is where I was introduced to the musical output of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Sebastian Cabot, Jack Palance, and other celebrities who had no business in a recording studio. One of the oddities on the first volume was a rendition of Procul Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" by British actor Noel Harrison. Harrison was easily the most obscure celebrity on the LP. Harrison's main claims to fame are these: (1) His dad was Rex Harrison of My Fair Lady and the original Dr. Doolittle. (2) He starred in the short-lived TV series The Girl From UNCLE. Noel's Wikipedia page reveals a much more impressive resume, including the fact that he was an Olympic skier (!), scored a UK Top 10 hit with "Windmills of Your Mind," and has a discography spanning 50 years. Not exactly a lightweight, you might say.

Since acquiring that first Golden Throats disc, I've heard a handful of Noel Harrison tracks. (In fact, his rendition of "She's a Woman" is on the fourth Golden Throats album.) But my fascination pretty much begins and ends with that hypnotic recording of "Whiter Shade of Pale." The Procul Harum original, a massive hit and certified classic, is especially notable for two main features: the pseudo-classical Bach-like organ accompaniment and the soulful lead vocal by Paul Brooker. Noel Harrison's version boldly removes both of those elements. The Procul Harum record, like much of 1960s British rock, is the sound of white English guys trying to sound both American and, more specifically, black... and succeeding, I'd say. But Harrison's version is English, through and through. The incredibly dry, reserved vocals sound like a precursor to Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys. Here, have a listen:

For comparison's sake, here's the Procul Harum version:

Pretty different, right? In fact, I'd say that Noel's version was the craziest and best thing anyone ever did to "Whiter Shade of Pale." With the possible exception of the following. (WARNING: NSFW LANGUAGE!)

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