I remember the wonder I experienced when I first heard “A White Shade Of Pale” as an 11-year-old, a decade after it was first released. It’s a wonder I retain to this day. Never mind the wilfully impenetrable lyrics employing nautical metaphor to describe a seduction, it is the melody that arouses in me (as it were) a peculiar feeling, one of yearning and unease and, oddly, comfort. Like other Procol Harum favourites, such as “Homburg” or “Salty Dog”, it’s gothic and just a bit creepy.
King Curtis instrumental version of the song, recorded in early March 1971 at San Francisco’s Fillmore West with his group The Kingpins (Aretha Franklin’s backing band), retains that strange beauty, but displaces Procol Harum’s gothic sensibility with a soulful vibe. It later featured in the opening credits of the British cult movie Withnail And I (set in 1969, two years before Curtis’ recording).
Live At Fillmore West was released in August 1971. A week later, King Curtis was stabbed to death in New York by junkies whom he had asked to move from his property. He was 37.
Curtis died just as jazz fusion was making headway. One wonders how things might have panned out for him. He might have set an agenda quite different to that of fellow saxophonist Grover Washington Jr (never mind the even smoother David Sanborn). He surely would have been aghast at the later popularity of the elevator sax stylings of Kenny G, who has almost single-handedly robbed the great instrument of its street-cred.