Who owns solos?

November 13, 2006

fisher.jpgMatthew Fisher, Procol Harum’s ex-organist is in court fighting for the ownership of his solo in the group’s famous hit single “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” The song was originally written by Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid. The contention is that because Mr. Fisher played and composed the famous organ solo at the opening, middle, and end of the song, he should be credited as one of the writers. Brooker, the voice we all know an love in that song, said:

“I am shocked and dismayed that after Matthew had worked with us quite happily over the course of 40 years without him once alleging that his role on A Whiter Shade of Pale was anything other than as a musician, it is only now that he claims he recalls writing part of the song.

garybrooker.jpgHmmm, JUST “a musician?” Sorry dear Gary, but that tune is a composed melody. It is not some wild improvisation that we don’t remember, it is perhaps the most important hook in the song. It also forms a counter-melody to Brooker’s tune. I think Mr Fisher has a case.

I am terrified that this might set a precedent for other artists who solo on each other’s records, who, one would assume, have an agreement and were most likely paid for their participation. But if “a musician” happens to contribute something EXTRA to the song that wasn’t his or hers to begin with, and that contribution becomes an important foreground musical element, has that backup musician all of a sudden become a co-writer? As a composer myself, I would have to say YES.

Backup musicians and performers do what they are told to do. They harmonize, or play notes or chord symbols put in front of them as beautifully as they can. Backup musicians are like an orchestra: all the notes are supplied by the composer, and coordinated by the conductor. But when a soloist is hired and featured prominently, and contributes quantitatively to the song, especially in a way that a non-musician would notice, writing credit should be given. And if nothing else, I guess one could settle for “solos by Matthew Fisher.” But you don’t make royalties with that kind of credit.

I will watch this case carefully and am damn curious to know how it will come out.

Here is the opening of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” The organ solo is BY Matthew Fisher. The chord progression it is over is by Bach, er by Brooker (both names mean “brook” by the way), and the words are by Keith Reid.

[audio:http://rogerbourland.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2006/11/pale.mp3]

A Whiter Shade of Pale (opening)

[Link BBC.com]

[Left photo is Gary Brooker, and right photo is Matthew Fisher]

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