1. Procol Harum: ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’
The unexpected 1967 hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale“ by progressive U.K. rock band Procol Harum, shows definite marks of Bach’s influence. Lead singer Gary Brooker, who wrote the song, admitted to using a few unmistakable bars from Bach’s “Air on a G String” at its opening. Other music writers point to additional similarities between Bach works and the single, for example the cantata Sleepers, Awake! The lyrics, which describe a drunken tryst, have fewer parallels in Bach’s work. The song hit number one in Britain and made it to number five on the U.S. charts.
2. Sky: ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor’
In 1980, British/Australian band Sky released its second self-titled album, “Sky II.” The final track, an electronic version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor that is better suited to a discotheque than a concert hall, amazingly rose to number five on the British singles charts. The album featured other plugged-in versions of the Baroque masterpiece by composers such as Rameau and Vivaldi. However, the group is best known for its famous guitar player: John Williams.
3. Joshua Rifkin: Baroque Beatles Book
Riding the popularity of the Beatles—Bach lovers themselves, who incorporated Baroque motifs into “Penny Lane,” “In My Life,” “Blackbird,” and other songs—Juilliard-trained composer Joshua Rifkin set to transcribing the Fab Four’s greatest hits into a classical idiom. In 1965, Elektra/Nonesuch Records jointly released Rifkin’s “Baroque Beatles Book.” The double CD featured a psychedelically colored cover with Bach and Handel (wearing an “I Love Beatles” shirt), and its holiday-season release shot to number 86 on the best-selling album chart. Many tracks directly refer to Bach, in composition and in title, such as the four-movement “The Royal Beatleworks Musique” modeled after Suite for Orchestra No. 4 in D, and “The Epstein Variations,” hearkening the Goldberg Variations. The December 4, 1965 issue of Billboard magazine said, “It’s good chamber music and it’s good Beatles music.”
4. Apollo 100: ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’
In 1972, the short-lived British group Apollo 100 release a jazzed up arrangement of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from Bach’s cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. Coming out nearly 250 years after the original, Apollo’s 100 “Joy” still resonated with music audiences, rising up to number eight on the US charts. While Apollo 100 disbanded shortly thereafter, Tom Parker, who wrote the arrangement, went on to found the New London Chorale. The ensemble’s mission was to make classical music more accessible to broad audiences with albums such as the “Young Messiah,” “Young Beethoven” and “Young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” Meanwhile, “Joy” has had an afterlife, appearing on movie soundtracks for films such as Boogie Nights and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
5. The Toys: ‘A Lover’s Concerto’
Though Minuet in G from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach is usually attributed to the 17th century organist Christian Petzold these days, J.S. Bach got the credit for originating the tune when the female trio The Toys scored a number-one hit in 1965 with “A Lover’s Concerto.” The pop staple took some liberties with the tempo, but it is faithful almost note-for-note to the original. (The similarities were demonstrated in the movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus). The Toys even incorporated a bust of Bach into performances, thinking they were acknowledging the inspiration for their catchy tune.
Below: Paul Elie, author of Reinventing Bach, Discusses The Beatles’ use of Bach: