Elkie Brooks: continuing to make music
She has been called everything from the British queen of blues to the wild woman of rock ‘n’ roll. She is also one of the most successful and popular singers the UK has produced. Now, at the age of 69, Elkie Brooks is on the road again and is returning to Derbyshire.
While some vocalists struggle to maintain their range and power as they get older, Elkie Brooks is the opposite. Like good wine, she has matured with age and, according to some critics, has got better because of regular touring and constant use of her vocal chords.
So is her voice continuing to develop? She replies with what turns out to be common sense and practicality, qualities which have characterised her during her career spanning more than 50 years.
“Without a doubt. If you’re completely and utterly satisfied – I think that goes for anything, not just being a musician – you don’t really move on, do you?” Moving on is something Elkie has had to do at regular intervals.
She was born Elaine Bookbinder in Salford in February 1945 and is a relative of former Derbyshire County Council leader David Bookbinder. Her grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Kielce, a Polish city which was under Russian rule.
After making her professional debut as a teenager her powerful, gravelly voice could be heard regularly on the cabaret circuit but she did not enjoy that part of show business. Her first real success came in 1971 when she formed the rock band Vinegar Joe with Pete Gage, who became her first husband, and singer Robert Palmer who died in 2003.
During her time with Vinegar Joe she was dubbed “the wild woman of rock ‘n’ roll” and she looks back favourably on those days with the band.
“I had a really great time and I found some sort of direction in my music. It was a very joyful time; I thoroughly enjoyed it. But don’t worry – I’m still wild!”
After three albums Vinegar Joe split in 1974 when Robert Palmer left. “I was so disappointed that, having put so much effort into the band, the rest of them didn’t want to continue. I thought it was the wrong decision.”
“To be honest with you, I never really thought I would get a record in the charts”
Elkie did not particularly want to go solo but to her it seemed inevitable that that would be her next course of action.
Her first solo album did not sell particularly well but then her record company suggested she should team up with the songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who had penned songs for Elvis Presley, the Drifters and many others.
Their first collaboration, Two Days Away, which contains Elkie’s signature song Pearl’s A Singer, got to number 16 in the album charts and her solo career took off.
“To be honest with you, I never really thought I would get a record in the charts,” she says.
“Pearl’s A Singer was released on my birthday in 1977, was very successful and it got in the top 10 of the singles chart, so I was very happy. But I didn’t necessarily come into the music business to have chart records. I just wanted to enjoy myself musically. I was very lucky that I became very successful at it.”
Lilac Wine, Don’t Cry Out Loud, Fool (If You Think It’s Over) and No More The Fool all made the top 20 in the days when having a record in the charts was a real achievement.
Adversity has followed Elkie throughout her professional career. The record business can be ruthless and she is reluctant to expand on why she has not received all the royalties due to her. Instead she points out that she goes into it in complete detail in her autobiography Finding My Voice which was published in 2012.
She is also fairly unforthcoming about how she was in severe financial trouble due to her accountant not paying her tax bills. Now she has cleared off her debts and has taken control of her career by surrounding herself with relatives and musicians she can trust.
She is currently recording her 27th album, the fourth with her younger son Jermaine, also known as Jay. He produces her records in his own studio in Devon and he and his wife Joanna manage Elkie. She says she has “great respect” for the pair of them.
“I like being part of a team,” says Elkie. “I‘ve taken quite a long time to get a band I feel comfortable with who are also great players. My keyboard player has been with me on and off for 25 years, my drummer has been with me nearly 28 years. It’s a great feeling. My bass player has been with me 15 years. They’re all great musicians. They’re people you know and you’ve done tours with in the past and you just hang on to them. We’ve got a good team spirit.”
After such a long time in the business, Elkie seems content with her life and her career. Continuing to make music is probably one of the reasons why she has been called a “national treasure”, an epithet that does not worry her.
“I’ve never really thought very much about that, to be honest with you. If that’s how people want to think of me, that’s great.”
Elkie is really looking forward to returning to Buxton Opera House: “I’ve done it over the last 20 years on and off. It’s brilliant. I love working in old theatres that have got a bit of history.”
She will be performing all her hits along with a “mixed bag” of songs. The second half will be “quite rocky”.
Touring is a still a big part of Elkie and her band’s life: “Instead of going out for, say, a two-month tour, which to be honest I didn’t really like, we do two or three shows a week. I prefer to work like that and so does my band which is great.
“I enjoy the music side of touring. I’m not very keen on everything else that goes with it, all the travelling – but if you were to ask any musician they’d tell you exactly the same thing.
“If you’re enjoying the music side, which I do – and I’ve got a really fine band – it’s great and I look forward to it every time.”
* This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of Country Images magazine