‘I remember my headmistress saying ‘You sound like a boy, Bookbinder!’
Elkie Brooks prepares to mark a big birthday in Lancashire MALCOLM WYATT spoke to the veteran singer at her storm-tossed Devon base.
At the end of February, Elkie Brooks turns 70, although for many that surely is hard to believe – including the Lancashire-born singer herself.
But while age has crept up on this distinguished performer, born Elaine Bookbinder in Salford and brought up in Prestwich, she doesn’t seem to have slowed down.
“Yeah, well. It’s attitude really. It’s like with everything.”
Elkie’s still recording and touring, having made more than 20 solo studio albums, with another on the way.
And she has a special concert at The Lowry, close to her old hometown, three weeks before her big birthday on February 4.
Now in her fifth decade performing, Elkie’s one of the most successful singers the UK has produced, and remains a powerful and versatile vocal talent.
And after numerous hit singles, million-selling albums and awards, she continues to leave a winning impression on live audiences on an annual basis.
“I enjoy it, and if I didn’t I would have gone on and done something else.
“There were moments where I wasn’t enjoying it in the ‘60s, thinking of doing something else.
“But then I had the good fortune of meeting people like the late Humphrey Lyttelton and my first husband, Pete Gage.
“Otherwise, I might have gone back to Manchester and tried something else.”
What might she have tried instead?
“I’ve always liked cooking, and loved domestic science and PE at school. I don’t think I would have had the patience to be a music teacher, though.
“My best friend was thinking of going to Israel on a kibbutz and later on join the army, and all that seems pretty romantic when you’re 17.
“But I stuck at it, and here I am today.”
A lot of that story is told in her 2012 autobiography, Finding My Voice, and it’s certainly been a journey for Elkie, who’s been based in North Devon since 1981.
She’s chosen a lovely part of the world to live too.
“Not at the moment - it’s blowing a hooley out there! I’m looking over at the sea and it’s a bit rough.
“I still managed to get out there and do my aikido, and exercises with a skipping rope and a hula hoop. I just made it this morning before it started bucketing down.”
Elkie lost her treasured Woody Bay estate after financial problems, but remains nearby.
“It hurts me to go back really. We were pushed into a position of selling it because of tax problems.
“I’m not the only one, but being the trendy person I am I got into trouble sooner than most!
“You play your music and have a lot of trust in people behind the scenes, who are supposed to take care of your business. Sometimes they don’t always do that.”
One of her sons now looks after her business affairs, and takes care of the technical side in his studio too.
“He plays guitar and bass and programmes drums, and we write together. We’re about half-way through this latest album.”
Elkie’s roots are definitely Lancastrian though.
“I was born in Broughton Park but brought up North of Salford. When I go back now to Salford Quays and the place where the BBC is, it’s all rather alien to me.
“But I didn’t grow up in that area, more Prestwich. Mum’s still there, and my cousin Hilary and best friend Helen.
“They’ll all be coming to the show, as will my brother Ray, to whom I’m still very close.”
Her Jewish heritage is also important to her. Has she ever made a pilgrimage to the part of Eastern Europe where her family emigrated from?
“I went to Poland in the mid-‘60s, but not to the actual area where my grandparents came from.
“I’m afraid at the time I wasn’t really taking that much notice. Now it would mean a lot more to me.”
Elkie took her first name from its Yiddish equivalent but traded in her surname on the advice of promoter Don Arden, the father of Sharon Osbourne.
“Don promoted all these American acts and was doing a show at the Palace Theatre in Manchester in March 1960. I read in The Jewish Telegraph he was holding auditions.
“I went along, waited several hours, then he saw me, thought I was wonderful and put me on the show that night.
“I travelled with the show for a couple of nights then got poorly and had to go home, but he kept in contact and brought me to London for lots of auditions.
“It took me ages before I got established, with Eric Delaney and His Band in 1962 or 1963. It wasn’t easy to get into it all, but I stuck at it.”
It was a cover of Etta James’s Something’s Got a Hold on Me in 1964 that marked Elkie’s first recording experience.
“Considering I was 19, I did a reasonably good job, but there’s no one sings it like Etta in my opinion.”
There was never any doubt about her voice, but she was steered towards the cabaret scene, which didn’t seem right for her.
“But with everything in life you’ve got to take the positive side, and it got me playing piano. I don’t play incredibly well, but enough to accompany myself.”
Big-name supports followed. Did she get to meet The Beatles properly when she supported them?
“I did a 1964 show at the Hammersmith Odeon with them, but they were very insular. They didn’t really socialise with the rest of us.
“I just thought they were a nice little band from Liverpool that copied a lot of black music. They wrote a lot of amazing songs that still hold up today though.”
There was a link with Steve Marriott of influential Mod band The Small Faces too, plus Georgie Fame, and The Animals.
“I met Stevie Marriott many years ago via my manager, and we became very friendly.
He was a wonderful musician, came over to my flat and we jammed together.
“There was never any romance. He was more like my little brother. And I mean little –I was five foot three and he was only about five foot!
“I went on tour with The Animals, but as one of many artists on that show. I happened to meet Alan Price when he was doing shows in London at the Scene Club.
“He wanted to meet Georgie, who I happened to be having a bit of a romance with.
“I had a slight romance with Alan too, and he really wanted to meet Georgie.”
Then came the link with guitarist Pete Gage, her first husband.
“My manager thought it a good idea to have a backing band. Pete came to see me and liked my singing but felt I didn’t have any musical direction.
“Yet we got on well and ended up together, and he had this idea of forming Dada a year or two into our relationship. That’s how it all started.”
Elkie became part of a jazz fusion 12-piece who made one album, and from Dada sprang Vinegar Joe, also involving Robert Palmer.
“It was hard-going, gigging every night. We were only together from 1971 until March 1974 but did three albums, an achievement considering that time on the road.”
Robert Palmer died aged 54 in 2003 after a successful solo career. Did she stay in touch?
“I do with his mum, but it was all a bit sour with Robert. When he left, he had it all planned about a year before he told us. That broke the band up.”
Elkie returned as a solo artist. Did she know what she wanted by that stage?
“No, it was a difficult time. I’d been part of a band and loved it. I love being part of a team. I don’t mind fronting it, but like to have a team.
“Robert wasn’t like that. He wasn’t a team player in any way. But I only realised that when the band broke up.”
First solo album Rich Man’s Woman ensured a few column inches, not least on account of the cover shot of Elkie, deemed racy in its day.
She saw that album as a missed opportunity to properly launch herself.
“The demos were better than the album. It wasn’t until the next album, Two Days Away, when the company really got what I was doing, with Pearl’s a Singer.
“If I’d asserted myself a little more with the producers rather than listen to what they were saying ...”
Two Days Away changed all that in 1977, not least due to producers and legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
“I got on extremely well with Jerry. But when you work with two producers, one sees it one way, the other another.
“I’d go to the loo, come back, have a cup of tea, then sing it the way I wanted. And then they’d say, that’s what we wanted!’”
Steady success followed, and in the early ‘80s Pearls and follow-up Pearls II went top five, Elkie managing seven top-40 albums with A&M after her debut stalled.
There was also a top-five single and album with No More the Fool in 1986. Did she get chance to enjoy that success?
“I was always on the road, and had a manager and promoter who worked me into the ground. Now I’m much more in control. I hated doing night after night.
“It’s not just the singing, but the travelling, sound-checks, rehearsals. I’d sing about three hours a day and you need to rest for 24 hours after that.
“People don’t understand. My father, God rest his soul, said, ‘what do you need a holiday for? It’s a holiday for you every day!’
“I enjoy it though. People keep coming to the shows, I get a good reaction, and that’s all I can ask for.”
Are there albums that Elkie, who married her sound engineer Trevor Jordan in 1978, with their sons born in 1979 and 1986, are more proud of than others?
“Those that stick out for me are Two Days Away, and the last I did, 2010’s Powerless.
“I also love one I did with Humph (Lyttelton), Trouble in Mind (2003), and the Amazing album (1996) with Tony Britton and the Royal Philharmonic.”
Are there any hits she’d rather not play these days?
“I do them all, Sunshine after the Rain, No More the Fool, Don’t Cry Out Loud, Fool if you Think it’s Over. Pearl’s a Singer, Lilac Wine, Nights in White Satin ...
“I’ve been down the road where I’ve only done current stuff I’ve been working on.
“But I think that’s unfair when they pay good money and want to hear the hits.
“I incorporate new material, and some good old rock and r’n’b in the second half that people have requested. I change things around now and again, and it works.”
Do you sit comfortably with titles afforded her, like The British Queen of Blues?
“I don’t mind, as long as people keep coming to see me!”
Is it right that you’ve had more top-75 UK albums than any other British female artist?
“Well, they haven’t given me a badge for that yet!”
Does it take more to keep that voice in good shape these days?
“I’d say it’s better now than years ago. You can’t buy experience.”
So what’s the secret of that big husky voice?
“Plenty of rest, and good eating. I look after myself.”
That doesn’t seem to fit in with her more raunchy sound on some of her more r’n’b moments.
“I don’t think of myself like that. My singing voice is a lot clearer than my speaking voice.”
So it’s not down to a little indulgence in her Vinegar Joe days?
“Not at all! I’ve always had a husky voice from being a little girl. My mother’s friends used to call me Tallulah Bankhead!
“I remember my headmistress saying, ‘You sound like a boy, Bookbinder!’ I could never get in the school choir because it would always be too high for me.
“But I discovered a lot of black singers when I was 11 or 12 who also sang in my key.
So I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m not the only one!’”
Will we be talking about a 75th or 80th birthday tour?
“I’ve a reasonably good fitness level for my age and still enjoy the music and love playing certain theatres. As long as that’s the case, people will keep seeing me. “
Elkie Brooks plays The Grand Theatre in Lancaster on Saturday January 24.
Tickets for the show, which starts 7.30pm, cost £23 and can be bought at www.lancastergrand.co.uk, or by calling the box office on 01524 64695.
She then stars at The Lowry on Wednesday, February 4, with ticket details at www.thelowry.com/event/elkie-brooks-live-in-concert