At the end of February, Elkie Brooks turns 70, and that seems difficult to believe. In fact, the Lancashire-born vocal talent agrees, chipping in with, “Likewise!”
Elkie, born Elaine Bookbinder in Broughton, Salford, and brought up in Prestwich, North Manchester, settled in North Devon in the early ’80s with her husband, sound engineer Trevor Jordan.
But while age might be creeping up on an artist now in her fifth decade on the circuit, this mum of two grown-up sons clearly keeps herself young – not least with the help of a little aikido, her coastal lifestyle, and continued recording and live work.
What’s more, she doesn’t seem to have slowed down at all.
“Yeah, well … it’s attitude really. It’s like with everything.”
Elkie has made more than 20 solo studio albums, with another on the way, and has a special birthday tour coming up, including something of a homecoming at The Lowry, close to her old turf on Wednesday, February 4.
One of the most successful and popular singers the UK has ever produced, she has numerous hit singles, million-selling albums and awards behind her.
From her big hits to a little blues, rock and jazz, Elkie continues to leave a winning impression on live audiences on her annual tours. And music’s always been there for her.
“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 and was thinking of doing something else.
“Pete had the idea of forming Dada, and that became Vinegar Joe. 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 at school and PE. I don’t think I would have had the patience for to be a music teacher though.
“It was only later that I started to play piano. Working in a lot of Northern clubs they couldn’t play my music, and I thought I couldn’t do any worse, so it prompted me to learn.
“Also, my best friend, Maxine, 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 instead I stuck at it, and here I am today.”
A lot of that story is told in Elkie’s 2012 autobiography, Finding My Voice, and it’s certainly been one hell of a journey.
She’s chosen a lovely part of the world to live too, as I tell her down the telephone line from wintry Lancashire.
“Not at the moment, Malcolm – it’s blowing a hooley out there! I’m looking over at the sea and it’s looking a bit rough.
“I still managed to get out there this morning and do my aikido though, and exercises with a skipping rope and a hula hoop.
“Some mornings I go out, others I just stay in and exercise, but I just made it this morning before it started bucketing down.”
I tell her that on a boat trip off the coast of North Devon with my better half in the early ’90s, the skipper told us ‘that’s Elkie Brooks’ house over there’, in a prime spot overlooking Woody Bay.
“Oh really! Did you see Trees? We were there for around 20 years.”
Elkie lost that treasured estate after major financial problems, her long-term accountant admitting a tax shortfall of around £250,000. So is she still quite close to the old place?
“No, and it hurts me to go back really. We were pushed into a position of selling it. 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, and sometimes they don’t always do that.”
I’m guessing she’s far more in charge of your own affairs now though.
“Well, my son is. We’re now doing our fourth album together. He takes care of the technical side too, with a very up-to-date studio in his house.
“He plays guitar and bass and programmes drums, and we write together. We’re about half-way through this latest album. We were hoping it to be out by my birthday, but it’s got to be right.”
Elkie’s roots are definitely Lancastrian though.
“I was born in Broughton Park but brought up in Cavendish Road, to the North of Salford. That said, when I go back now to Salford Quays and the place where the BBC is, it’s all rather alien to me. I didn’t grow up in that area though, but more Prestwich.”
Does she still have family up in the North-West?
“Yes. Mum’s there, my cousin Hilary and best friend Helen. They’ll all be coming to the show, and my brother Ray, to whom I’m still very close.”
“I went to Poland in the mid-‘60s, but not to the actual area where my grandparents came from.
“I’m afraid that 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 the Yiddish equivalent of Elaine, 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, and I read in The Jewish Telegraph that he was holding auditions for dancers and singers.
“I went along, waited for 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 go 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.”
Elkie got her break at the age of 15, and proved an influence on her brother Tony too, later swapping his job in the family bakery to play drums for Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas.
It was Elkie’s sparkling cover of Etta James’s Something’s Got a Hold on Me in 1964 that marked her first recording experience.
“Well, considering I was 19, I did a reasonably good job, but there’s no one sings it like Etta in my opinion.”
Having listened back to a few of those early singles, there was never any doubt about her voice, but maybe she was steered the wrong way, ending up more on the cabaret scene, which didn’t seem right for her.
“Not at all, but with everything in life you’ve got to take out the positive side, and that was that it got me playing piano.
“I don’t play incredibly well, not to the standard of my own keyboard player (Lee Noble), but play fairly proficiently – enough to accompany myself.”
A lot of big-name supports followed, including a certain Liverpudlian four-piece. But did she get to meet The Beatles properly?
“No. I did a 1964 show at the Hammersmith Odeon with them, now the Apollo, but they were very insular.
“There were always people going in and out of their dressing room, but they didn’t really socialise with the rest of us on the show.
“To be honest, I just thought they were a nice little band from Liverpool that copied a lot of black music.
“I have to say they did write a lot of amazing songs that still hold up today though.
“I did have my own dressing room at the top of the Odeon though, and used it again when I did a celebration of Humphrey Lyttelton’s life in 2008.”
I’m also intrigued about her link around that time with influential Mod band Small Faces, or at least their lead singer Steve Marriott.
“I met Stevie Marriott many years ago via a manager I had at the time, Ian Samwell (who also wrote for Cliff Richard and Dusty Springfield), and Steve and I became very friendly.
“I loved him very much. He was a wonderful musician and used to come over to my flat and we’d jam 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 got on extremely well with him, and he deserved to do really well.”
Then Elkie went out on the road with The Animals.
“I did go on tour with them, but just as one of the 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 Fame, who I happened to be having a bit of a romance with at the time!
“I had a slight romance with Alan too, and he really wanted to meet Georgie. Read my book, and you’ll see!”
That brought me on to The Flamingo Club in London, where Georgie was a regular, as was Elkie’s first husband-to-be, guitarist Pete Gage.
I mentioned (as I seem to in a lot of interviews with those who cut their professional teeth in the ’60s!) how I loved Georgie’s 1964 live album recorded at that swinging Soho nightspot.
“Ooh, I’ve got that in my collection somewhere! I’d get up with the band and jam, and used to love it.
“Georgie was a natural musician. He was wonderful. I would show him my music from the cabaret circuit, and bless him – he couldn’t read it. He probably can now.”
Then came the link with Pete, who was previously with the Ram Jam Band – best known for their alliance with ’60s soul star Geno Washington.
“I never saw them, but met Pete because my manager at that time, Jean Lincoln (then the fiancee of Flamingo owner Rik Gunnell), thought it a good idea for me 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 as people and ended up living together, and he had this great idea of forming Dada a year or two into our relationship. And that’s how it all started.”
So Elkie ended up as part of a jazz fusion 12-piece who made one album, and from Dada sprang Vinegar Joe, with Robert Palmer also adding vocals. Were those wild days?
“We had a good time. It was hard-going, gigging every night and were only together from 1971 until March 1974 but did three albums, which was quite an achievement considering all that time on the road.”
Did she stay in touch with Robert, who died aged just 54 in 2003 after a successful solo career?
“I stay in touch with his mum, and owe her a call actually, as it’s her birthday in a few days. But it was all a bit sour with Robert.
“When he left the band, he had it all planned about a year before he told us, and (Island boss) Chris Blackwell gave him the chance of making his own album in Nassau, and that broke the band up.”
After a spell in America, Elkie returned, her first footings back as a solo artist more soul and r’n’b-oriented, including her take on Fontella Bass’s Rescue Me.
Did she know where she wanted to head by that stage?
“No, it was a difficult time for me. 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. He was more out for himself. 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 a photograph of Elkie on the sleeve deemed racy back in the day.
But Elkie saw that album as a missed opportunity to properly launch herself.
“With the previous album, if you were to speak to Derek Green, the head of A&M, he was very disappointed. It wasn’t what he envisaged – nor me, to be perfectly blunt.
“The demos were better than the album. In retrospect, if I’d asserted myself a little more with the producers rather than listen to what they were saying …
“The producers, Kenny Kerner & Richie Wise, were flavour of the month at the time, so you think they know best for you. But that’s not always the case.”
Her next album, 1977’s Two Days Away, changed all that though, not least thanks to winning production from legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
“I think I was in luck with the next album with Jerry. He was a very talented lyricist. I got on extremely well with him.
“When you work with two producers, one sees it one way, the other another. One asked me to sing one way, the other a different way.
“But I’d go to the loo, come back, have a cup of tea, then sing it the way I wanted. And they’d say, that’s what we wanted!’
“They just wanted to assert themselves. But Jerry was a treasure, and I thoroughly enjoyed his company and working with him.”
In fact, she managed seven top-40 albums with A&M after her debut stalled, and then scored a top-five single and album with No More the Fool on the Legend label in 1986.
Did she ever get chance to enjoy that success?
“Well, 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 of that situation.
“Back then I hated doing night after night, and I don’t do that anymore, having a day off in between shows.
“It’s not just the singing, there’s also the travelling, the sound-checks, rehearsals. I’d be singing for about three hours a day, and you need to rest for 24 hours after that.
“People don’t understand. I remember my father, God rest his soul, saying, ‘what do you need a holiday for? It’s a holiday for you every day!’ That’s how people perceive it.”
I get the feeling she could have stuck with that winning formula and more middle-of-the-road territory. But is that really her?
“It worked for a time, and I have to say I’ve recorded some songs I’ve not been too sure about. Some have worked, but I like to be 100 per cent these days.
“I enjoy it though. People keep coming to the shows, I get a good reaction, and that’s all I can ask for.”
There was an element of juggling family life for Elkie as well, having married Trevor Jordan in 1978, with her sons born in 1979 and 1986.
Did both of her lads follow her into the music industry?
“One’s starting a business as a fitness coach, but the other’s on the business side of all this other than when we’re working together creatively in the studio.”
Is there a song or an album she’s more proud of than anything else?
“The albums that stick out for me are Two Days Away, and the last I did with my son, 2010’s Powerless, which are very compatible.
I’ve always had a weakness for Lilac Wine, so to speak. Is there a particular track that stands out for Elkie across her work?
“It’s very difficult for me to say. Ask any artist, and it’s usually what they’re working on.”
I was looking at a few old Top of the Pops clips, and one for Lilac Wine was spoiled by the fact that they had this colourful lilac wreath background and seemed determined to use it throughout, even to the point where you could hardly see Elkie in the frame.
“Oh God, I can imagine!”
Are there any old 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 … all the big hits.
“People expect me to. I’ve been down the road where I’ve only done current stuff I’ve been working on, and people haven’t bought it yet and don’t know it. I think that unfair when they pay good money and want to hear the old hits.
“I incorporate new material from an album I’m working on, or something from the Powerless album, and some good old rock and r’n’b in the second half that people have always requested. I change things around now and again, and it works.”
Does she sit comfortably with some of those titles afforded her, like The British Queen of Blues?
“I don’t mind. Call me whatever you like as long as people keep coming to see me!”
I read somewhere that Elkie’s had more albums that have reached the top 75 of the UK album chart than any other British female artist.
“Is that right? Well, they haven’t given me a badge for that yet!”
Does it take more to keep that voice in good shape these days than maybe 30 or 40 years ago?
“Not at all. I’d say it’s better now than years ago. And 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 sound, with raspy elements of a Rod Stewart or even a Janis Joplin or Noddy Holder 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 bit of indulgence in her Vinegar Joe days and those early days on the circuit?
“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 for that reason!
“But I discovered a lot of black singers over the years, from when I was 11 or 12, who also sang in my key. So I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m not the only one!’”
And will we be talking about a 75th or 80th anniversary show a few years down the line?
“God knows! Put it this way, I have 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 still keep seeing me.
“But when I really start warbling – as a lot of older singers do – that’s the time to say thank you and goodnight! That way, people will remember me the way I was.”
Elkie Brooks plays The Lowry in Salford on Wednesday, February 4, with ticket details at http://www.thelowry.com/event/elkie-brooks-live-in-concert.
And for more on Elkie, her back catalogue, her autobiography, tour dates and more, head to her official website here.
This is a revised and expanded take on a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on Thursday, January 15th, 2014. for the original’s online version, try here.