Exclusive interview with Elkie Brooks
by Christa Ackroyd
Like so many people Elkie Brooks was given a record player, a bright pink one, for Christmas this year. But unlike many of us who may be digging through our vinyl collection to find our copy of Pearl’s A Singer, Lilac Wine or No More the Fool, Elkie has no plans to play any of her own music on her retro present.
“I never listen to my own recordings,” she says. “I am very critical of my own voice. Many artists are.”
Which is a pity considering her considerable back catalogue and the fact she is about to record her 21st studio album and that doesn’t count the numerous Best Ofs along the way.
Her incredible deep velvet-smooth voice led to her being dubbed The British Queen of the Blues and the music bible of the day, Melody Maker, describing her as not just a gifted singer but a musical superstar.
Her longevity – more than fifty years in the business – astounds even her. “Amazing isn’t it? But that still doesn’t mean I can listen to myself. Anyway all my records are in storage so I only have one to play on my new record player by the wonderful Nina Simone, who along with Ella Fitzgerald, performed the kind of music which inspired me to become a singer. I actually think my voice has got better with age, though I have to work at it. If I did put on one of my records I would think I could do it better now.”
Born Elaine Bookbinder into a family of Jewish bakers in Salford and later brought up in Prestwich, Elkie Brooks has been singing for as long as she can remember. “I was a little girl when I first started to sing. Every little girl thinks they can sing, don’t they?” she says. “But I started taking it seriously when I was about 11 and would be invited to weddings and Bar Mitzvahs where I’d ask the band if they knew any songs of the day and just get up and sing. I supposed I started really wanting to be a singer aged about 13.”
I remembered someone had told me Elkie was Yiddish for Elaine so I changed it
Then she saw an advert for artists in the Jewish Telegraph for a show in Manchester at the Palace Theatre. She went alone, unbeknown to her parents and brother, and was the last person to be auditioned. She got the job, performed that night and the agent asked her parents if they would allow her to tour. She was just 15. So how did they let her go?
“You have to appreciate parents in the North in those days were really quite naive. They knew nothing about the music business. Had they been a bit more worldly they would probably have not let me, especially when I went abroad touring the airbases in Germany.”
She later provided support and backing vocals for The Beatles and the Animals.
So did Elkie find an immediate fit with the world of show business? “No, not at all. It was really quite daunting and I actually had quite an emotional time in the sixties not knowing who I was. It wasn’t until I was spotted by Humphrey Littleton who recognised there was more to me than just a pop singer and invited me to sing with his famous band that I thought yes this is me. He believed I could become an artist in my own right.” That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship which is clearly very dear to her.
At 15 she had been advised that Elaine Bookbinder was hardly the name of a star and so spent a year as Elaine Mansfield having been renamed by an agent as they drove through the Northern town on their way to an early performance in Nottingham.
“But I never liked it and when I got an audition to sing with the big bands I remembered someone had told me Elkie was Yiddish for Elaine so I changed it. Brooks, a sort of shortening of my surname just sounded better too.”
Bands followed including Dada which later became Vinegar Joe when another Northerner, the late Batley-born Robert Palmer joined them. “We certainly gained a lot of recognition but we were pretty poor. We were very much a working band and none of us earned a lot of money. It wasn’t until the band broke up because Robert wanted to leave, not me as many believe, that I had to go it alone.”
Even then success as a solo artist was far from instant. “It was many, many years before it happened for me but then I had never believed I would ever have a chart hit. Then Pearls a
Singer and the album Two Days Away were released, would you believe forty years ago this year, and there you go it did very well and my record company (A&M Records) really got behind me. I always say no matter how talented you are, unless you have got a company who really believes in you, you are never going to make it”.
Make it she certainly did. That song written by Leiber and Stoller who had written Hound Dog for Elvis catapulted her to fame and perhaps many will believe, fortune. “I certainly wish I had some of the cash now”, she laughs philosophically.
The two Pearls albums that followed saw her stay in the charts for a record breaking 105 weeks and in 1997 she entered the Guinness book of Records as having the most number of top 75 albums of any UK female artists.
Then Elkie suffered major tax problems, fell out with her long time accountant and was landed with a £250,000 bill as well a fight for some of her royalties and was forced to move out of the family home of 22 years and live in her one bedroomed tour bus. She has paid everything back, is managed by her son and his wife and now lives in a flat in Devon where her husband runs a fruit farm. The whole family tour every year.
So does she live to sing or sing to live? “A little bit of both. I still enjoy the singing though I have never really like all the travelling and all that goes with the music business but that’s what you have to do. I am not the wealthiest woman in the world and I suppose if I had a little more I wouldn’t work as hard as I do. I have to meet my bills as we all do but I really enjoy the perfomance, especially when I get an audience on my side. And I am very fortunate that my audiences have stayed so loyal, particularly those in the North. They are certainly not as inhibited as some, not afraid to show their emotions and I still feed off that. I love it when people really show they are enjoying what I am doing. And they always seem show that more in the North.”
But is not just the Northern audiences Elkie looks back on with fondness She is brutally honest about her upbringing. “My parents were always hardworking so it was not a hard life. I had everything materialistically but not necessarily emotionally. It was a different time when you look back. Then you were seen and not heard which is probably why they let me go and be a singer so early. I do look back on it kindly but I have tried to bring my children (two sons) up very differently giving them much more emotionally.”
I suppose I consider myself a Lancashire Cockney Devonian!
So does she still see herself as a Northern lass?
“That’s difficult to answer because I left when I was fifteen, lived in London for nearly twenty years and in Devon for more than thirty. So I suppose I consider myself a Lancashire Cockney Devonian! I would say my directness is very Northern. I am very, very honest, unlike a lot of people in my industry. And I think I get that from my upbringing. Some people say I am too direct… I just say
‘Well that’s me. I am can’t help it… that’s a Northern trait. We say what we think’.”
She laughs when she is asked the age old question as to how, at the age of 71 (72 in February) she has kept both her voice and her looks.” Hard work and lots of practice. I am
projecting my voice possibly better than I ever used to. It’s important to keep physically fit and eat healthily to keep not only my body but my voice in shape. I train every single day, do martial arts and look after myself and I put my voice down to that. Unless I am a hundred per cent fit I cannot do it. And if I can’t be at my best then that is cheating the audience. And I never want to do that.”