With her soulful, husky voice and hits such as Pearl’s A Singer, and Lilac Wine, Elkie Brooks was a mainstay of British radio in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She’s still all over the media. With her latest record, Pearls: The Very Best Of, high in the charts, and a national tour and numerous TV appearances, she’s the star who never went away.
How does she manage it?
“You have to be strong,” says the 72-year-old, a black-belt in aikido, a Japanese martial art, on the phone from her home on the south coast. “I’ve got a very good fitness level for my age.
“I met my dear husband [sound engineer Trevor Jordan] 40 years ago and I’ve never looked back,” she continues. “We have a wonderful lifestyle here in Devon. He hand-glides, my sons [Jermaine, 37, also her manager, and Joe, 30] paraglide…” She laughs throatily. “I’ve always done what I felt like.”
It’s a long way from Prestwich, Manchester where she grew up as Elaine Bookbinder, the daughter of baker Charlie and housewife Violet. There, she relished her Hebrew classes more than she did regular school. She fondly recalls her singing teacher, Rabbi Berkowitz, and her grandmother’s Jewish cooking. But she wasn’t bat mitzvah’d — “No,” she says, swearing like your naughty aunty. “I was quite pissed off because I really wanted a party”— and describes her upbringing as “quite secular”. She didn’t find out till after she died that her mother had been born a Catholic and converted to Judaism.
“I often wondered why she couldn’t speak Hebrew and all the other women could,” she says. It was from her mother’s side of the family that she got her musical genes, specifically her grandmother Maud Newton, a singer, pianist and violinist who studied in Vienna and performed in concert halls in Salford.
As young as 11, Bookbinder was performing at weddings and bar mitzvahs, including her brother Tony’s (later, as Tony Mansfield, he would pursue a music career himself, as drummer for ‘60s hitmakers Billy J Kramer & The Dakotas).
By the time she was 15, she had moved on her own to London, where she responded to an advert in the Jewish Telegraph: Don Arden, father of reality TV star Sharon Osbourne and manager of The Small Faces and Black Sabbath, was holding auditions. Arden, she says, “thought I was wonderful”, although he hated her name. And so she became Elkie (Yiddish for Elaine) and Bookbinder got shortened to Brooks. “And it’s been very successful for me ever since,” she says.
Despite stints supporting The Beatles and touring with The Animals, Brooks didn’t feel comfortable in the 60s, probably because she was pigeonholed as a cabaret act with a neatly-coiffed bun when really she wanted to let her hair down.
That she managed to do in 1969 with the rock band Dada, and again at the dawn of the new decade with Vinegar Joe, the heavy R&B outfit she formed with the late Robert Palmer. Soon, she gained a reputation as a hair-flailing wild woman, appearing on the front cover of music weekly Melody Maker as the “Face of ’73”.
Would current fans be shocked at her prehistory as a sort of homegrown Janis Joplin?
“I’m still a rocker these days!” she almost explodes, insisting that the second half of her current live show comprises raunchy material. “You can take the girl out of rock’n’roll but you can’t take the rock’n’roll out of the girl.”
It was a period of late nights and indulgence — she had a fondness for brandy and the occasional line of white powder.
“You have to appreciate that we were working very hard,” she explains. “When we weren’t in the studio we were on the road. It was very tiring, and I cannot tell a lie: I would have the odd drink and certain drug substances to keep going. But it was sheer fatigue, as opposed to getting high.”
She and Palmer quit Vinegar Joe to go solo: the cover of her 1975 debut album, Rich Man’s Woman, featured Brooks naked, her modesty covered by a feather boa.
“It was considered very risqué at the time… But, you know, I had a nice sun tan, and a good dancer’s body, so I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty cool.’”
A collaboration with legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1977 — with the Two Days Away album and attendant singles (Pearl’s A Singer, Sunshine After The Rain) — gave her her first chart entries. Not that success changed her.
“No, I’ve always lived very modestly,” she admits. “I’m not very showbiz.”
In the late ‘90s, Brooks was forced to live very modestly indeed when an unexpected tax bill of £250,000 necessitated the sale of her five-bedroom bungalow in upmarket Woody Bay. For a time, the family lived in a mobile home on a caravan site, although now, with her finances back on track, she has an apartment overlooking the sea in Woolacombe and is awaiting planning permission to build a house. Meanwhile, her husband has his fruit farm with its thousands of willow and poplar trees. It all sounds very idyllic. Just not very Jewish.
Does she ever go to synagogue in nearby Exeter or Plymouth?
“I’m afraid not. I’m a bit of an atheist, to be honest with you,” she replies. “But I’m very proud of my roots.” To prove this, she sings Eliyahu Hanavi, followed by a burst of Avinu Malkeinu.
I ask whether she is the Amy Winehouse who never went off the rails, and she recoils.
“It’s very easy to be judgmental. I don’t know all the issues that she had to put up with in her life, because she was very successful, very early on in her life.”
Brooks never met Winehouse, but theirs was a mutual appreciation society.
“I loved her dearly. She’d never heard of me, but a friend of mine gave her my album and after she listened to it, she told him, ‘I didn’t think there was anyone in England who could sing like that.’ That’s the biggest compliment I’ve ever had from a fellow singer. When I heard about her passing, I was so sad, and angry that that happened to someone so talented.”
Where does Brooks believe she fits in the pantheon of great British female performers?
“They call me the queen of the blues,” she laughs. “I’m quite happy with that. I’m the queen! There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Elkie Brooks is on tour throughout 2017 www.elkiebrooks.com/concerts