Elkie Brooks - Manchester's evergreen rock chick turns 70
PUBLISHED: 00:01 16 January 2015
Elkie Brooks marks her 70th birthday this month by returning to her Lancashire roots.She reveals to Paul Taylor a family split that may explain her musical talent
After 55 years as a professional singer, Elkie Brooks’s voice has aged like a good wine. Lilac Wine, perhaps. ‘My lower register is fuller. I think I project my voice better than I’ve ever done,’ muses Elkie. ‘God rest his soul, Rabbi Berkowitz, who was my singing teacher when I was 17, would be proud of me, because at last I’m understanding what he meant about projecting my voice.’
That singing teacher was the rabbi at the Holy Law Synagogue, near to Elkie’s father’s bakery shop in Prestwich. Elkie was born Elaine Bookbinder on February 25, 1945, at 1, Castleton Road, Broughton Park, Salford, the third child of Violet and Charlie. She studied at North Salford Secondary Modern in Leicester Road, but her real education was the Ella Fitzgerald album her brother Ray gave her when she was 12.
At 15, Elaine won a talent contest at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, and found herself on a pop package tour promoted by the late Don Arden, the legendary hard-nosed music entrepreneur from Cheetham Hill and father of Sharon Osbourne.
Elkie graduated from cabaret clubs in the 1960s to singing jazz with Humphrey Lyttleton’s band. In the 1970s, she turned rock chick with the band Vinegar Joe (whose other singer was the late Robert Palmer) then enjoyed a massively successful solo career which took off with the single Pearl’s A Singer in 1977.
And yet, Elkie is only now discovering family history which may explain all that musical talent. She never met her maternal grandmother Maud Newton, but has learned in recent years that Maud was a singer, concert pianist and violinist who studied in Vienna and performed in concert halls in Salford. Maud remarried after her husband died in the First World War, and Elkie’s mother Violet did not take to her stepfather. Violet’s separation with the past was made complete when she married into and adopted the Jewish faith.
‘My mother never spoke much about her family,’ says Elkie. ‘I think that she had a Roman Catholic background. Back in the 1930s, you had to completely turn your back on the way you were living before. If she did have contact with her family, she didn’t make it known to her children. But I feel that’s where all the music comes from.’
In recent months, Elkie has made contact with a descendant of Maud’s sister, who lives in Oldham, and is gradually filling in the family history her late mother did not feel able to share.
Elkie now describes herself as a Lancashire Cockney Devonian. She lived in London for 17 years, then, for the last 34 years, in North Devon, where husband Trevor tends a fruit farm due to give its first crop this summer. Jay, the elder of their two sons, manages Elkie’s career and produces her albums, the 22nd of which is due out in the middle of next year. Asked whether retirement has ever crossed her mind, Elkie replies: ‘I can’t afford to, mate!’
The music business has not always been kind to Elkie, from unfavourable recording contracts to an unexpected tax bill of £250,000 in 1998, which necessitated the sale of the five-bedroom bungalow at upmarket Woody Bay, where she and sound engineer Trevor had set up a recording studio.
For a time, the family lived in a mobile home on a caravan site, but now live in an apartment between Woolacombe and Morthoe on the Devon coast.
‘I haven’t had all the royalties I’m due and I probably will never get them. That’s the way it goes. I have to move forward or you end up being very bitter,’ she says.
Elkie keeps physically fit through daily exercise of aikido, the Japanese martial art she took up 25 years ago, and at which she holds a black belt.
As for that amazing voice, Elkie sums up the secret to its continued good health in one word: Rest. She says: ‘I don’t do night after night any more. I never liked doing that 30 years ago. I always felt I couldn’t give 100 per cent every night. I was always holding back because you knew you had another 30 shows to do. Now I have at least 24 hours to recover before the next show.’
When it comes to that big birthday on February 25, Elkie’s celebrations will be slightly constrained by having to travel to London the next day for a gig. ‘We will have a quiet celebration and, possibly later in the month, a bit of a knees-up with the family,’ she says.
Elkie Brooks performs at the Grand Theatre, Lancaster on Saturday January 24 and at the Lowry, Salford Quays, on Wednesday February 4.
Elkie’s track record
1958: First gig at the Laronde club, Cheetham Hill Road in north Manchester.
1960: Wins a talent show at Palace Theatre, Manchester, and starts touring the UK.
1964: First record release - a cover of Etta James’s Something’s Got A Hold On Me
1975: Elkie’s first solo album Rich Man’s Woman meets critical acclaim, but also controversy over the cover, featuring Elkie wearing only a strategically-draped feather boa.
1977: Pearl’s A Singer gets into the Top Ten, beginning a run of chart hits including Sunshine After The Rain, Lilac Wine and Don’t Cry Out Loud.
1986: A career high for Elkie as the album No More The Fool reaches number five in the album chart, and the title track number five in the singles chart.
2003: Elkie takes part in an ITV reality show Reborn In The USA, finishing seventh out of ten.
2003: Releases Trouble In Mind, an album with old friend Humphrey Lyttleton.