50 years on the road

You learn very early on when talking to people in showbusiness that you just don’t mention age. Most performers are very touchy on the subject just because they feel that if you start banging on about the years they have spent in front of an audience then it limits the work they will be offered in the future.

So it came as some surprise that the eternally youthful looking Elkie Brooks was cheerfully celebrating 50 years in the music industry with not only a new tour but a new album Powerless.

Elkie, 65, says that she loves what she does, she is in a position to control her workload so why not celebrate the fact that 50 years ago, as a naive and ambitious 15 year old, she auditioned before music mogul Don Arden, who was Sharon Osbourne’s father, with the express intention of becoming a famous star.

Elkie chuckles at the memory and says that it took another 17 years and a lot of musical adventures before she chalked up her first top ten hit Pearl’s A Singer. Despite the intermittent nature of her single success Elkie has been a regular fixture in the album charts and is in the Guinness Book of Records as the most charted female album artist of the last 30 years.

But it is on stage that she really comes into her own. It’s in front of an audience that Elkie really lets her hair down and cuts loose.

She has been on the road and knocking audiences dead for 50 years and even now she says her live shows are still “very rocky”.

Bizarrely, in her early days, she says she didn’t have her heart set on being a singer. “I did it because I thought I would get noticed. I had two big brothers and I suppose I didn’t take it that seriously. I used to play a bit of guitar, very badly, I play a bit of saxophone but my main thing is piano, I can play quite proficiently, enough to be able to write. But, to answer your question, no I didn’t have a burning ambition to be a musician. I thought I would be a star over night.

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“I auditioned for Don Arden in 1960. He had a touring show and he brought all these American acts. I did an audition for him at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, I thought I was wonderful and would immediately be a star. It only took me from 1960 to 1977 to get a single in the charts. It’s been quite a long journey.

“I’ve had to knuckle down and work really quite hard. I have a good singing voice and I have worked hard to improve it. I’ve always had a good voice and I’ve always tried to sing naturally but I have had to put a lot of work into it as well.”

She said that life on the road has taught her the value of hard work and learning from the best. Over the years she has worked with bands like Dada and Vinegar Joe with Robert Palmer as well as being a solo performer. Even as a solo star she has surrounded herself with the very best musicians and writing talent.

She worked with legendary writers and producers Leiber and Stoller on two hit albums Two Days Away in 1977 and Live and Learn in 1979, providing her with a direct link with Elvis Presley, the early days of rock’n’roll and the era of classic New York songwriting.

They wrote such career defining hits as Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog for Elvis Presley and along with Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Ellie Greenwich, Burt Bacharach and Phil Spector was an integral part of the Brill Building songwriting era which launched the chart careers of Ben E King, The Drifters and Spector’s girl groups and Wall of Sound production.

They certainly worked their magic on Elkie’s burgeoning solo career, which she was carving out for herself after the collapse of her band Vinegar Joe. Not only did they provide a top twenty album in Two Days Away but co-wrote her biggest solo single Pearl’s A Singer.

But, she says with a wry smile, working with them wasn’t always as straight forward as you might expect – particularly as the long-term collaborators couldn’t even agree between themselves the best approach to take.

“It was enjoyable working with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – up to a point. The problem was one would say: ‘Well we would like you to sing it this way’ and the other would then say: ‘No, I would like you to sing it this way.’ So I would go off and have a cup of tea, have a think about it, come back and perform it the way I would prefer to do it myself. Do it my own way. Then they would listen to it back and say: ‘Yup that’s exactly what we meant.’ I’d smile and go ‘Oh great’.

“I have to say that it can be confusing working with two producers. I like to work with a producer on a one-to-one basis. But, I do admire Jerry Leiber’s writing very much. He’s a fine lyricist and I learned an awful lot from him. They thought I was just making the tea but I was watching and listening and learning. I did learn a lot about how to get lyrics together.”

She said that the experience of working with people like Leiber and Stoller has given her extra arrows in her musical armoury and has given her added confidence. She says that she is currently enjoying performing like never before.

“I think I am a in great place now. I have a great band. I can pick the gigs I want to do. I don’t have to do 70 shows back to back as I used to do, 30 years ago. And certainly for the last few years, I have been in a position where I can do two or three shows a week and it’s more staggered.”

She said that although she enjoys being the figurehead, she enjoys sharing the spotlight with the rest of the band. It’s a collaborative experience. “There’s always pressure being the vocalist, even when you are in a band, even in Vinegar Joe with Robert Palmer,” she pauses before adding a pointed aside: “When he would decide to be in the band.

“There has always been pressure to perform, to be the figurehead but I would say that we are a band together. It’s not like when you see some performers on the telly where the singer is out in front and the rest of the band are three miles away. For us we are very much a unit.”

She said that the current tour is a mixture of career retrospective and a chance to promote the new album.

“To be truthful it’s a mix. We are celebrating my 50 years in the music business but then again its not about nostalgia, it’s about singing songs from my new album, doing material that current, up-to-date.

“I do have a bit of a look back in the first half doing some of the stuff I have done in the past but later I will be doing a lot of songs off the current album, Powerless, which came out in March. Also the second half is very, very rocky – my die-hard Elkie fans always love that, so it’s going to be a bit of a mixed bag.”

She said that although the stage is her natural habitat, she has come to love the studio experience as well. Powerless is her 20th studio album. Her working life both on stage and in the studio is helped by the fact that she has her family to hand. Husband Trevor Jordan is her sound engineer and sons Jermaine and Joey are not only band members but also her guides in the new world of digital recording.

“When I first started, it’s safe to say that I wasn’t very keen working in the studio. When I first heard the sound of my voice I was a bit shocked. I thought I was better than I was. So I had to work on it. This latest release has taken five years to write and record. Sometimes it takes longer than you would like but then again you want to get it right.

“I would say that it is the most organic album since I made Two Days Away. It’s very, very live and quite a mixed bag of material.”

She said that with her son’s guidance she has embraced the freedom that digital recording offers. “J (Jermaine) has all the latest digital equipment but it’s all very well having all these wonderful things but its knowing how to use them.

“When I do go into the studio I will have done my homework because I don’t like to be there for more than a couple of hours. Any longer than that, then it starts to get a little tedious. We are used to doing it layer by layer now. Perhaps years ago, you would get a very organic feel by recording all the musicians all together – but that’s a very expensive way of doing it. It’s a lot simpler and a lot less stressful if you layer up the tracks one at a time. I quite prefer to work that way, quite honestly. I think if you get great musicians, which I am blessed with, then you can layer up tracks that way and still get that organic feel.”

I finish the interview by asking after 50 years on the road and in the studio are there special moments that she will treasure, maybe not particularly famous ones in terms of career development but perhaps, ones that meant a lot personally.

She immediately says that recording with Humphrey Lyttleton was a huge thrill. “Just before I did my first solo album in 1975 Rich Man’s Woman I did an album with Humph where I guested on vocals. I really enjoyed doing that but then I didn’t work with Humph again for many, many years until he came over to our house in Devon and we did the album Trouble In Mind in 2002.

“Now that was a very live album. Humph’s band came down to the house and we worked solidly on that for three or four days. It was lovely. It was like a party. And that comes across in the music.

“The other thrill is having my children and now being in a position to work with my family. And career-wise getting that first chart hit. Pearl’s A Singer was released on my birthday in 1977 and I got the hit that I thought would never come. I got quite a buzz from that.”

n Elkie Brooks is appearing at the Colchester Mercury on August 21. For more information and tickets visit www.mercurytheatre.co.uk or phone 01206 573948.