Elkie Brooks has been singing since she was 15 and more than 50 years later is still performing, driven by financial pressures.. She talks to Kate Whiting about life as the 'wild woman of rock 'n' roll'
Taking a walk on the
Elkie Brooks has already been for a run, done a spot of aikido and gardening, and it's only 11am. In fact, if the batteries on her strimmer hadn't died, she wouldn't be talking to me now, from her rented house in Devon.
Keeping busy is what has got the 67-year-old singer through some of the toughest times of her life, including discovering she owed a quarter of a million pounds in tax and losing her beloved home 'Trees' in Woody Bay, Parracombe.
Despite releasing 20 studio albums and once being named the most charted female album seller, Brooks and her husband Trevor had to sell the country house in 2002 and, with their youngest son Joey, move into a motorhome.
"It was hard going," says the Pearl's A Singer star, with trademark understatement. "But I should have asked more questions of my accountant.
"I guess I was busy. If I wasn't on the road, I was in the studios or bringing up a family.
"I wasn't very happy, but the most important thing when you're depressed is to keep going. Since we got in trouble financially, that's been a wonderful cure. I'd get the Hoover out and do the housework. It's great therapy."
As is clear from her new autobiography, Finding My Voice, Brooks is a survivor. She was just 15 - and still called Elaine Bookbinder - when she took herself off to the Palace Theatre in Manchester and auditioned for music manager and father of Sharon Osbourne, Don Arden. "It was exciting, my parents didn't know anything about it!"
Arden was so impressed he asked her to return that evening and perform in the show, and afterwards asked her baker parents if she could accompany the show on tour. They agreed, went home, packed her best dresses in a suitcase and the next day teenage Elaine was on the road with around 20 men.
Life became an endless round of singing "pop songs" in cabaret clubs - but it began to grate.
"I really hated it, I was doing songs I didn't like and after a bad experience on my 20th birthday, I was ready to go home," she says.
In her book, Brooks admits that drink became her best friend, but she never became an alcoholic.
By the end of 1965, she'd met her mentor Humphrey Lyttelton, who invited her on tour with his band and she finally found herself musically.
She also had a nose job, at her manager Jean Lincoln's suggestion, to "remove the Jewish bump".
"I don't look as Jewish now, which was probably very good when I was starting out in the Sixties, but in a way I'm quite sorry I had it done, because my Joey's nose is lovely, he's got my old nose."
In 1969, Brooks and Pete Gage, who would become her first husband, set up their first band Dada, which, with the addition of Robert Palmer, evolved into Vinegar Joe. Brooks established a rock chick style, which saw her dubbed 'the wild woman of rock 'n' roll'.
She says: "I loved it, because I felt that I'd been so inhibited for such a long time and hadn't been enjoying the music business. I was in my element."
With the image came the obligatory lifestyle and Brooks was soon taking the musician's drug of choice, cocaine.
"It was like having a cup of coffee for me," she admits.
The band released just three records before splitting in 1974, when Robert Palmer announced he was going solo.
Brooks was devastated. "He had plans for a year before he told us, and I didn't talk to him until after he'd recorded his first album. That was the last time I saw him," she says.
"I am sad and funnily enough, my eldest son Jay wanted to get us together again and do an album. I'm still very friendly with his mum and sent her a copy of my book."
Brooks went solo and while her career was taking off, her marriage to Gage was breaking down. Three years after Vinegar Joe ended, he announced he'd met someone else.
But, ever the feisty, independent woman, Brooks was soon in love again. Impressed by a Diana Ross concert in London in 1977, she went and introduced herself to the sound engineer, Trevor Jordan. She arranged for him to do sound on her tour and wanted to impress him so much, she gave up cocaine.
"During one rehearsal, we were all queued up to have a line of cocaine on Trevor's beautiful mixer and he asked me why I was doing it. That stopped me and I haven't done any since," she says.
The pair have now been married for almost 35 years and although Brooks admits it's been a "struggle" to get back on track financially, they now own a small fruit farm in Devon, which has helped keep their marriage fresh, she says. "Living with someone is difficult, especially if you're two very strong characters which we are, and sometimes we need a bit of time on our own. The great thing with his fruit farm is he's out almost every day and I've got the place to myself."
She's super-proud of her two sons, the eldest of which is a musician and has recorded three albums with her.
Looking back over her long career, Brooks has few regrets: not even turning down Andrew Lloyd Webber for Evita ("I hate musicals with venom").
But she wishes she'd never dabbled with reality TV on 2003 show Reborn In The USA, which saw her compete against the likes of Sonia and Gina Gee to reignite her music career Stateside.
"My old man said I should never have done it, it was a very classless show and I think he was right. It's put me off reality TV, I don't need the money that bad!"
The one good thing that came out of it was learning that Robert Palmer had been voting for her shortly before he died: "So there was still obviously a spark there."
And she's adamant that she'll hang up her microphone when the time is right.
"I'm singing very well now, but a lot of old people start warbling and I don't want to get to that stage," she says.
"I'm very honest about the reason I have to keep going, it's financial. But a lot of people you see in the business must be so egotistical, because they're not as good as they used to be and surely they don't need the money, they've got bloody millions!
"I really can't do it for ever and there are other things I want to do. I'd love to do more aikido, go surfing. There will come a time, but I can't see it happening for at least another five, maybe six years."