Liz Jones meets singer Elkie Brooks, the voice of the 70s still belting the blues at 72

I’m in the huge, modern Baths Hall in Scunthorpe: one of those corporate venues with no soul. Everyone in the packed audience has grey hair, bar me, who really should have grey hair. Women keep coming up to me, asking: ‘Why are you in Scunthorpe?’

I’m here for legendary British rock and blues singer Elkie Brooks live. I’m sitting by the mixing desk, right behind her husband, Trevor Jordan, a bear of a man, who’s in charge of the lighting. He keeps asking if I’m OK. I keep wondering if he’ll notice if I slip away. Then the band take up their places and Elkie comes on stage: a diminutive figure in a sheer black dress.

She gives the crowd a double thumbs up and shakes that trademark chestnut mane. And then she starts singing, and I never want to leave. I’ve never heard anything like it. She holds a note for what seems like hours. Her rendition of ‘Make You Feel My Love’ makes Adele’s version seem pedestrian. ‘It’s by Bob Dylan,’ she tells the audience, but we are ancient enough to know that.

She sings ‘Superstar’ by the Carpenters: every note perfect, and that’s from tonsils that are 72 years old. Then, of course, she has to sing ‘Pearl’s a Singer’, her 1977 hit that’s proved timeless. ‘I’ve been singing this for 40 years,’ she tells us wryly, as we all join in. And I start to wonder why Elkie isn’t up there with the Streisands and the Midlers. Luck? Timing?

Claire Wood

As we all troop out at the end of the evening, I’m surrounded by her devoted admirers, loyal since her Vinegar Joe days in the early 70s. For them, Elkie never went away. But for the rest of us, the singer is very much back, as unstarry and down-to-earth as ever. Last year she released a new greatest hits album, Pearls: The Very Best of Elkie Brooks, which includes the single ‘Forgive and Forget’, co-written by Bryan Adams, closely followed by an epic UK tour that continues until November. And her new song ‘Running to the Future’ will feature in the upcoming film Finding Your Feet (out on 23 February), starring Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie and Joanna Lumley.

I tell Elkie that everyone I know declares undying love for her, and that my boyfriend is a huge fan. ‘How old is he?’ she asks; she guesses I’m in my 40s, which endears her to me greatly. ‘I can’t remember.’ ‘What star sign?’ ‘Um.’ ‘What? You don’t know his star sign? That’s terrible!’ And that great big honking laugh. I add that she was said to have been one of Princess Diana’s favourite singers and that Kirstie Allsopp adores her. She beams, ‘I never knew that about Diana! How about that. And Kirstie? I probably know the face.’

Alan Messer

I meet Elkie the day before the show. She arrives in jeans, boots, a purple padded jacket and no make-up. She’s so slight, she’s like a child. I notice she has perfectly round buttocks. The bottom is due, she says, to taking up the Japanese martial art of aikido at the age of 44. ‘I have a regime where I’m up every morning training. I’ve got a thing we call a jo [it’s like a broom handle], a wooden staff that is marvellous for the arms and wrists, and a weighted hula hoop. I work out for between half an hour and 45 minutes. I’m out there on the patio giving it all I’ve got. It’s important as I have problems with my hip.’

The hip problem came from a fall down the concrete steps at the Roundhouse in Camden, in 1973, and another tumble at the Marquee (she was quite the party animal back in the day – add to that enormous platform shoes). Her skin is amazing, eyes bright. You can tell she hasn’t had any work done, bar a nose job early on in her career, and the moment she smiles there she is, the old Elkie, the one I remember from Top of the Pops in 1982 singing ‘Fool if You Think It’s Over’ (unbeknownst to me, she’d been flown by helicopter to perform due to a snowstorm; in 1986, she did the show having given birth to her younger son Joey only a week before).

Is she a reformed character? ‘I like a glass of red wine – not a blinking bottle – and I like draught Guinness. Whisky. Everything in moderation. I haven’t had a drink before a performance in 38 years: singing is a very physical thing.’ And drugs? (She’s admitted to taking cocaine and smoking marijuana in her heyday.) ‘I don’t understand why people who are not artistic take drugs because to us it was a creative thing. It was something you took when you were on your knees exhausted: you’d just done a show up north, you’d be getting in the van with the equipment and then travelling to another show…it was sheer exhaustion.

‘That was my excuse; I was just so blinking tired. Now I don’t even take an aspirin.’ She’s almost vegetarian, too. ‘I don’t eat meat. I do like dairy products, I like tofu and paneer masala. I will eat chicken if there’s nothing else but I prefer vegetables, pulses and fish.’

Claire Wood

She is blunt and northern, and she never stops talking, gesticulating and guffawing. She was born Elaine Bookbinder in February 1945 in Salford, to a Jewish father who ran a bakery and a stay-at-home mum who converted to Judaism. They later moved to Prestwich. It was a well-to-do upbringing; her troubles would come later. She’s tough, has had to be. She was discovered by music impresario Don Arden, Sharon Osbourne’s father, who spotted her at a talent contest when she was 15.

Four years later she was on the same bill as The Beatles at the Hammersmith Odeon, for their Christmas show of 1964. Did she have a crush on any of them? ‘Not my type. They were too into themselves. It was at the height of their success and everybody was coming into their dressing room and they didn’t have time for anyone else on the show. I had my little Guinness and I did my numbers and went home. They didn’t take much notice of me; not a lot of people did then. I didn’t particularly like the 60s; I was never comfortable.’

They took notice of her in the 70s, though. From 1970 to 1974 she shared a stage with the dashing Robert Palmer in the bands Dada and then Vinegar Joe. He died from a heart attack aged 54, in 2003. ‘I have fond memories of us going for dinner and a glass of wine before a show, just on our own,’ she says. ‘I really enjoyed his company and he was a very intelligent man. Great songwriter. I still keep in touch with his mum – I’m hoping she will come and see me in York.’

I’ve just read Elkie’s autobiography about her path to becoming the British female artist with more chart albums to her name than any other, until she was recently overtaken by Kate Bush. It all sounds arduous: gigs in army bases in Germany, cabaret, US tours, self-doubt, battles with record companies and band members and producers.

What does she think of the revelations about sleaze in Hollywood? ‘You’ve got to be careful, you’ve got to be aware. If somebody asks you up to their hotel room and you’re on your own, you’re asking for trouble, aren’t you? It’s common sense. I’ve got a lot of common sense – it’s a northern trait.’

Robert Palmer and Elkie Brooks performing on stage (David Warner)
Elkie was on the same bill as The Beatles at the Hammersmith Odeon, for their Christmas show of 1964

Today’s Elkie is older and wiser – not the 30-year-old who appeared practically naked on the cover of her debut solo album, Rich Man’s Woman, in 1975. ‘I was persuaded to do that photo and I regretted it,’ she says. ‘I remember doing an interview with a lady who was a very strong feminist and she said, “What are you thinking of, doing an album sleeve like that? You’re a serious singer and you look like a showgirl!” I hadn’t really thought of it like that. The photographer was there, I had a suntan, put the feather boa on… I never thought anything of it.’

With Georgie Fame at his 21st party, 1964 (Jeremy Fletcher)

I venture she had her share of excitement: relationships with Alan Price of The Animals and Georgie Fame. ‘Georgie wasn’t a big star when we were together,’ is all she will say. In 1967 she met her first husband Pete Gage when he rang her doorbell hoping to form a band and he thought she was the maid. They drifted apart and he met someone else. She met Trevor after a Diana Ross concert; he was the former Supremes singer’s sound man. She’s seven years older, is that a problem? ‘Never. People say he looks older than me! He’s great, wonderful, marvellous. I love him dearly. He’s a very funny guy. I love him to death.’

I tell Elkie she’s the first person I’ve met who has gone through exactly what I’m going through. She raises one narrow Sarah Moon brow (think vintage Biba ads). She really is so 70s. I tell her I was made bankrupt at the beginning of last year, and lost my house. She actually laughs. I’m taken aback. I had thought Elkie would have some sympathy: she had to sell her house – a huge pile called Trees, complete with a music studio and an indoor pool, in remote Woody Bay on the North Devon coast – having been landed with a £250,000 tax bill in 1998. But then she says, ‘Terrible, isn’t it, I know. You’ve either got to slit your wrists or pick yourself up and you’ve obviously done that.’

Elkie with husband Trevor and their sons in 1989. Elkie had to sell her house having been landed with a £250,000 tax bill in 1998. ‘There is no point feeling sorry for yourself,’ says Elkie
Elkie at the London Palladium last year. Elkie’s a grafter, but she says: ‘As long as you’ve got your health – and I’ve looked after myself – that’s all that matters’ (Shutterstock)

Elkie and Trevor had to put their stuff into storage and move – along with their boys, then aged 16 and 23 – into a mobile home in a friend’s field in Woolacombe. That first night, I say, must have been a nightmare! ‘No, it was fantastic, we had a fabulous time. We lit candles, ate dinner on our laps. You can’t go through life full of regrets, you just move on. I’m too busy to have a low point.’

Money problems had cropped up earlier: a debt to a promoter after a tour; dodgy record contracts. She didn’t make any money from her 1986 album, No More the Fool, as every penny went to pay off debts (in her 2012 autobiography she writes there were times when there was no food: ‘I’ve always managed to somehow make a meal out of nothing’).

Elkie was never declared bankrupt (‘they tried to’), and when she sold the house, with a ‘tiny, tiny profit’, she was able to pay back her debts, and buy seven acres of land, where Trevor now runs a fruit farm. They have 3,000 pear and apple trees and live in a rented flat nearby.

Her elder son Jay, now 38, and his wife Joanna look after Elkie’s business, so things are on more of an even keel. But even now, 15 years later, she says she’s still dealing with what happened. ‘I will never get a mortgage, but I’m too old, anyway.’ Her bank accounts were frozen by HMRC, so she couldn’t tour, as she couldn’t pay her band. I ask her if she has a credit card. ‘It’s not relevant. I shan’t answer that.’

Today Elkie is older and wiser – not the 30-year-old who appeared practically naked on the cover of her debut solo album, Rich Man’s Woman, in 1975

We have something else in common. I took part in Celebrity Big Brother to get out of debt; in 2003 Elkie did Reborn in the USA – where British pop acts competed for an American record deal – alongside Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet, who eventually won. ‘I thought it was going to be a better show than it was, but I made the best of it as I always do. I don’t want to do Strictly. I’m actually quite a good ballroom dancer, but it’s just too showbiz for me. I hate anything like that, I’ve got to look at myself in the morning.’

She and Trevor, whose passion is hang gliding, hope one day to build a house on their land. Retirement isn’t part of the immediate plan. ‘If I feel my voice is doing all that warbly stuff I’ll hang up the microphone. We’re not on the road all the time; I don’t do night after night. We do a show, stay in a nice hotel out of town and then go home. I have a recovery day and I don’t talk: my husband’s happy about that!’

Elkie’s a grafter, but she says: ‘As long as you’ve got your health – and I’ve looked after myself – that’s all that matters, because you might have millions but you might not have your health. I wasn’t on my own. I was with my husband and my lovely boys. It’s experience. There is no point feeling sorry for yourself. If I did I wouldn’t be the person I am now, I’m too positive for that.’ She paraphrases Hillary Clinton: ‘It’s one thing being down, it’s the getting up that’s the great bit.’

Pearls: The Very Best of Elkie Brooks (Virgin EMI) is out now. For details of Elkie’s current UK tour, visit 

Hair and make-up: Julie Read at Carol Hayes management using Evo and Bobbi Brown