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Vinegar Joe to Planet Zog

via Whiskey A Go Go

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Sam Bennett
Vinegar Joe to Planet Zog Singing in the Moment

Manchester-born Elkie Brooks speaks to us from her home in Woolacombe. The ‘No More The Fool’ singer first moved to north Devon almost 40 years ago – roundabout the time her hit album Pearls came out – settling in Woody Bay until tax problems forced her to sell the family home there and relocate to the “lovely seaside town” she’s in now, where the locals are good to her. “It’s been hard to get used to living in the country,” says the former Vinegar Joe frontwoman. “The first seven years were the toughest in Woody Bay, having been a city girl – I lived in London for about 17 years prior to coming down here.”

Aged 15 she was discovered by notorious music manager Don Arden, who put her in “a really big package show” with other performers she struggles to recall. “I can remember that chap, Wee Willie Harris, I can’t remember anybody else – Johnny Preston, I think. There was a whole load of American artists, but I was never a huge fan of any of them, so they didn’t really mean that much to me.” Was Arden nice to her? “He was a very hard-hearted businessman. I was only 15, a little Jewish girl from Manchester. Don was always hiding his Jewishness; he wanted to change my name from Elaine Bookbinder to Elaine Mansfield, which he did. He thought ‘no, no, no, no, we’ve got to shorten this name.’” She reckons his choice of pseudonym was “a bit of a laugh”: she was “very tiny and had very short black hair” and at the time he was promoting Hollywood sex symbol Jayne Mansfield; she thinks he opted for Mansfield because of how unlike the American actress she looked.

She stopped using that name when she joined the Eric Delaney Band in 1961, which she was with for two years before landing a job at Manchester’s Whiskey A Go Go club aged 18. She prefers being part of a band to being a solo act, loving her time with Delaney and Dada (known later as Vinegar Joe) which she formed with her first husband Pete Gage. “After I left the Whiskey A Go Go, I started to do a lot of cabaret stuff, and I didn’t particularly like it. I was on my own, having to put up with a lot of the house bands at these clubs that couldn’t really read my music.”

In 1964 she was one of the supporting artists for The Beatles’ Christmas shows at Hammersmith Odeon. To her, “it was just another show, a way to earn the week’s rent for my flat, I didn’t think too much of it at the time.” Though she acknowledges The Beatles “have written some amazing songs”, unlike her husband she’s not much of a fan, favouring The Who and The Stones.

Ten years after that gig, her debut solo album came out, complete with a sleeve that caused the record to be banned in certain places. “It was considered rather risqué,” she says of the artwork in which she appears in a somewhat revealing feathered garment, though nothing smutty by today’s standards. “I’ve always had a reasonably good body,” says the singer, a black belt in aikido since 1995. “I’ve always danced, I’ve always been quite physical, I’ve done skating, I was good at netball and rounders at school.” Her parents approved of the cover, “My mother thought ‘dancer’s body, she looks great.’ Since then I’ve toned it down a bit, on the album sleeves anyway; rather than focus on that, let them listen to the album, then they can judge and be critical.”

She hasn’t released an album for some time, though Virgin EMI did bring out a ‘best of’ about two years ago. She has new songs however, for a record being recorded at the moment and coming out in 2020, “all being well”. It will be her 21st studio album, and the forth under the management of her son Jay and his wife Joanna. Tom Jones had his son managing him before she did – “It’s not that unusual,” she says appropriately. Jay was with her on the road from when he was a baby, as was her younger son Joey. “He certainly knows the business, and is also a fine musician.” He and Joanna are “really good business-minded people” for whom she has “enormous respect”.

At the time of talking she’s in the middle of planning her set list for Cornbury Music Festival. In the past she’s done shows where she’s avoided the songs she’s known for, and just sang what she wanted, “a bit self-indulgent”. Paying people want to hear the likes of ‘Pearl’s A Singer’, she says, and she does still enjoy doing the hits, lots of which “transpose very well from record to live performance”. She’s changed their arrangements across the years to keep her and the band enthused by them. Audiences aren’t fools, she says, “They know whether you’re enjoying yourself or not.”

Are there any songs she wrote decades back about one person, which she now sings about another? “I never really think of it like that.” What is she thinking when she pens a song? “I have no idea,” she says in the same honest vein with which she talks about the Beatles, “I think I go to planet Zog.”

Elkie Brooks plays Cornbury Music Festival 6 July cornburyfestival.com

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