British singer Elkie Brooks became a household name in 1977 with Pearl’s a singer and was known for her gravelly voice. What few realised was that she had already been in the business 17 years by that time – and had cut a slew of great girl numbers for Decca, HMV and Brian Epstein’s NEMS record labels in the 1960s.
She was born Elaine Bookbinder on 25 February 1945 in Salford, north west England, and raised in nearby Prestwich. She came from a musical family – her father was a local bandleader and one of her brothers, Tony, went on to become the drummer for Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas (under the name Tony Mansfield).
After leaving school in 1960, she headed for London, where she performed with the Eric Delaney Band and jazz musician Humphrey Lyttelton.
For a while she used the stage name Elaine Mansfield, before deciding finally on Elkie Brooks.
After passing an audition, Don Arden (Sharon Osbourne’s father) became her manager. He saw her as a kind of Mancunian answer to Brenda Lee, though her voice had yet to develop the husky tones she would later be known for.
In 1964 she landed a recording contract with Decca.
One of the first things that label bosses did was to send her off to Belgium. There, she took part in the Knokke Cup, competing against the likes of Germany’s Ria Bartok and the Netherlands’ Rita Hovink and Trea Dobbs.
Something’s got a hold on me was issued as her debut single in June that year. Future Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is reported to have played on the track. The song, a cover of a two-year-old single by US soul singer Etta James, was a high-risk choice – its gospel intro was not a sound that British record buyers were overly familiar with, and the record sank.
Dutch listeners were equally perplexed when it was released in the Netherlands. The gentler Barbara Lewis ballad Hello stranger was covered for the B-side of both releases.
The wonderful Nothing left to do but cry was issued as the follow up in September that year and Elkie promoted the single in earnest, including making her debut television appearance. The song has gone on to find popularity on Britain’s northern soul dance scene, and Lulu also cut a version. (The B-side was the bluesy Strange tho’ it seems.)
Elkie gained further live experience by appearing on pop package tours alongside groups such as The Animals, and in late 1964 she supported The Beatles on tour, with The Yardbirds, Freddie and the Dreamers and others.
In 1965, Decca had both Elkie and Adrienne Poster record versions of The Temptations’ The way you do the things you do (see our Motown males tribute special). Only Elkie’s take was issued as an A-side, becoming her first single of the year. But it didn’t provide the hoped-for breakthrough hit and she switched to the HMV label.
First up for the new label was the release in spring 1965 of He’s gotta love me, a danceable track that is said to have been penned with the Eurovision song contest in mind. Kathy Kirby had been chosen to represent the UK in 1965, though she didn’t get to perform this song.
Elkie’s recording is generally considered one of her finest of the period. Kenny Lynch – the man behind later hits for Clodagh Rodgers in particular – had helped write the tune, and the flip, When you appear, was a collaboration between him and Clive Westlake, the writer of hits for the likes of Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield.
A version of the gentle Lesley Gore track All of my life was issued as the follow up in October that year. The B-side, Can’t stop thinking of you, was another bluesy number and another Lynch composition.
Around this time, Elkie was credited with having spotted the group The Small Faces. She was so impressed by them that she helped them find more work and even introduced them on stage.
In February 1966, Baby let me love you became her final single for HMV. The song was another Lynch/Westlake composition and it also gained a release in both Denmark and the Netherlands.
Elkie has made no secret of her lack of enthusiasm for the material she recorded at HMV, dismissing it as “meaningless” and having “no depth”.
Her disappointment when she joined Brian Epstein’s NEMS record label – home to the likes of Gerry and the Pacemakers – in 1969, then, must have been palpable. Come September, a song that Lulu had performed in A song for Europe and which finished third, was chosen as the A-side of Elkie’s first single for the label. Still, it was better than performing in cabaret in a succession of northern clubs – which is what she’d spent the intervening three years doing.
Just one further single, Groovie kinda love, credited to Elki and Owen and the Rim Ram Band, was issued on NEMS.
In 1970 she met guitarist Pete Gage. They pair married and formed the rock-fusion band Dada. When Robert Palmer joined them, they renamed themselves Vinegar Joe and achieved a certain notoriety for the sexual chemistry they displayed in their live performances. They won a contract with Island records but sales were sluggish and the band split in 1974.
Elkie signed to A&M the following year but it wasn’t until 1977 that she really hit big, scoring an international hit with Pearl’s a singer.
Further successes followed, including Sunshine after the rain later that year, and Lilac wine and Don’t cry out loud, both in 1978. That year she also married sound engineer Trevor Jordan.
Three years later, her album Pearls became the biggest-selling LP by a British female artist, spending 79 weeks on the UK charts and shifting over a million copies. In 1982, the single Fool if you think it’s over gave her another top 20 hit, while No more the fool, issued in 1986, proved her last top five success.
She carried on working throughout the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s.
By 2003, however, her star had waned and she took part in the TV talent contest Reborn in the USA, appearing alongside Gina G, Sonia, Michelle Gayle and others. She didn’t win but the show served to revive interest in her.
She continues to record and perform to this day.