[Elkie Brooks] begins playing with the words and syllables in the verses, twisting them around, going alternately big and dramatic and then soft and intense, as she teases every possible drop of drama and intensity from the song…
Vinegar Joe, it is probably fair to say, are one of those bands who occupied the second tier of early ’70s British rock, just below the Sabbaths and Purples of this world, but still a decided cut above the large shoal of unheralded fish swimming around at the bottom of the festival bill circuit. They were never a massive commercial success, but they were a respected band who pulled in decent crowds and – a widely accepted trademark of quality – appeared in the studio on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Cut from a rough sort of bluesy rock mode, it wouldn’t be a big stretch to bracket them alongside Stone The Crows or the 1970s incarnation of The Pretty Things as far as profile and general appeal went. Time has not been kind to Vinegar Joe, however, and there seem to be few avowed fans of the band to be found today. Indeed, most people when asked about the band will fall into one of two camps: the first will reply ‘who??’, while the second group will stroke their chins and say ‘ah, wasn’t that the band which Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer were in before they went solo?’ – and of course, that latter group will be correct, as Vinegar Joe were almost uniquely in the position of being a fairly unheralded band who went on to launch not one but two massively successful solo careers. This, of course, makes them a rather interesting curio for a lot of people, all of whom will now be able to see what this much rawer and dirtier start was like for those two impressive singers. The short answer, of course, is ‘rather different’.
Elkie Brooks (real name Elaine Bookbinder, as it happens) is the one with the biggest reinvention, as she went from hot-and-nasty blues hollerer and general livewire rock chick, especially on stage, to the later purveyor of big ballads and light bluesy pop-rock material – though it is very possible here and there to perceive the roots of her delivery of such great songs as Lilac Wine and Don’t Cry Out Loud. Her solo breakthrough Pearl’s A Singer, mind you, could actually have fitted onto a Vinegar Joe album without too much trouble. In the case of Palmer, he was already cultivating his ‘sharp dressed, clean cut’ image while in Vinegar Joe, sporting short hair for the time after the first album or so, but his smooth pop-rock groove in evidence on Addicted To Love or Bad Case Of Loving You is absolutely nowhere to be seen at all here.
The set contains three albums, being the total output of the band before they imploded somewhat prematurely after the Six Star General album in 1973, and the three releases, while not differing wildly from the same general template, do display enough development to show differing facets of the band. The first release, in 1972, was the self titled album – which featured a rather bizarre plasticene model of the band on the cover! In fact, the band had evolved from an earlier outfit named Dada, and when they signed to Atlantic and changed the name, Island boss Chris Blackwell was adamant that Brooks (known as ‘Elk’ at this time) should leave, as he had much more faith in the band as a single male lead-vocal outfit. This suggestion was thankfully resisted, as Elkie’s performance on this first album, when she is allowed to shine, is quite astonishing. I say ‘when allowed to shine’ as several of the ten tracks on the album are Palmer vocals, with Brooks relegated to occasional harmony or backing vocals. She does get let off the leash either as sole lead voice or as a duet on a few songs, however, and these prove to be the highlights of the record – which musically is perhaps the most interesting of the three, still retaining some of the slightly more adventurous style of Dada.
There are a few helpings of blues on the album for sure, notably in the two Elkie-sung numbers Early Morning Monday and Ride Me Easy Rider, but although these could be relatively unremarkable in other hands, Elkie’s vocal performance is astonishing at times. Particularly in the latter track, she absolutely inhabits the lyric, alternately raunchy, tender and simply ball-bustingly feisty as the mood of the song takes her. Listen in particular towards the end of this track for an absolutely remarkable high-register extended vocal outburst best described as a melodious scream, delivered with a heavy vibrato twisting itself inside out while the purity of the note remains undiminished. I had to return to it the first time I played the track, it’s that good. Elsewhere on the album is plenty of variety, from the opening Dylan-esque country rock of Rusty Red Armour (Palmer channeling his ‘inner Bob’ for all he’s worth) and the rousing, infectious rocker Never Met A Dog (That Took To Me). Two of the most notable tracks, however, are the almost power-ballad pomp of Circles – the lead mainly sung by Palmer but using Elkie’s voice as accompaniment coming out of the side of the stereo separation in a brilliantly effective way – and the very unusual Avinu Malkenu. The latter is another slow yet dramatic piece sung by Elkie, with religious overtones, but the most unusual feature is a section of the lyric being in Hebrew. Brooks was of the Jewish faith, and the words come from a traditional prayer called Avinu Malkenu, which means ‘Our Father, Our King’. All in all, the album is a long way from the ‘funky blues-rock’ image which some people have of the band.
The follow-up, Rock ‘n’ Roll Gypsies, is by and large slightly more conventional, with plenty of blues and soul influences along with some nifty touches of boogie rock here and there, and the gatefold sleeve (faithfully reproduced herein) shows just what a powerhouse the band were – at least visually – on stage. Elkie looks about as different from her later housewife-friendly image as it’s possible to get, coming over like a born-again Janis Joplin in a remarkably strong visual image all round. The title track, also released as a single, is a standout, being a superb rock ballad as good as any of the time, and it really should have dented the chart. Elsewhere there’s a great cover of Hendrix’s song Angel, along with other standouts such as the almost proggy, guitar-led Charley’s Horse, Buddy Can You Spare Me A Line? and the immaculate closer Forgive Us. By this time Elkie is doing 90% of the lead vocals, and there is no doubt that her remarkable voice is the band’s chief Unique Selling Point. The cover of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On is skirting towards the ‘filler’ end of things, but it’s enjoyable enough, and fairly short in any case. Two albums in, and Vinegar Joe are a band who are clearly firing, if not on all cylinders, then certainly most of them!
The third album, Six Star General, proved to be the band’s last, as they disintegrated following Palmer jumping ship to go solo – something which caused some bitterness among other band members, as detailed in the booklet essay by Brooks and guitarist Pete Gage. Still, it’s another strong offering -the title coming from the fact that the band’s name came from the nickname of an actual US WWII general, Joseph Stilwell, and that they were a six-piece at the time. Overall the material is perhaps not quite as consistent as the first two albums (songs such as Stay True To Yourself and Talkin’ Bout My Baby lack the magic which most of the others possess), but Elkie is on prime blues-rocking, Jack-Daniels-And-Cigarettes form on the opener Proud To Be (A Honky Woman), which like many of their sings must have been an absolute stormer in the live arena. Best of all is the lengthy, slow, devious majesty of Black Smoke Rising From The Calumet, a song which Brooks delivers with the best performance of her whole career in the band. Opening as a deceptively low-key bluesy croon, it gradually builds, juxtaposing Elkie’s lead vocal with an spine-chillingly otherworldly harmony vocal delivering the title in the chorus (a calumet is, apparently, a sort of Native American ceremonial pipe, as I understand it). As the song approaches its end, she begins playing with the words and syllables in the verses, twisting them around, going alternately big and dramatic and then soft and intense, as she teases every possible drop of drama and intensity from the song. It was released as a single, and is also present in the edited version here, but the effect isn’t the same. You have to hear the full piece to get the full impact of that amazing vocal tour de force.
Following Palmer’s departure after the album’s release, Vinegar Joe had prematurely had their chips (sorry!), but thankfully Elkie Brooks went on to have the sort of success that her remarkable talent deserved – something sadly eluding that other similarly exceptional talent Maggie Bell, from Vinegar Joe’s contemporaries Stone The Crows. Indeed, the late ’70s and 1980s would have benefited greatly from both of these superb singers occupying the charts on a regular basis, but at least we got to hear more of Elkie, for which we should be thankful. Vinegar Joe may never have been a household name in themselves, but this set amply illustrates that they had far more going for them than simply being the launchpad for two solo careers. Three slabs of very British, very ’70s classic bluesy rock-and-soul, superbly presented in reproduction mini sleeves and as detailed a booklet as you could wish for. Very nice.