Today, Vinegar Joe is best remembered for launching the careers of Robert Palmer and Elkie Brooks. The band had risen from the ashes of a group called Dada intended by co-founder Pete Gage as "a combination of Mothers of Invention/Frank Zappa, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and The 5th Dimension. Power vocalists plus brass and crazy arrangements." But that heady brew was too much for Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun who urged Dada to strip away the fusion elements and concentrate on blues and rock. The result was Vinegar Joe, and late in 2021, the band's three albums plus bonus tracks were collected by Cherry Red's Esoteric Recordings arm on the 3-CD collection Finer Things: The Island Recordings 1972-1973.
In the late Malcolm Dome's fine liner notes for the box set - the esteemed journalist sadly passed away in October 2021 - Pete Gage recalls the likes of Phil Collins and Bryan Ferry being considered for Vinegar Joe (the name of which had come from Island Records chief Chris Blackwell). But the band - which was ten-strong in Dada - dropped the brass section, drummer Martyn Harryman, and keyboardist Don Chin and settled on a slimmed-down five-piece lineup of vocalists Elkie Brooks and Robert Palmer (who also contributed percussion and guitar, respectively), lead guitarist (and Brooks' then-husband) Gage, bassist Steve York, and keyboardist Tim Hinkley.
Robert Palmer and Pete Gage, who also co-produced with Vic Smith, each brought a stack of songs to the recording sessions for the band's 1972 self-titled debut. Though Dada's original horn section had been jettisoned, multi-instrumentalists Dave Thompson and Dave Brooks brought along their woodwinds while Roger Ball, Malcolm Duncan, and Mike Rosen provided brass. Keef Hartley and Conrad Isadore guested on drums, and Gaspar Lawal added percussion. Vinegar Joe bore Dada's influence on the psychedelic "See the World (Through My Eyes)," written by Gage for Palmer's voice. "Early Morning Monday," sung with torch-song fervor by Brooks, hinted at the direction her later solo career would take. Palmer was already displaying his own distinctive voice on his own compositions, too, such as the rootsy, Elton John-esque "Circles." The progressive nature of the album was revealed through its eclectic material including Gage and Brooks' "Avinu Malkenu," inspired by Brooks' upbringing and featuring Hebrew lyrics.
The band's sophomore set, Rock 'n Roll Gypsies, would arrive later in 1972. This time, the directive was made clear to Pete Gage: "[The songs] all had to be bluesy stompers for Atco to back us in the U.S., as we had been told to model ourselves on Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dr. Hook, The Band, Janis Joplin." Before recording commenced, Tim Hinkley left the band and was replaced by Mike Deacon. Keef Hartley returned on drums, and was supported by John Woods as second drummer, while Jim Mullen joined on guitar.
Gage pulled out his slide guitar, inspired by Duane Allman and Ry Cooder. While Gage and Palmer both contributed strong original material, three covers were selected to round out the album: "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," Jimi Hendrix's "Angel" (which had only premiered on his posthumous Cry of Love in 1971), and the little-known oldie "Rock 'n Roll Gypsies" (first recorded in 1965 by Gypsy Trips on the band's lone single) which gave the album its title. Brooks remembers that all of the material on the album had been road-tested, adding to the LP's organic, immediate sound. Unfortunately, Rock 'n Roll Gypsies didn't quite break the band in America. It did chart, however, barely missing the Billboard 200 at No. 201!
Still trying to break the North American market, Vinegar Joe toured the U.S. in early 1973 playing on bills with such artists as Nils Lofgren's Grin and Ted Nugent. When the time came to record 1973's Six Star General back in the U.K., the fluid line-up had changed once again. Brooks, Palmer, Gage, Deacon, and York remained, with Pete Gavin appearing on drums and percussion. John Woods again took the second drummer's seat. Produced by the solo Pete Gage and engineered and co-produced by Mike Ross, Six Star General retreated from the strict rock-and-roll approach to employ experimentation more in the mold of Dada. Ross aided Gage in using the studio as another instrument on tracks including the dramatic, shape-shifting "Black Smoke Rising from the Calumet" with the band members comprising the vocal group "The Vinegarettes." Mike Deacon utilized the Moog to add a spacey quality to "Talkin' Bout My Baby" and "Stay True to Yourself."
While the album proved that Vinegar Joe was still evolving, the band's offstage fortunes weren't so great. Pete Gage recalls actress Vanessa Redgrave, with whom they had shared a bill at a benefit concert in September 1973, pushing the group to become more politically active. Then Gage hit upon the notion of staging a mugging for publicity which left his wife Brooks with a bruised face. The stunt didn't work, and by spring 1974, the bandmates decided to go their separate ways. Island's Chris Blackwell, whom the band believed had long wanted to promote Robert Palmer as a solo artist, seized upon the opportunity to do so.
Both Palmer and Brooks went on to successful solo careers. Pete Gage moved into production (Joan Armatrading, The Meteors) and Steve York became a respected session bassist (Laura Branigan, Marianne Faithfull). Palmer died in 2003 and York in 2020. Esoteric's celebration of Vinegar Joe's legacy features four bonus tracks (all single sides) spread across the three albums which have been remastered from the original Island Records tapes by Ben Wiseman. The clamshell case contains a 32-page booklet with Dome's notes as well as many photos and memorabilia images. Album art has been recreated for each album, with the latter two featuring gatefold sleeves.
Finer Things: The Island Recordings 1972-1973 proves that Vinegar Joe was more than just a springboard for Robert Palmer and Elkie Brooks. Look for it at the links below.
CD 1: Vinegar Joe (Island ILPS 9183, 1972)
- Rusty Red Armour
- Early Morning Monday
- Ride Me, Easy Rider
- Leg Up
- See the World (Through My Eyes)
- Never Met a Dog (That Took to Me)
- Avinu Malkenu
- Gettin' Out
- Live a Little, Get Somewhere
- Speed Queen of Ventura (Island single WIP 6125, 1972)
CD 2: Rock 'n Roll Gypsies (Island ILPS 9214, 1972)
- So Long
- Charley's Horse
- Rock 'n Roll Gypsies
- It's Gettin' to the Point
- Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On
- Buddy Can You Spare Me a Line?
- No One Ever Do
- Forgive Us
- Rock 'n Roll Gypsies (Single Version) (Island single WIP 6148, 1972)
CD 3: Six Star General (Island ILPS 9262, 1973)
- Proud to Be (A Honky Woman)
- Food for Thought
- Dream My Own Dreams
- Lady of the Rain
- Stay True to Yourself
- Black Smoke Rising from the Calumet
- Giving Yourself Away
- Talkin' 'Bout My Baby
- Let Me Down Easy
- Fine Thing
- Long Way Round (Island single WIP 6174, 1973)
- Black Smoke Rising from the Calumet (Single Version) (Island single WIP 6174, 1973)