(Pictured: Hot Chocolate plays Top of the Pops in 1974. Errol Brown is second from left.)
I was saddened to hear of the death earlier this week of Errol Brown, lead singer of Hot Chocolate. I don’t write about every musician who passes, but this particular passing is one that smacked me harder than most, because I have been a Hot Chocolate fan from the first time I ever heard them, 40 years ago this spring, when “Emma” climbed into the American Top 10.
By 1975, Hot Chocolate was already well established in the UK. They’d hit the British charts seven times between the summer of 1970 and the end of 1974. “Emma” and three other singles made the Top 10. Between 1975 and 1998, they would chart 29 more times in the UK (including remakes and reissues). Their lone British #1 was “So You Win Again” in 1977, but “You Sexy Thing” had the distinction of making the Top 10 three different times: in 1975, 1987, and 1997, the last time thanks to its inclusion in the movie The Full Monty. They made the British charts every year between 1970 and 1982, a feat managed by only two other acts: Elvis and Diana Ross (and Hot Chocolate’s streak lasted through 1984).
Hot Chocolate’s tally of hits in the States is far smaller: eight Hot 100 singles between 1975 and 1982, three hitting the Top 10: “Emma” and “You Sexy Thing” along with “Every 1’s a Winner” in 1979. “So You Win Again,” which ran three weeks at #1 in the UK, managed only #31 in the States. The ferocious “Disco Queen” got only to #28 on the Hot 100. The group’s other three singles failed to make the Top 40.
Hot Chocolate was the first to hit with two songs that became familiar in the United States by others. “You Could Have Been a Lady,” which was a modest American hit for the Canadian band April Wine in 1972, had been a modest UK hit for Hot Chocolate almost exactly one year before. (Go watch the video and notice how incredibly hard their version rocks. Notice also the deeply weird setting for the video.) Their “Brother Louie” made the UK Top 10 a few weeks before Stories’ version hit #1 in the States. Where Stories hints at racist reactions to “Brother Louie”‘s interracial romance, Hot Chocolate’s version is explicit about them. We hear the fathers tell their children, “I don’t want no honky/no spook in my family.”
If you do not love “You Sexy Thing,” we should probably stop seeing each other. Likewise “Emma.” But if you’re looking for good songs you don’t know, I can recommend “It Started With a Kiss,” which hit #5 in the UK in 1982. “No Doubt About It,” which went to #2 in 1980, is an oddball in the Hot Chocolate catalog—not a love song or a song about dancing—it’s sung by a guy who’s seen a flying saucer. “I’ll Put You Together Again,” which reached #12 in the UK at the end of 1978, is the classic that got away, at least from American audiences. It’s simple and lovely and a tremendous performance.
Errol Brown’s story is quite interesting: a native of Jamaica, he got his first break in music when he cut a reggae version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and got it released with Lennon’s blessing. Brown and his songwriting partner, Tony Wilson, were signed to Apple’s publishing arm, and the name of the group they formed was suggested by Apple executive Derek Taylor’s secretary. Hot Chocolate performed at a pre-wedding reception held for Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981. Brown left Hot Chocolate in 1985 to spend more time with his family, although he also worked as a solo artist. In 2003, he was awarded an MBE. He’s survived by his wife of 35 years and two daughters. He was 71 years old.