Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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ERROL BROWN: A Fondent Farewell

Errol Brown @Blues and Soul
Errol Brown @Blues and Soul Errol Brown @Blues and Soul Hot Chocolate: Remember When? Iconic Album Cover: Hot Chocolate - 20 Hottest Hits

With their 14-year run of hit singles from 1970 to 1984, London-based Hot Chocolate became one of the most consistently successful groups in UK chart history. This February sees the outfitâs charismatic former front-man/key songwriter Errol Brown historically embarking on a 21-date Farewell Tour of the UK.

The only group - and one of only three acts, period - to have scored a hit in every year of the Seventies, Hot Chocolate impressively clocked up no less than 25 British Top 40 singles during their time together; beginning with their Top 10 debut âLove Is Lifeâ in August 1970, and ending with the Number 13 success of âI Gave You My Heartâ in February 1984. Indeed, with seductive, bald-headed lead singer Errol Brown becoming almost a UK substitute for harder-hitting US soul love-gods-of-the-day like Isaac Hayes, the five-piece multi-racial combo had already become inextricably entwined with British Seventies pop culture by the time their sixteenth single - the haunting âSo You Win Againâ - became their first (and only) British chart-topper in 1977.

Having begun their recording career back in 1969 with a reggae version of John Lennonâs âGive Peace a Chanceâ (released on The Beatlesâ Apple label), Hot Chocolate - in collaboration with British pop mega-producer Mickie Most (for whose RAK label they recorded during the whole of their aforementioned hit-making period) - arguably peaked during the disco era of the mid-to-late Seventies. When their two biggest international smashes - 1975âs âYou Sexy Thingâ and 1978âs âEvery Oneâs A Winnerâ - also significantly saw them hit the US Top Ten. Nevertheless, their success continued well into the Eighties, via Top Five entries like 1980âs âNo Doubt About Itâ and 1982âs âIt Started With A Kissâ. Which, in autumn 2004, became voted by the UK public as one of the Top 20 love songs of all time.

With Errol himself leaving the band in 1985, his career as a solo artist (which peaked with the Number 25 success of his 1987 single âPersonal Touchâ) never came close to repeating the groundbreaking success heâd formerly enjoyed as a member of Hot Chocolate. Nevertheless, the enduring appeal of the bandâs aforementioned mid-Seventies disco-funker âYou Sexy Thingâ has since seen it officially become the only track to achieve British Top 10 status in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties; with much of its ongoing appeal being credited to its appearances in a string of films (most notably the 1997 male stripper comedy âThe Full Montyâ). While the lasting impact made by Hot Chocolateâs music in general has been proven by the Platinum-selling UK chart-topping success of two compilations - 1987âs âThe Very Best Of Hot Chocolateâ and 1993âs âTheir Greatest Hitsâ.

Meanwhile, Kingston, Jamaica-born Errolâs role key role in Hot Chocolateâs success (as both lead singer and primary songwriter) has more recently seen him being awarded with an MBE for Services To Music by The Queen in 2003 and, in 2004, an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music. A keen golfer, Brown now lives with his wife of over 30 years - Ginette - in The Bahamas. From where he speaks in-depth about his trailblazing career to âBlues & Soulââs ever-attentive Pete Lewis on the eve of his forthcoming final British tour.

What was the thinking behind your upcoming UK Farewell Tour?

âReally the thinking came out of the blue, to be honest. I did a tour of the UK four years ago and, at the time, told my close friends and family that that was it - Iâd done my thing. But then, in late 2007, I began to think that it wasnât a good idea just to drift away and that, because of the support and love Iâd had over all the years, that I should come out and say âGoodbye and thank youâ. So for this tour weâre gonna just go down Memory Lane and reminisce. Youâre gonna get 15 or 16 of the hit records Iâve had. And, with me having toured solo since 1991, I do have a full band with a drummer, bass-player, two keyboard players, backing vocalists... the whole thing.â

Whatâs the best part of performing live to you?

âFor me the greatest joy of it all is to see the pleasure the audience gets out of me singing the songs. Because thatâs something you donât get when youâre in the studio, or when youâre writing. You only get that when you come out face-to-face and you see how much the people loved and grew up with these songs, and how much they still mean to them. Which in turn brings a new freshness to ME, because it reminds me of how much they meant to me as WELL!â

How do you feel your early upbringing in Jamaica impacted on you personally and musically?

âWell, my life was very difficult in the early days. I was a single-parent child. My father didnât really figure much in my life. And, when my mother first left to come to England, she left me back in Jamaica with an aunty for five years. But you never know how things turn out. And later on in my life, as a songwriter, I DREW on some of that. Even with songs like âIt Started With A Kissâ, which was about my first puppy-love at school in Jamaica! You know, when you donât have a solid family base, that does all impact on your emotional character. Plus, with all the calypso music I heard early on in Jamaica being very story-orientated stuff, I think some of my early songs - like âBrother Louieâ and âEmmaâ - did reflect that story-telling element.â

And how did moving to the UK at age 12 affect you?

âComing to England to be with my mother of course represented a big change of culture for me. And musically thatâs when I first began to soak up the rock, the soul and the Motown stuff. I really enjoyed The Beatles, The Rolling Stones... And it did all influence me TOTALLY. In that, when I started to make music myself, it was very much both soul AND rock & roll-based. You know, back then the groups tended to be either âa soul bandâ or âa rock bandâ. Whereas MY thing was purely about the SONG. You know, if I wrote a song and I thought I needed rock guitar on it, Iâd USE it. If I needed strings or harpsichord, or any other instrument I felt would make the song real, Iâd USE it... Basically it was the combination of the cultures in me - black and white - that really became the basis of my music.â

So how did you start doing music professionally?

âThe whole thing about me actually being successful in pop music is quite incredible. Because, while most singers/songwriters grew up wanting to be just that, I never DID! I never even THOUGHT about it! I sang in the church choir for a couple of years; I could sing along to records on the radio⦠And that was it! But it was actually when I was living in West Hampstead - and I became friendly with some neighbours who were musicians - that I became more involved in music. After the death of my mother round about 1963, Iâd become a young boy who was basically alone. And I began to get these words and melodies in my head, which I think may have come from the shock of all that. So, while I was hanging out with these guys, Iâd start humming and singing along to these melodies. To the point where one day one of them - Tony Wilson - said âYou have these melodies that I think are very catchy. Would you like to write songs?â⦠And thatâs how I started! Out of the blue! And it was like a duck finding water, to be honest! It was like Iâd suddenly discovered what I was meant to DO!â

Your first single was a reggae cover of John Lennonâs âGive Peace A Chanceâ, which was released on The Beatlesâ label Apple in 1969. What was the story there?

âMyself and Tony Wilson decided we were gonna reggae-fy some popular songs of the day to try and make some money. So I decided, with âGive Peace A Chanceâ, Iâd change the Lennon lyrics and add my own! But then, after listening to it, the guy whoâd financed the demo session was outraged! He was like âYou canât do that to a John Lennon song! Youâve gotta get permission first!â! Which I didnât even KNOW! So he then said heâd send it to the Apple record label, and ask for permission. Which made us laugh, because those were the days when anything to do with The Beatles was like iconic! So I totally forgot about it. Until a week or so later, when he rang and said âYouâd better sit down. Lennon has heard this, he loves it, and wants to put it out on the Apple label right away!â... Then someone in the Apple office named us âThe Hot Chocolate Bandâ; the record came out; had a lot of airplay⦠but didnât really do that well. So that was the end of that!â

You then changed your name to simply âHot Chocolateâ after signing with UK pop super-producer Mickie Mostâs RAK label, where you remained until the mid-Eightiesâ¦

âWhen we first went to Mickie Most, he was already aware of the âGive Peace A Chanceâ record. But, while he liked our name, he was like âIâm not really keen on the âBandâ part, âcause a band doesnât sound like itâs gonna last 10 yearsâ⦠And, while I kinda laughed to myself, thinking â10 years? TWO years maybe!â, even at that early stage he already had that vision for us. So we dropped the âBandâ, and just became âHot Chocolateâ. And the first record Mickie produced for us - âLove Is Lifeâ - went to Number Six in 1970. But what I most remember about Mickie is you had to have a very strong stomach to work for him! Because youâd go to him to play your songs that youâd spent three/four months working on, and which you thought were fantastic; heâd put it on, listen to a verse, then move on to the next⦠And, if you got to a chorus, then youâd know something was going on! You know, all your ego had to go out the window! But I had SO much respect for him. Heâd sold millions of records, his ears were great, and I never found anyone like him again.â

You were definitely pioneers, in the sense of being a multi-cultural UK group that incorporated elements of soul, funk, pop and rock into your musicâ¦

âYeah, we definitely were ahead. Because nobody British had really done that before. Except maybe the Equals, whoâd touched on that same multi-racial-group kind of movement. Because at that time, as I said earlier, if you werenât either soul or rock but somewhere in the middle, people had a problem knowing where to put you. And it did take time for that to change. But with us I just think we were always very aware of how important it was just to do our thing, and not become copiers. We basically just wanted to be real, and progress as artists. And - though we were a little bit ahead of our time - we still made it, because the songs themselves were emotionally truthful and people CONNECTED with them.â

Hot Chocolateâs first taste of controversy came with your racially-provocative 1973 Top 10 hit âBrother Louieâ. Which - when covered by Stories - also gave you, as a writer, a Number One song in Americaâ¦

âIâm very proud of that song, because it reflected a situation that I grew up in. I grew up as a young boy in England; I had multi-racial girlfriends... And thereâd be times when youâd meet the girl around the corner, because the parents werenât too happy about her hanging out with YOU! So the idea of the song was very tricky. But I think we were very clever with it. Because what I did was to express that, if a black boy was going with a white girl, it wasnât only that the WHITE parents would have a problem. I also wanted to show that, on the other side, the BLACK parents would have a problem too! So lyrically the song balanced the situation out nicely, and it WORKED! Though, when it came to the American version by The Stories, they werenât that brave! Because they took out the controversial spoken bits - âI donât want no honky in my familyâ and âI donât want no spook in my familyâ - and just made a pure pop song out of it.â

Then your biggest - and most famous - international hit came in 1975, with the cheeky disco-funk of the now-legendary âYou Sexy Thingââ¦

âWell, âYou Sexy Thingâ has a life of its OWN! I first took it to Mickey, strummed it on my guitar⦠And, once I did a verse and chorus, he was like Thatâs a smash!â. Which is what I was HOPING heâd say! But then, while we were in the studio doing it, he came up to me and said âItâs not happeningâ. So, with us doing another song at the same session called âBlue Nightâ, he decided to follow-up âEmmaâ in America with âBlue Nightâ and put out âSexy Thingâ on the B-side. But then âBlue Nightâ became probably the worst flop weâd ever had! Until, somewhere in the middle of America, some important DJ turned the record over - and the American record company rang up RAK to say âDJs in America donât understand why âSexy Thingâ is on the B-side!â. So they asked us to redeliver the record. But, because when Iâd sung âYou Sexy Thingâ in the studio I was just messing around, it was actually a key too high for me! So I was like âNo, Iâm not having thatâ, and decided to re-sing it in a lower tone! So we sent it back to The States re-recorded, and they were like âWhat have you DONE? Thatâs no GOOD! We want that QURIKY stuff!â⦠So the original version of âSexy Thingâ then came out in the US and in the UK - and it was a SMASH! But, without that DJ, it would never have seen the light of day!â

So why do you think âYou Sexy Thingâ has had - and continues to have - such an enduring appeal?

âBecause itâs such a joyous song! I remember when I thought of the title I had a shiver go through me! âCause it was such a nice way of using sex in a title without it being crude. You know, âyou sexy thingâ is a hook thatâll last for decades and decades, because itâs such a nice, pleasant thing to say to somebody! Which is why that song will always do well.â

And why do you feel Hot Chocolate as a group had such long-lasting success?

âThe reason was twofold. First, I was fortunate enough to be able to write commercial songs without really thinking about it. You know, I was a natural writer of popular songs. I never had to sit down and think âGotta write a hit!â. Iâd just live my life. And then, all of a sudden, out of something I was doing, would come a hook - and Iâd write the song! It was effortless really. And then we also, in Mickie Most, had the fortune of working with a producer and label-boss who had great ears for songs, and that cannot be underestimated. Plus the group themselves were not egotistical at all. They were a good, hard-working bunch of guys. And, while the last five years were admittedly a bit of a strain, we genuinely had a lotta fun together for 10 whole years! We loved the fans. We loved seeing the whole thing growing - playing bigger venues, travelling abroad⦠It was just one wonderful, ever-rising career.â

So what was the situation behind you leaving Hot Chocolate in 1985?

âWell, the leaving actually began in about â82, when I realised that I was coming to the end of my creativeness. From about â81 on Iâd been struggling to write and couldnât come up with anything. I felt tired, and I felt - rightly or wrongly - that everything was on my shoulders. You know, the other members of the band were happy to relax and enjoy their lives, while I was struggling and striving to come up with something. I felt it was too much pressure, and overall I just felt that Iâd done my thing. The relationship within the band was changing - as people do - and it just wasnât FUN anymore. So I left.â

How do you feel about the general lack of success you then had with your solo career?

âIt was a very unfortunate thing. My first solo record on Warner Brothers was a song called âPersonal Touchâ. And I guess when things are meant to be, and when theyâre NOT meant to be, is a funny thing. One of the things I found out when I left Hot Chocolate was that itâs amazing how you can be in a group for so many years, and people are still not familiar with your name. I mean, I love UB40 and the stuff they do. But I canât for the life of me remember the guyâs name who sang lead on their hits, though I love his voice. And what I realised was that, when people said âErrol Brownâ, it just wasnât immediately obvious to the public that it was the lead singer of Hot Chocolate. So, I guess a successful solo career just wasnât meant to be! But, you know, itâs OK!â

So, returning to the Hot Chocolate days, what was it like performing at Prince Charles and Princess Diâs wedding reception back in â81?

âThe Royal Wedding reception was special, in the sense that itâs the first time Iâd been onstage and all I could see was tiaras glistening in the night! You know, the Kings and Queens from around the world were there, and it was a very special day. I particularly remember doing the soundcheck at The Palace, when one of the roadies shouted âPrincess Dianaâs coming up the corridor!â. And how some people were so in awe of her that they were like scampering out because they couldnât face the fact she was gonna be walking in the same room! It was really strange! I remember her coming over to me to thank me for coming, and thinking what a tall and pretty lady she was! Then, about 15 minutes later, Prince Charles came in and did the same thing! And itâs strange, in terms of that situation, to sit back and look at life and see how itâs developed since then.â

And the numerous prestigious accolades that have been bestowed upon you in recent years?

âThe MBE was special, in the sense that my mother would have been really thrilled. Because she did so much for her only child. You know, she struggled to do the best for me, but died at the age of 38. So, from that point of view, I was thrilled to get the MBE. While the Ivor Novello Award to me was the icing on the cake, and something I really hold dear to my heart. Because itâs basically saying âYou did do some good work!â!â

So do current and future plans involve music?

âIâm still gonna be SLIGHTLY involved. Because I went somewhere about two years ago, and this girl stood up and sang - and knocked me over! So Iâve been working with her for a little while, and we are hopeful of getting a deal with her in America over the coming year. So I may keep my eyes on that and see how THAT develops. But, apart from that, Iâm gonna be on the golf course! I have a group of good friends and we all hang out. So yeah, Iâm intending to enjoy the rest of my life! You know, Iâm 60 now - and timeâs moved on! But I definitely would like to say a big thanks to all the fans for all the memories. Because Iâve had a great life, thanks to them - and their love and appreciation is something I will always cherish!â

Errol's UK Farewell Tour runs from February 1 through to February 26

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