ERROL BROWN: A Fondent Farewell
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 outfit’s 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 ‘Love Is Life’ in August 1970, and ending with the Number 13 success of ‘I Gave You My Heart’ 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 ‘So You Win Again’ - became their first (and only) British chart-topper in 1977.
Having begun their recording career back in 1969 with a reggae version of John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ (released on The Beatles’ 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 - 1975’s ‘You Sexy Thing’ and 1978’s ‘Every One’s A Winner’ - also significantly saw them hit the US Top Ten. Nevertheless, their success continued well into the Eighties, via Top Five entries like 1980’s ‘No Doubt About It’ and 1982’s ‘It Started With A Kiss’. 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 ‘Personal Touch’) never came close to repeating the groundbreaking success he’d formerly enjoyed as a member of Hot Chocolate. Nevertheless, the enduring appeal of the band’s aforementioned mid-Seventies disco-funker ‘You Sexy Thing’ 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 ‘The Full Monty’). While the lasting impact made by Hot Chocolate’s music in general has been proven by the Platinum-selling UK chart-topping success of two compilations - 1987’s ‘The Very Best Of Hot Chocolate’ and 1993’s ‘Their Greatest Hits’.
Meanwhile, Kingston, Jamaica-born Errol’s role key role in Hot Chocolate’s 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 ‘Blues & Soul’’s ever-attentive Pete Lewis on the eve of his forthcoming final British tour.
What was the thinking behind your upcoming UK Farewell Tour?
“Really 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 - I’d done my thing. But then, in late 2007, I began to think that it wasn’t a good idea just to drift away and that, because of the support and love I’d had over all the years, that I should come out and say ‘Goodbye and thank you’. So for this tour we’re gonna just go down Memory Lane and reminisce. You’re gonna get 15 or 16 of the hit records I’ve 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.”
What’s the best part of performing live to you?
“For me the greatest joy of it all is to see the pleasure the audience gets out of me singing the songs. Because that’s something you don’t get when you’re in the studio, or when you’re 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!”
How do you feel your early upbringing in Jamaica impacted on you personally and musically?
“Well, my life was very difficult in the early days. I was a single-parent child. My father didn’t 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 ‘It Started With A Kiss’, which was about my first puppy-love at school in Jamaica! You know, when you don’t 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 ‘Brother Louie’ and ‘Emma’ - did reflect that story-telling element.”
And how did moving to the UK at age 12 affect you?
“Coming to England to be with my mother of course represented a big change of culture for me. And musically that’s 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 ‘a soul band’ or ‘a rock band’. Whereas MY thing was purely about the SONG. You know, if I wrote a song and I thought I needed rock guitar on it, I’d USE it. If I needed strings or harpsichord, or any other instrument I felt would make the song real, I’d USE it... Basically it was the combination of the cultures in me - black and white - that really became the basis of my music.”
So how did you start doing music professionally?
“The 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, I’d 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, I’d start humming and singing along to these melodies. To the point where one day one of them - Tony Wilson - said ‘You have these melodies that I think are very catchy. Would you like to write songs?’… And that’s how I started! Out of the blue! And it was like a duck finding water, to be honest! It was like I’d suddenly discovered what I was meant to DO!”
Your first single was a reggae cover of John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace A Chance’, which was released on The Beatles’ label Apple in 1969. What was the story there?
“Myself 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 ‘Give Peace A Chance’, I’d change the Lennon lyrics and add my own! But then, after listening to it, the guy who’d financed the demo session was outraged! He was like ‘You can’t do that to a John Lennon song! You’ve gotta get permission first!’! Which I didn’t even KNOW! So he then said he’d 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 ‘You’d better sit down. Lennon has heard this, he loves it, and wants to put it out on the Apple label right away!’... Then someone in the Apple office named us ‘The Hot Chocolate Band’; the record came out; had a lot of airplay… but didn’t really do that well. So that was the end of that!”
You then changed your name to simply ‘Hot Chocolate’ after signing with UK pop super-producer Mickie Most’s RAK label, where you remained until the mid-Eighties…
“When we first went to Mickie Most, he was already aware of the ‘Give Peace A Chance’ record. But, while he liked our name, he was like ‘I’m not really keen on the ‘Band’ part, ’cause a band doesn’t sound like it’s gonna last 10 years’… And, while I kinda laughed to myself, thinking ’10 years? TWO years maybe!’, even at that early stage he already had that vision for us. So we dropped the ‘Band’, and just became ‘Hot Chocolate’. And the first record Mickie produced for us - ‘Love Is Life’ - 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 you’d go to him to play your songs that you’d spent three/four months working on, and which you thought were fantastic; he’d put it on, listen to a verse, then move on to the next… And, if you got to a chorus, then you’d know something was going on! You know, all your ego had to go out the window! But I had SO much respect for him. He’d sold millions of records, his ears were great, and I never found anyone like him again.”
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 music…
“Yeah, we definitely were ahead. Because nobody British had really done that before. Except maybe the Equals, who’d touched on that same multi-racial-group kind of movement. Because at that time, as I said earlier, if you weren’t 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.”
Hot Chocolate’s first taste of controversy came with your racially-provocative 1973 Top 10 hit ‘Brother Louie’. Which - when covered by Stories - also gave you, as a writer, a Number One song in America…
“I’m 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 there’d be times when you’d meet the girl around the corner, because the parents weren’t 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 wasn’t 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 weren’t that brave! Because they took out the controversial spoken bits - ‘I don’t want no honky in my family’ and ‘I don’t want no spook in my family’ - and just made a pure pop song out of it.”
Then your biggest - and most famous - international hit came in 1975, with the cheeky disco-funk of the now-legendary ‘You Sexy Thing’…
“Well, ‘You Sexy Thing’ 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 That’s a smash!’. Which is what I was HOPING he’d say! But then, while we were in the studio doing it, he came up to me and said ‘It’s not happening’. So, with us doing another song at the same session called ‘Blue Night’, he decided to follow-up ‘Emma’ in America with ‘Blue Night’ and put out ‘Sexy Thing’ on the B-side. But then ‘Blue Night’ became probably the worst flop we’d 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 ‘DJs in America don’t understand why ‘Sexy Thing’ is on the B-side!’. So they asked us to redeliver the record. But, because when I’d sung ‘You Sexy Thing’ in the studio I was just messing around, it was actually a key too high for me! So I was like ‘No, I’m not having that’, and decided to re-sing it in a lower tone! So we sent it back to The States re-recorded, and they were like ‘What have you DONE? That’s no GOOD! We want that QURIKY stuff!’… So the original version of ‘Sexy Thing’ 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!”
So why do you think ‘You Sexy Thing’ has had - and continues to have - such an enduring appeal?
“Because it’s such a joyous song! I remember when I thought of the title I had a shiver go through me! ‘Cause it was such a nice way of using sex in a title without it being crude. You know, “you sexy thing” is a hook that’ll last for decades and decades, because it’s such a nice, pleasant thing to say to somebody! Which is why that song will always do well.”
And why do you feel Hot Chocolate as a group had such long-lasting success?
“The 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 ‘Gotta write a hit!’. I’d just live my life. And then, all of a sudden, out of something I was doing, would come a hook - and I’d 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.”
So what was the situation behind you leaving Hot Chocolate in 1985?
“Well, the leaving actually began in about ’82, when I realised that I was coming to the end of my creativeness. From about ’81 on I’d been struggling to write and couldn’t 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 I’d done my thing. The relationship within the band was changing - as people do - and it just wasn’t FUN anymore. So I left.”
How do you feel about the general lack of success you then had with your solo career?
“It was a very unfortunate thing. My first solo record on Warner Brothers was a song called ‘Personal Touch’. And I guess when things are meant to be, and when they’re NOT meant to be, is a funny thing. One of the things I found out when I left Hot Chocolate was that it’s 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 can’t for the life of me remember the guy’s name who sang lead on their hits, though I love his voice. And what I realised was that, when people said ‘Errol Brown’, it just wasn’t immediately obvious to the public that it was the lead singer of Hot Chocolate. So, I guess a successful solo career just wasn’t meant to be! But, you know, it’s OK!”
So, returning to the Hot Chocolate days, what was it like performing at Prince Charles and Princess Di’s wedding reception back in ’81?
“The Royal Wedding reception was special, in the sense that it’s the first time I’d 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 ‘Princess Diana‘s coming up the corridor!’. And how some people were so in awe of her that they were like scampering out because they couldn’t 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 it’s strange, in terms of that situation, to sit back and look at life and see how it’s developed since then.”
And the numerous prestigious accolades that have been bestowed upon you in recent years?
“The 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 it’s basically saying ‘You did do some good work!’!”
So do current and future plans involve music?
“I’m 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 I’ve 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, I’m gonna be on the golf course! I have a group of good friends and we all hang out. So yeah, I’m intending to enjoy the rest of my life! You know, I’m 60 now - and time’s moved on! But I definitely would like to say a big thanks to all the fans for all the memories. Because I’ve had a great life, thanks to them - and their love and appreciation is something I will always cherish!”
Errol's UK Farewell Tour runs from February 1 through to February 26
Words PETE LEWIS