Hot Chocolate are the epitome of the oft used `guilty pleasures` label. Lots of people like their songs, as evidenced by the fulsome tributes yesterday following the death of singer Errol Brown, yet few would admit it. In the Seventies their ubiquitous chart presence over a number of years never seemed to create much attention yet clearly droves of people must have been buying their records. They didn’t fit into any genre yet if they were discussed it was usually by music critics who dismissed them as `middle of the road`. Yet Hot Chocolate possessed something intangible, a sense –similar to that of Abba- that they sat at the nexus of emotions which they were able to generate in the midst of music that could lazily be labelled bland but was full of unexpected depth. In Errol Brown they had a singer who could convincingly convey joy or hurt with equal power.
The way that Hot Chocolate could encapsulate moods in a song rank them amongst pop’s greats. It didn’t matter what that mood was. At a young age I remember being somewhat spooked by``Emma`, a song with a strange undertow. `You Sexy Thing` is such a buoyant celebration. The group’s masterpiece though is `It Started With A Kiss`, a brilliant song about the difference between the innocence of first love and the bitterness of growing up. As with all their songs, it is Errol Brown who puts all that over. You used to see him regularly on TOTP looking cool as you like and wonder how his voice could generate such dramatic, emotional conviction.
The other remarkable thing about Hot Chocolate was their multi- racial line up. We take this sort of thing for granted now, but at the time there were white groups and black groups but rarely did we see groups with both black and white members until the late 1970s. They were different times and I supposed it’s a sign of how little the media troubled them that this fact was rarely remarked upon and seems more significant in retrospect. The singer himself acknowledged this when he said ' it was the combination of the cultures in me - black and white - that really became the basis of my music.”
Errol Brown was born in Jamaica and was brought to the UK by his mother when he was 12. Hot Chocolate formed in the late 1960s and in 1970 came under the auspices of record producer Mickie Most. Most of their songs were co-written by Errol Brown with bass player Tony Wilson and the duo also penned hits for other artists like Herman’s Hermits and Mary Hopkin. Their run of hits started with `Brother Louie` about an inter-racial affair and `Emma` released in 1974 and concerning the death of Errol Brown’s mother. `Everyone’s A Winner` and `You Sexy Thing` became enormous worldwide hits both reaching the top 5 of the US charts. Oddly their only UK number one `So You Win Again` wasn’t written by the band but Brown nonetheless imbues it with an appropriate sense of resignation. The group had at least one hit in the UK charts in every year of the Seventies,
`It Started with a Kiss` was their last big hit in 1982 by which time Brown was writing alone, Wilson having left the group. After the group split Errol Brown has a couple of solo hits but left the music business so he could spend more time with his family. This was especially important after his own experiences of being abandoned by his father as well as the early death of his mother. He also had a parallel career as a racehorse trainer.
Errol Brown was under-rated in his heyday but latterly he and Hot Chocolate’s musical spell has been more appreciated particularly since their music has been used in a number of films and tv shows in particular The Full Monty. It was the latter that prompted him to undertake a farewell tour during which he was overwhelmed by the positive reaction he received. In 2003 he received an MBE and the following year an Ivor Novello Award for his contribution to British music which seems a fitting tribute to one of UK pop music’s more modest yet talented performers.