The Big Life

Erroll Brown: Hot Chocolate’s High Life

The lead singer of Hot Chocolate had a rep as a disco smoothie, but he was actually a conservative Jamaican gentleman.

Erroll Brown, who died of liver cancer on May 6, was a singer with a fine soul-pop voice, a surprisingly original songwriter, and leader of the band Hot Chocolate, with whom he had several major hits. The most notable was probably You Sexy Thing which reached number 3 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975 and enjoyed renewed success after featuring in the film The Full Monty. He was 71.

Shiny of head and suit, Brown often appeared to be the epitome of the disco smoothie, and his band’s biggest hits—such as Every One’s a Winner, So You Win Again, and It Started With a Kiss—were usually seen as middle-of-the-road crowd-pleasers.

It was a slightly misleading impression. Songs such as 1974’s Emma, a story of disillusionment and suicide that climaxed with Brown’s anguished wails, and brought them their first U.S. Top Ten hit, suggested more inventive and complex ambitions. Then, too, there was the band’s make-up; Brown was keen that the group’s sound should not be confined to disco, soul, or even black music, incorporating rock guitar and drawing on the production of Mickie Most, who was a prime mover in the careers of Herman’s Hermits, Donovan, Lulu and The Animals.

Hot Chocolate’s chart fortunes mirrored this tension. They had single hits in the U.K. every year from 1970 until Brown left the band in 1984, while You Sexy Thing achieved the remarkable feat of entering the U.K. Top Ten in three consecutive decades. Yet the band had much less success with their album releases (other than compilations of their greatest hits). None made the Top 30 in the U.S., and only two struggled into the lower reaches of the British Top 30.

Lester Erroll Brown was born on Nov. 12, 1943 in Kingston, Jamaica. When he was still an infant, his parents split up and his mother moved to London, leaving him in the care of an aunt. By working as a secretary and taking in lodgers, she was eventually able to send for him, and he arrived in Streatham, south London at the age of 11.

After a year or two at the local school, where he recalled he was “ridiculed for both my colour and my Jamaican accent, and there were times when I had to use my fists,” his mother moved him to be privately educated in West Hampstead, where his schoolmates were “very wealthy, and I came to appreciate good clothes and good food.” In later life, he often stressed the debt he owed to the sacrifices of his mother, who died of cancer at just 38.

Though he had always enjoyed singing, Brown at first had no thought of a career in the music industry, working instead as a civil service clerk in the Treasury department. But he became friendly with a West Indian musician called Tony Wilson, and “began to have ideas for lyrics and melodies,” which he would try out on his friend in the car.

Wilson suggested that they should begin to write together, and they had some success writing songs for artists such as Herman’s Hermits (Bet Yer Life I Do, 1970), Mary Hopkin (Think About Your Children, which made the charts on both sides of the Atlantic the same year) and the Canadian group April Wine, who had a U.S. hit with a cover of You Could Have Been a Lady.

Mary Hopkin was signed to The Beatles’ Apple label and, after Wilson and Brown produced a reggae-tinged version of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, the pair were signed up and named The Hot Chocolate Band.

That single failed to trouble the charts, but they gained the attention of Mickie Most, who simplified the band’s name and signed them to his label. As well as encouraging them to write for other artists, he produced and released their first hit Love is Life, which reached number 6 in 1970. The next year they had two hits, including I Believe (In Love), which also made the British Top Ten.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Hot Chocolate never failed to produce at least one hit a year in the U.K. charts, and gathered a wide international audience. The more notable tracks included 1973’s Brother Louie, their first U.S. hit Emma, Disco Queen and You Sexy Thing (both 1975), the following year’s Don’t Stop It Now, So You Win Again (1977), their only U.K. Number One and Every One’s a Winner, their second gold single in the U.S., reaching number 6 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978.

By the early 1980s, the band’s unique run of hit singles had made them such a fixture in the British charts that they were invited to perform at a reception marking the impending wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and the Prince of Wales—who was worried the music would be “too noisy.”

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He need not have feared—Brown had a reputation as a courteous and gentlemanly figure, and he had a strong traditional streak derived from his West Indian upbringing and his mother’s example.

He even campaigned for the British Conservative Party, moved to the stockbroker belt in Surrey (where neighbours included Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees and Ringo Starr), took up golf and acquired a number of racehorses. They included Gainsay, which won the National Hunt Chase at the 1987 Cheltenham Festival, the U.K.’s most important jumps meeting. His establishment status was confirmed in 2003, when he was appointed MBE by the Queen.

Brown left Hot Chocolate at the end of 1984 and embarked on a solo career, which was less successful. The albums That’s How Love Is (1989) and Secret Rendezvous (1992) sold only modestly, but he was content to tour and to trade off his former hits. Then, in 1997, he received an unexpected boost when You Sexy Thing featured on the soundtrack of the low budget British comedy The Full Monty. He capitalised with a solo recording of It Started With a Kiss (1998) and an album Still Sexy (2001).

The story of former steelworkers who set up as a troupe of strippers, The Full Monty was an unexpected international commercial success and nominated for four Oscars. Brown later estimated that he had made as much money (around $3 million) from that one song after the movie came out as he had done on its first release.

Brown enjoyed a touring career as a solo act, making his farewell tour in 2009. In 2004, he received the Ivor Novello award for outstanding contribution to songwriting. He died on May 6 at his home in the Bahamas, and is survived by Ginette, his wife of more than 40 years, and their two daughters.