Of Errol Brown and Hot Chocolate

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Today is the birthday of Errol Brown (Lester Errol Brown, b.1949), best known as the front man and songwriter (with bassist Tony Wilson) for the 70s’ hit machine Hot Chocolate.

Hot Chocolate was one of the discoveries of The Beatles’ Apple Records (they started out with a version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”). Brown was Jamaican by birth; I was shocked to learn that Hot Chocolate was a British band, and had a couple of white members (the name suggests otherwise — but there seem to have been Marshmallows in the Hot Chocolate).

The last time I was truly in tune with the present was around 1976; after that I started to get all critical and persnickety and prickly and picky — everything with a lot of nasty k sounds. But before that I very much embraced contemporary pop culture, being all of ten or eleven years old. All this goes to say that I was really into the hit songs of Hot Chocolate, believe it or not. (I am enlightened to learn that they were produced by Mickie Most, a pop genius, destined for his own blogpost here some one of these days). I always walk around with the notion that “I hate disco”, but like most such broad statements, the fallacy starts to dissolve once I start to deal with particulars. Hot Chocolate had a lot of wit and verve and genuine feeling and they made an impact on me when I was a kid.

I’m guessing you’re still going “Errol Brown? Who’s he?” Somehow, he never managed to become a household word in the States, even when his songs were in everybody’s ears.

His first big American hit was the song “Brother Louie” (1973). Hot Chocolate had recorded it first and had a hit with it in the U.K. The smash #1 in the U.S. was recorded by the group Stories.

In 1974, Hot Chocolate cracked the American market with the melancholy song “Emma”, about a girl who dreams of becoming a star and kills herself when the dream disappears. I was a moody kid, and I used to play this song over and over again (it was anthologized on a Ronco record). It happens to be my song of the moment on my Ipod…its writing is so vivid. It’s acquired a bit of a kitsch edge now that I listen to it as an adult, but that only adds to its complexity and makes me love it all the more. Brown has said he based the character in the song on his mother:

The following year, the ubiquitous song for which the group became most notorious, at once hysterically funny and somehow the embodiment of the age that produced it:

And then their last big hit, the subtler “Every 1’s a Winner” (1978), a song I like so much that I wrote it into my upcoming play Horseplay — we haven’t gone into production yet and we need to cut, so who knows if we’ll keep it? But I hope we do, I love the clavinet riff that drives it.

Hot Chocolate was way more successful in Britain than they were here, with several more hits throughout the 1970s and through the ’80s as well. And of course their songs have wound up in movies in the years since.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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