I once saw Errol Brown, who has died aged 71, coming out of the gents in a trendy Soho bar, in the late 1980s. While thinking he was shorter than I’d imagined, I just gave him a very cool smile as he walked past me. Inside though, I was all “BLOODY HELL! IT’S ERROL BROWN!” because here was the man behind so many beloved hits of my youth. Which is why his death upset me more than I imagined it would. While they were only modestly successful elsewhere, Hot Chocolate were a pop institution in the UK, having at least one hit every year between 1970 and 1984. With his distinctive bald head, Brown was familiar face on Top of The Pops, and one of the few regular non-American black singers on the show.
Hot Chocolate were a difficult band to pin down. Their records contained elements of soul, pop, glam, funk, dub, and psychedelia — sometimes all at once, thanks to the production magic of Mickie Most. What linked some of their songs together however, was a surprising bleakness. Singles like ‘Emma’ and ‘Brother Louie’ are pretty grim for tunes your mum liked, and even a love song like ‘Put Your Love In Me’ has an edge of dark desperation about it.
They were such a singles band, they didn’t release their debut album Cicero Park until 1974, several years into their career. And shockingly it was a flop, despite containing ‘Emma’ and being a genuinely terrific collection. The title track in particular is a fabulous piece of moody Blaxploitation, soul-funk. If Curtis Mayfield had made this record it would have been hailed as a classic. And praise doesn’t come much higher than that.