Friday 21 October 2016

Obituary: Errol Brown

Singer. Born November 12 1943, died May 6 2015

Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30

Errol Brown
Errol Brown
Hot Chocolate

Errol Brown, who has died of cancer aged 71, was the lead singer of Hot Chocolate, the British soul band best known for the 1975 disco anthem You Sexy Thing. The group's funky and harmonious sound was defined by Brown's seductive voice and charismatic stage presence.

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Bald-headed and slinky-hipped, Brown was a master of the art of the come-hither look (and gently come-hither lyrics) but when he originally wrote You Sexy Thing it was intended to be a B-side for Hot Chocolate's single Blue Night. The band's producer, Mickie Most, remixed the song several months later and it became an instant hit, reaching No 2 in the British charts and No 3 in America. It was, Brown later recalled, "a joyous song. I remember when I thought of the title I had a shiver go through me. Because it was such a nice way of using sex in a title without it being crude."

In 1997 the track underwent a renaissance when it featured in the film The Full Monty, which told the story of six unemployed steel-workers from Sheffield who decide to form a striptease act. The scene in which the actor Robert Carlyle grinds his hips to You Sexy Thing attracted a new generation of fans and gave Brown's career a major boost.

"There's no doubt about it," he said, "it relaunched my career and took me back into the Top 10. Then at my first gig in Scotland shortly after its release I was rushed on stage by about a hundred screaming girls - it was like the old days. I played more gigs the year after the film than I'd ever previously done over a 12-month period."

In 2005, buoyed up by the renewed adulation, Brown released an album titled Still Sexy. The promotional video for the single, Still Sexy (Yes U Are), showed a still dapper Brown, impeccably dressed in a grey silk suit and grooving in the back of a limousine with two attractive young women, while You Sexy Thing played in the background.

"You Sexy Thing is a hook that'll last for decades and decades," he explained, "because it's such a nice, pleasant thing to say to somebody."

Lester Errol Brown was born on November 12 1943 in Kingston, Jamaica, where he spent his early childhood before his mother brought the family to London. When he was in his early teens his mother took him out of secondary modern school to attend a private school, where, as he later recalled, "everyone there was very wealthy and I came to appreciate good clothes and good food. You could say I was a teenage yuppy".

At this stage, Brown showed very little interest in the music business, although he liked singing. He preferred the prospect of a proper job with a regular payslip and for a time did temporary clerical work at the British Treasury, which he found unrewarding.

In his early 20s he met and became friends with Tony Wilson, a Trinidad- born musician, who suggested they should try writing music together.

"Tony and I used to go out 10-pin bowling," Brown recalled, "and while driving I'd start to sing. When asked what I was singing, I'd tell him it was just a tune I had in my head. This happened a few times and Tony suggested I try writing songs with him - so we did and that's how I got into songwriting."

Brown could not play the guitar at this point, but he soon picked it up and within six months he and Wilson had cut a demo of John Lennon's Give Peace a Chance, performed in a reggae rhythm. He sent the tape to the Beatles' label, Apple, and Lennon signed the pair - called The Hot Chocolate Band - virtually on the spot.

Their recording of Give Peace a Chance failed to make any impact on the charts, but the next single, Love is Life, proved more fruitful. Brown's verve, flair and musical imagination were essential to the band's success. He refused to be pigeonholed as a black musician, preferring his music to reflect the multi-racial mixture of West Indian and British influences in his cultural background. To this end he included strings and a rock guitarist in the band.

"It was never my intention to make black music," he said. "I just wanted to make music. You have to understand, the only reason I've survived so long is because I make music that's true to me… I'm influenced by all the things I listened to growing up and that's what comes out in my music."

The Hot Chocolate Band was quickly taken over by the British record producer Mickie Most and his Rak Records label. Most, who had a sharp ear for a hit, had been responsible for acts including The Animals, Herman's Hermits, Lulu and Suzi Quatro. The first thing he did was to shorten the name of Brown's group to the snappier 'Hot Chocolate'. Under Most's tutelage the band - for most of its life a five-piece led by Brown, with his distinctive shiny shaved head - became a regular fixture in the UK Top 40 through the disco era of the mid-1970s, with Brown and Wilson writing most of the songs.

Harvie Hinsley was taken on in 1970 and the principal other members were Tony Connor, Larry Ferguson and Patrick Olive. Love is Life reached No 6 in Britain in September 1970. You Could Have Been a Lady fared less well, then I Believe (in Love) entered the Top 10.

All in all Hot Chocolate recorded more than 20 hits at a rate of roughly one a year, among them Every One's A Winner, It Started With A Kiss, No Doubt About It and So You Win Again, a soulful, funky ballad which was, in 1977, the band's only No 1.

By the early 1980s Hot Chocolate had become a treasured part of British culture: as an indicator of their status, they were invited to perform at a reception in 1981 at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the imminent marriage of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. Three of their singles reached the charts in the mid-1980s: No Doubt About It, Are You Getting Enough Happiness? and Love Me to Sleep.

By now, however, there were worrying signs of friction between band members.

"We took everything pretty lightly for 12 years," Brown recalled, "but at the end of the day, the laughter turned into animosity."

In 1987 he went solo for WEA Records. He continued touring in later life and enjoyed the fruits of his fame, claiming to have made millions from You Sexy Thing before The Full Monty and the same after it.

He later took up golf and owned National Hunt horses, trained by Jenny Pitman.

Browen is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Ginette, and their two daughters. ©Daily Telegraph

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