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Hot Chocolate

While one assumes HOT CHOCOLATE didn’t start it with a kiss, they certainly started their pop campaign eating a bit of Apple or humble pie (Apple Records: the Fab Four’s record imprint). Ironically, their toothless take of LENNON’s `Give Peace A Chance’ was uneventful, to say the least. But when entrepreneur pop-guru Mickie Most handed the band another “chance”, the enigmatic, shaven-headed Errol Brown and Co became one of the 70s (and 80s) biggest attractions, reeling off hit after Top 10 hit, including `Brother Louie’, `Emma’, `You Sexy Thing’, the No.1 `So You Win Again’ and, of course, `It Started With A Kiss’.
Formed in 1968, in Brixton, London, as The Hot Chocolate Band (named so by Apple Corps worker Mavis Smith), bassist Patrick Olive and guitarists Franklyn De Allie and Harvey Hinsley were almost immediately joined by vocalist Errol Brown, bassist Tony Wilson and keyboardist Larry Ferguson when The BEATLES (on their soon-to-be defunct label, Apple) released a reggae-tinged flop re-vamp of the aforesaid LENNON “Peace” hit.
Impressed by the cosmopolitan group’s panache and will to progress among other multi-racial rivals such as BLUE MINK, producer Mickie Most (boss at RAK Records) bought into HOT CHOCOLATE, only to present twilight-time new signings HERMAN’S HERMITS with a Brown-Wilson composition `Bet Yer Life I Do’; later in 1970, Apple Records maintained the songwriting duo’s connection by way of a MARY HOPKINS’ hit, `Think About Your Children’. Stuck somewhere in the middle of the aforementioned Top 30 successes was HOT CHOCOLATE’s inaugural Top 10 smash, `Love Is Life’, a light-weight reggae-pop song accompanied by The Trinidad Singers; Ian King had now superseded De Allie.
`You Could Have Been A Lady’ (later a hard-rock hit for Canadians APRIL WINE), `I Believe (In Love)’ and `You’ll Always Be A Friend’, all climbed into the Top 30; early ‘72’s `Mary-Anne’ was the exception. Drummer Tony Connor (ex-AUDIENCE, ex-JACKSON HEIGHTS) duly joined up for the classic `Brother Louie’, a Top 10 smash in spring 1973 that dealt with romance and racism, a tough Blaxploitation subject that would give the group a chart-topper in the States when served up by The STORIES. The very derivative `Rumours’ fared less well and stalled at No.44.
Probably regarded as HOT CHOCOLATE’s most coolest and passionate ballad before disco took a grip (just ask goth act SISTERS OF MERCY, who re-vamped the track a decade later), the Top 3 `Emma’ was also the sextet’s breakthrough single when it gate-crashed the American Top 10 roughly a year later. Having signed exclusively to Big Tree Records (Stateside only), their long-in-the-pipeline debut LP, CICERO PARK (1974) {*6}, reached the Top 60; fans in Britain had rejected it when attendant single `Changing World’ floundered.
As glam subsided when dance music found its niche, `Cheri Babe’, `Disco Queen’, `A Child’s Prayer’ and the massive `You Sexy Thing’ (originally a B-side to flop `Blue Night’) all found favour within an ever-evolving pop scene; even their eponymous HOT CHOCOLATE (1975) {*6} album reached the Top 40 (or thereabouts on both sides of the big pond), although on several of the songs, Brown and Wilson were scribing separately; the latter would depart, leaving Olive to take up the bass.
1976 unveiled three further hits, `Don’t Stop It Now’, `Man To Man’ and the suggestive `Heaven Is In The Back Seat Of My Cadillac’, all lifted from Top 40 parent set, MAN TO MAN {*5}; these were topped off later by a worthy “Greatest Hits” album. The advent of punk and new wave in ’77 had affected many pop/rock acts, but not HOT CHOCOLATE, who turned to Russ Ballard (ex-ARGENT) for their first No.1, `So You Win Again’. Continuing the chart run, Brown’s `Put Your Love In Me’ and the transatlantic `Every 1’s A Winner’ were lifted from the attendant EVERY 1’S A WINNER (1978) {*5}, and it seemed the quintet were again the housewife’s choice.
The exclusive `I’ll Put You Together Again’ (penned by Don Black & Geoff Stephens) was head and shoulders above two from the funky experiment of GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS (1979) {*4}, but the extended title track and `Mindless Boogie’, couldn’t rival material filtering in from America (NILE-RODGERS, etc.).
Post-millennium, HOT CHOCOLATE again looked to outside sources for `No Doubt About It’ (D. Most – S. Glen – M. Burns); not including the No.2 single on CLASS (1980) {*5} was a huge mistake. Saddled next to Brown’s `Are You Getting Enough Of What Makes You Happy’ and Geoff Stephens’ `Love Me To Sleep’, were a couple of Ballard songs and unconventional covers of The POLICE’s `Walking On The Moon’ and ELVIS COSTELLO’s `Green Shirt’.
Featuring no less than four hits of varying degrees of success, from the Top 60 `You’ll Never Be So Wrong’ and the Top 40 `Chances’, to the Top 10 `Girl Crazy’ and `It Started With A Kiss’, MYSTERY (1982) {*6} was a decent attempt at holding back the years. While `What Kinda Boy You Looking For (Girl)’ was another annoyingly non-album smash, the album LOVE SHOT (1983) {*5} couldn’t match previous chart returns, despite garnering a couple of syrupy hits in `Tears On The Telephone’ and `I Gave You My Heart (Didn’t I)’.
Timed to perfection, ERROL BROWN wandered off into domesticity and a hit-or-miss solo career; his `Personal Touch’ entered the Top 30 just as a Top 10 re-mix of `You Sexy Thing’ was moving out. It took several years before HOT CHOCOLATE re-formed, but in 1992, mainstays Hinsley, Olive and Connor were not obliged to invite Brown into the mix. Substituted by Greg Bannis (also Andy Smith on keyboards, Steve “Beast” Ansell on keyboards, guitar, Steve Matthews on keyboards/vocals and Willy Dowling on keyboards/vocals), a Euro-only album STRICTLY DANCE (1993) {*2} was overshadowed by “Their Greatest Hits” (at No.1), spurred on by a hit re-issue of `It Started With A Kiss’. Who could ever forget Steve Coogan’s glutinous version as Alan Partridge on his subsequent TV sit-com, or, for that matter, “The Full Monty” film version of `You Sexy Thing’ (a Top 5 hit in 1997). Without Matthews and Dowling from 1994 onwards (Bannis was superseded by Kennie Smith in 2010), HOT CHOCOLATE continued on the oldies circuit, but it was ERROL BROWN who picked up an MBE for services to music in 2003, and an Ivor Novello award a year later. Sadly, Errol died of liver cancer at his Bahamas home on 6th May 2015; he was 71.
© MC Strong 1994/GRD // rev-up MCS May2015

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