Errol Brown obituary

Songwriter and lead singer with Hot Chocolate who scored massive hits in the 1970s and 80s with You Sexy Thing, It Started With a Kiss and Every 1’s a Winner

Although never concerned with being at the cutting edge of fashion, Errol Brown, who has died of liver cancer aged 71, became one of the most successful artists in British pop. With his band Hot Chocolate, and with production assistance from the pop wizard Mickie Most, he scored a huge streak of hit singles throughout the 1970s and 80s.

You Sexy Thing, originally released in 1975, became an international good-time party anthem, and enjoyed several leases of life thanks to cover versions and appearances on film soundtracks. It carries the unique status of being the only song to have reached the British top 10 in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. It was an odd quirk of Hot Chocolate’s career that they only had one No 1 hit in Britain, with So You Win Again in 1977, but they achieved at least one hit every year from 1970 to 1984.

Though he owned a sumptuous mansion in Esher, Surrey, and a beach house in the Bahamas, and had racehorses that were coached by the Grand National-winning trainer Jenny Pitman, Brown admitted that “I wasn’t desperate to be a pop star”, and refused to get carried away with his own success. “If you want to last in the music business, complacency is the last thing you should have,” he commented in 1984. “People say to me, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones – how have they lasted so long? And I say there’s some great intelligence at work there. It’s the same thing with Hot Chocolate.”

Brown was born in Kingston, Jamaica. His parents, Ivan and Edna, split up while he was a young child, and he was mostly cared for by an aunt. Meanwhile, his mother had moved to London, and worked for the post office and as a typist until she could afford a mortgage on a house. She rented out rooms to pay off the debt. She brought Errol to Britain to join her when he was 11, and, after he spent some time at school in Streatham, south London, was able to have him privately educated.

“I was ridiculed for both my colour and my Jamaican accent and there were times when I had to use my fists to defend myself,” Brown remembered. “I soon moved to a private school in West Hampstead, but my mother taught me never to blame my colour for failure or the white people for what happened to me. She brought me up to have complete confidence in myself.” His mother died of cancer aged 38.

Brown never planned to be in pop music and merely aspired to have a regular wage-paying job. However, while he was working as a clerk at the Treasury, he met the Trinidad-born musician Tony Wilson, and “I started to have ideas for lyrics and melodies coming into my head.” Wilson suggested they try writing songs together, which worked so well that the duo wrote hits including Bet Yer Life I Do for Herman’s Hermits, Heaven Is Here for Julie Felix and Think About Your Children for Mary Hopkin. Then they recorded their own reggae-styled version of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, including some of their own lyrics. Realising they needed permission to alter the song, they sent a tape to the Beatles. “Apparently Lennon heard it,” said Brown, “and thought ‘very amusing’. He decided to put it out on [the Beatles’ label] Apple.”

Brown and Wilson’s group was dubbed the Hot Chocolate Band by the Apple press office. The record was not successful but the Beatles connection drew plenty of attention, and they were picked up by Most and signed to his Rak label. Now named simply Hot Chocolate, they began to have success with such Brown/Wilson compositions as Love Is Life (1970) and I Believe (In Love) (1971), and in 1973 had a top 10 hit with Brother Louie, a song about an interracial love affair. Brown and Wilson began to drift apart creatively, but they shared the credits for the big international hit Emma, which Most initially thought was too depressing to be a hit (it reached No 3 in the UK in 1974 and No 8 in the US).

Then came Disco Queen, and in 1975 they followed up a UK 10 hit, A Child’s Prayer, with You Sexy Thing. With its irresistible swaying beat and Brown’s higher-than-usual vocal line, the song was a natural smash, though it had the misfortune to be kept out of the UK No 1 slot by Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Nonetheless it was a hit around the world and reached No 3 in the US. Brown’s radiant self-confidence, shaven head and fondness for bling were turning him into both pop idol and sex symbol.

With Brown firmly in charge of Hot Chocolate and with Most’s acute commercial ear to guide him, the hit machine was in full spate, though their sole UK chart-topper, So You Win Again, was written by Russ Ballard rather than Brown. Every 1’s a Winner, No Doubt About It, Girl Crazy and It Started With a Kiss took them into the 1980s, though after I Gave You My Heart (Didn’t I) reached No 13 in 1984, the band’s magic streak was effectively over.

Hot Chocolate had become such a part of Britain’s social fabric that they performed at a pre-wedding party for the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer (“they came to the rehearsal to check it out and Charles said, ‘it won’t be too noisy, will it?’” Brown recalled), but in 1985 Brown left the band and went solo. This proved disappointing, with his first solo album That’s How Love Is failing to sell, but Brown seemed content to enjoy the fruits of his Hot Chocolate success. Ensconced in the Surrey “rockbroker” belt, Brown could count Mick Hucknall, Cliff Richard and Maurice Gibb among his neighbours, and performed at Conservative party conferences. He also took a liking to holidaying in the Bahamas.

Thanks to being used prominently and very aptly in the film The Full Monty, You Sexy Thing bounced back into the top 10 in 1997, and received a further boost that year when it appeared on the soundtrack for Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn-industry saga Boogie Nights. Cover versions of Hot Chocolate songs by Cud, PJ Harvey and the Sisters of Mercy helped to seal the band’s place in pop history. In the 90s a new version of Hot Chocolate went out on the road in UK and Europe, without Brown but with his blessing. In 1997 he was featured in the television show This Is Your Life, presented by Michael Aspel.

Brown enjoyed a top 20 solo hit with a re-release of It Started With a Kiss in 1998, and toured Germany and the UK in 1998 and 1999. He was appointed MBE in 2003, and the following year received an Ivor Novello award. In 2009 he embarked on a farewell tour, and declared: “When you’ve had your greatest creative years and then to be going out and trying to come back with something – at my age it’s a bit silly. I’ve done what I was very happy with, and that’s it.”

He is survived by his wife, Ginette, and their two daughters, Colette and Leonie.

• Lester Errol Brown, singer and songwriter, born 12 November 1943; died 6 May 2015


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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