Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Tragic Tale Of Emma

Whilst the compact disc (CD) may have revolutionised the way we listened to music in the 1980s, the digital versatile disc (DVD) proved to be the equivalent watershed technology in terms of viewing that music - well, at least viewing the promotional videos. Actually with the advent of 5.1 surround sound mixes, it also gave an added dimension to the music itself. I confess that in the decade or so since DVD’s arrived, I’ve keenly sought out music video collections of my favourite artists, and compilations of hit music videos from bygone eras. Previously I had to make do with (at times) dodgy video tape copies, which with each play inched one step closer to an inevitable demise. For the first few years of DVD, music titles were relatively scarce, but over time the back catalogues of artists were remastered, repackaged, and re-released. In around 2002 I came across one such repackaged music video collection on DVD for Hot Chocolate, released on EMI - it was a must purchase situation. Though the video quality wasn’t pristine, and the audio mix was but two channels (we have become demanding audiophiles), it was still a fine addition to the catalogue, and re-introduced me to the work of a fine band.

Hot Chocolate was blended from a selection of musicians hailing from the Caribbean and England. Singer Errol Brown was born in Kingston, Jamaica; guitarist Harvey Hinsley from Northhampton; keyboardist Larry Ferguson originated from Bahamas; bassist Tony Wilson hailed from Trinidad, percussionist Patrick Olive, Grenada; and drummer Ian King from England. The original sextet came together as The Hot Chocolate Band in Brixton, London during 1969. The same year they recorded a reggae style version of John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace A Chance’, but there was a snag as, in a technical sense, they needed the permission of the song’s publisher Apple Records. Brown and the band were bowled over soon after when Apple Records contacted them direct and gave them the ok, citing the fact that John Lennon himself had heard their version and liked it. The Hot Chocolate Band were signed to the Apple Records roster soon after, but with the Beatles’ break up imminent, their association with the label was cut short by the ensuing legal entanglements.

Singer Errol Brown and bassist Tony Wilson were at the core of the Hot Chocolate song writing team from the get go, but several of their songs were recorded by other artists at the time, including ‘Think About Your Children’ by Mary Hopkin, and ‘Bet Yer Life I Do’ by Herman’s Hermits, as well as April Wine and Suzi Quatro. Shortly after the short lived ‘Apple’ flavoured phase of Hot Chocolate’s career, they came under the guidance of a young gun record producer by the name of Mickie Most, who signed the band up to his then fledgling RAK label. Most had already gained a stellar reputation as a producer with The Animals and Hermans’s Hermits, and would go on to play a key role in the careers of Suzi Quatro, Sweet, Mud, and Kim Wilde, to name but a few.

Soon after they recorded their first chart hit , with 1970’s ‘Love Is Life’ (UK#6), which was credited to Hot Chocolate accompanied by the Trinidad Singers. Over the course of the next few years Most and Hot Chocolate focused on releasing finely crafted, commercial pop-soul singles, and soon established themselves as regulars on the British charts. During 1971 Hot Chocolate warmed the U.K. charts with the hits ‘You Could’ve Been A Lady’ (#22) and ‘I Believer (In Love)’ (#8), followed a year later by ‘You’ll Always Be A Friend’ (#23). It’s worth noting that Hot Chocolate were one of the first multi-racial group’s to really breakthrough on the British charts.

In April 1973 Hot Chocolate hit the British charts with the song ‘Brother Louie’ (which had a very heavy subject matter at its lyrical heart), and scored their third top 10 hit in the process, also notching up their first chart hit in Australia (#36). The track featured a spoken word cameo from C.C.S. front man Alexis Korner. Just two months later New York rock quartet Stories debuted on the U.S. charts with their version of ‘Brother Louie’ and before the summer was out had taken the song to the top of the American pop charts. The single ‘Rumours’ (UK#44) rounded out another solid year for Errol Brown and the lads. Around this time founding drummer Ian King left the scene, replaced by Romford born Tony Connor, and bassist Tony Wilson switched focus to song writing, with Brian Satterwhite briefly recruited to cover bass duties.

In late ‘73 Hot Chocolate set up (a coffee) shop in the studio to start work on their debut album. In early ‘74 the stunning lead out single ‘Emma’ was released, a mid tempo funk edged soul song, that recounted the tragic tale of a girl called Emma. Errol Brown delivered a brilliantly seductive vocal performance, searing with passion, that made a very darkly themed lyric, hauntingly mesmerising. ‘Emma’ may not have made it to the silver screen, but the song became Hot Chocolate’s biggest hit to date, soaring high to #3 in Britain, #6 in Australia, and eventually proving irresistible to the U.S. market (#8) in early ‘75, earning them a distribution deal in the States with Big Tree Records. The single ‘Cheri Babe’ (UK#31/OZ#68) carried Hot Chocolate’s momentum over late ‘74, early ‘75, and was followed by the topically titled ‘Disco Queen’ in the first half of ‘75 (UK#11/US#28). Both ‘Emma’ and ‘Disco Queen’ were featured on Hot Chocolate’s debut set ‘Cicero Park’ (US#55), repackaged as ‘Emma’ in Australia (#73). Despite such a solid following on the U.K. music scene, surprisingly the ‘Cicero Park’ album sold, at best, modestly at home, something that, curiously, would become indicative of most Hot Chocolate albums.

Having taken around five years to release their first album, Hot Chocolate satisfied the public’s sweet tooth with a relatively quick sophomore set released later in 1975. Their self titled second album (UK#34/OZ#27/US#41) marked the final involvement of bassist and songwriter Tony Wilson, who shortly after the album’s completion opted to leave Hot Chocolate to pursue a cafĂ© latte, er…I mean a solo career. His first record release was ‘I Like Your Style’ during 1976. With Wilson’s departure Patrick Olive switched from percussion duties to assume the role of bass player, and Hot Chocolate switched from sextet to quintet. Recorded in the ‘Chateau Du Regard’ in France, the ‘Hot Chocolate’ album maintained the record buying public’s high regard for the group, and soon yielded two more top ten hits in Britain. ‘A Child’s Prayer’ (UK#7/OZ#92) hit the charts in August of ‘75, and was a track that clearly reflected the strong social conscience within Hot Chocolate, a side of the band that was oft overlooked, or perhaps overshadowed by more frivolous pop fare. It was soon followed by the playful funk-soul track ‘You Sexy Thing’, which became Hot Chocolate’s hottest hit to date. ‘You Sexy Thing’ earned gold status across the world, and surged to #2 in Britain, #4 in Australia, and #3 Stateside, riding high on the stylistic tidal wave of disco that was sweeping the world.

Following the departure of Wilson, Errol Brown assumed a greater role in the song writing department for Hot Chocolate. Their first single in the post-Wilson era was ‘Don’t Stop It Now’, which did anything but stop Hot Chocolate’s phenomenally consistent run on the British charts (#11/US#42) in early ‘76. With producer Mickie Most still at the helm, and a now stable line-up in place, Hot Chocolate were about to enter the most lucrative phase of an already abundantly successful career to date. The title track for their next album hit the British charts in mid ‘76, with ‘Man To Man’ notching up the group’s ninth top 20 hit in the U.K. (#14). The album didn’t fare quite so well from a sales perspective (UK#32/OZ#70/US#172), but it did yield, in my humble opinion, the most underrated of Hot Chocolate’s tracks. The groove laden ‘Heaven Is In The Back Seat Of My Cadillac’ could well have been used by the auto manufacturer as a provocative sales campaign, but it was a cool as ice piece of sharp edged funk, that just gets better with every listen. It may not have been the biggest of Hot Chocolate’s many hits (UK#25/OZ#32), but it was undeniably one of the classiest. And speaking of hits, with 14 top 40 hits already in the can, the time was nigh to release the appropriately titled ‘XIV Greatest Hits’ album in late ‘76 (released in the U.S. during ‘77 as ‘10 Greatest Hits’ on Big Tree Records). Sales for the greatest hits package deservedly gave Hot Chocolate their first top 10 album at home (#6/OZ#62), providing a truer reflection of just how popular they were with the British record buying public.

Having just notched up their first top 10 album, Hot Chocolate reached the boiling point of their career soon after with their first #1 single. ‘So You Win Again’ was a hook laden pop-soul song that just oozed commercial appeal. It debuted on the U.K. charts during June of ‘77 and within a few weeks had rocketed to #1 on the British charts, where it held sway for three weeks. ‘So You Win Again’ didn’t reach the same heights in Australia (#12) or the U.S. (#31), and oddly enough was the band’s first major hit not to have been written (or co-written) by singer Errol Brown, with Russ Ballard (see future post) penning the soul-pop classic. Late in ‘77 Hot Chocolate’s next single ‘Put Your Love In Me’, a lingering dance number, was ordered up in sufficient numbers to peak at #10 in the U.K. (OZ#90). Both tracks would feature on Hot Chocolate’s next album, the title track of which would provide Hot Chocolate with one of their signature songs, and biggest hits to date.

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