In the 1960’s forming a multi racial band in Britain was still considered pretty risky. We’d had The Equals which if you listen to Ken Bruce’s ‘Pop Master’ you know this was the band that launched Eddie Grant to pop stardom but even the name suggests that this was something to make a big deal about.
Hot Chocolate were not only multi racial they were good and successful. Starting off at the end of the 60’s they had a minor brush with fame when they covered Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ which got them signed to Apple Records but as the Beatles were about to dissolve this was a mixed blessing. As you can hear they are a very different band here
In the early days they were a bit happy clappy, the band revolved around not only suave shaven headed man Erroll Brown but also bass player Tony Wilson who not only provided the band’s material but also wrote for others such as Herman,s Hermits and Mary Hopkin.The first couple of years were a bit hit and miss and the band only really hit their stride with the introduction of guitarist Harvey Hinsley and drummer Tony Connor both rock rather than soul or disco players.
I had a soft spot for Hot Chocolate in the early days as they were one of the few bands I can remember playing live on television probably. I suspect, on some kids show. One of the tracks they performed was ‘Cicero Park’, a slightly gloomy ecology song and the title track of their first album. The singles around this time were ‘Emma’, a dead girlfriend song and ‘Brother Louie’ which was about racial intolerance, for me they were like a British version of the American group War.
The thing I really liked were Hinsley’s guitar line’s, not solos but hooks which were an integral part of the song. If you listen to a lot of the band’s material there’s not a lot going on musically, the band (especially after the departure of Wilson) tended to form songs out of jams which means they are high on grove but relatively low on melody and chords. If you sat down and played a lot of Hot Chocolate’s songs on an acoustics guitar the weakness of the material becomes apparent. Nothing worth with that of course, it never bothered James Brown but this does show just how important Hinsley’s contributions are.
Hinsley was a rock player of some pedigree. An old mate of Chas (and Dave) Hodges, he joined the latters band The Outlaws, replacing Richie Blackmore, in their dying days. He then later rejoined Hodges in The Rebel Rousers, in effect replacing Cliff Bennett in the band. He came to Wilson and Browns attention through his session work where again he was part of a pool of musicians including the nascent Chas and Dave backing a variety of artists such as Labi Siffri.
Hinsley brought his Gibson SG to the band, this is the guitar that Angus Young plays, its not a disco or soul guitar but Hinsley made it it work. Actually, on his first outing h’es opted to play a bouzouki type line on a telecaster but lets listen to it again, its a great song and allegedly has a spoken part by the late Alexis Korner
With ‘Emma’ the band had really hit their stride. Another dark and paranoid song with some terrific screaming by Brown at the the end and now present and correct we have the Hinsley guitar line
And then their biggest hit much loved of unemployed steelworkers and mums and dads at the wedding reception. ‘Sexy Thing ‘is a great record and another example of the melodic genius of Hinsley’s playing
And the blueprint was set, Wilson left and the band became adept at creating pop/disco records, drummer Connor would never have to learn another drum part.
Hinsley’s greatest achievement was to be a couple of years in the future though. On ‘Every 1’s a Winner’ Hinsley’s guitar line, played though a synthesiser, serves as the hook and the chorus
The band went on to have plenty of hits and experimented with other styles as bit but if I went to a Hot Chocolate gig these are the tracks I would want to hear. By the time of hits like ‘it Started with a Kiss’ and ‘No Doubt About it’ they had moved a long war from any comparisons with War.
And in a strange twist of fate going to a Hot Chocolate gig is a possibility. Despite being the only black guy in the 70’s with a shaved head who wasn’t Isaac Hayes, Brown was a conservative character, quite literally one of the few pop stars who was willing to endorse the conservative party (he was rewarded an MBE) He left the band in 1986 and made a couple of solo records and continued to be a popular draw with women of a certain age.He died earlier this year of Liver Cancer.
Hinsley, Connor and Bass player Oliver continued as Hot Chocolate despite the fact that for many people the band was Erroll Brown. So a couple of vocalists down the line the new singer is Greg Bannis who has spent most of his life as an Erroll Brown impersonator and in effect the band look and sound just like Hot Chocolate always did.
Probably not what Brown had in mind when he went to Apple HQ in 1979 to ask Lennon if he could record his song.