We don’t say it enough: Hot Chocolate were the balls. If Steve Miller Band and Styx and April Wine (ironic, there) and Boston and Guns N Roses and Badfinger get the shit played out of them on FM oldies rock radio, it’s plain white pop bias, because Hot Chocolate had at least as many great hit songs with wicked guitar riffs: “Everyone’s a Winner,” “You Sexy Thing,” “You Coulda Been a Lady” and “Brother Louie,” the remarkable song about inter-racial lovers confronting the bigotry and prejudice that surrounds them. “Brother Louie” is ignored whenever anyone talks about insightful and politically-charged records of the era, but when this wax was plattered, Sly Stone was drooling in his coke spoon and James Brown was looped on angel dust. “Brother Louie” is every bit as heavy as “Guns of Brixton” and as profound as anything Curtis Mayfield or War laid down. And it has cellos. And a voice over. And a multi-ethnic band. Suck on that, sweet badass.
Their rock/funk anthem, “You Coulda Been a Lady,” was written by Tony Wilson and the recently departed Errol Brown, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica and raised in the UK. The thing you notice most about the song is how deep its groove is, and the tempo: slow; draggingly slow. The guitars riff almost the entire way over the four-chord funkandchunk of the main pattern, and the solos– two of them– are piercing and crying and played close to the humbuckers, the way Neil Young does on “American Stars and Bars.” The lead guitar– the second instrument to be heard in the song and mixed above everything else– reminds me of what happens during “Billie Jean,” but it wouldn’t have been an accident had Michael Jackson or Quincy Jones borrowed from Hot Chocolate. They would have been in good company. It was John Lennon who recommended the band to Apple Records, with whom they recorded in the beginning.
Errol Brown sings his ass off here, but he has a crooner’s grace, evincing none of the look-at-me bullshit that infects the worst of pop music. Maybe because he came out of 60s Jamaican dancehall with its superstar rhythm players or maybe because he was a good guy or maybe because he knew the band’s riffs were the lynchpins of the songs, but in the grandiose Me movement of 70s pop, he was more like Lowell George or Freddie Mercury: a team player, a chess piece. Everything in HC was balanced and right, and yet, with songs like this, they still managed to grind. The whiter they were, the blacker they sounded, and the blacker they were, the whiter they could be. Left to anyone else’s devices– save the pre-70s Family Stone– this would have been a disaster waiting to happen. And their funk and R&B tradition was British, not American. Go figure.
Wikipedia tells us that “the band became the only group, and one of just three acts, that had a hit in every year of the 1970s in the UK charts (the other two being Elvis and Diana Ross). The band eventually had at least one hit, every year, between 1970 and 1984.” So: successful career, amazing songs, cool integrated band, hard playing, timeless riffs. What is the hall of fame waiting for?