`My first miracle was that I suddenly became musical'
Tuesday 03 February 1998
The place: West Hampstead
The man: Errol Brown of Hot Chocolate
My mother had just died, and being an only child from a broken family, I was very bruised from the experience. It was breast cancer and she had been sick for two years. Although the doctor told me she was dying, she kept it a secret. She didn't know that I knew and I didn't say anything either; we kept up the pretence right to the end. It was the biggest pain I have ever had in my life. I had followed her here from Jamaica when I was 10. There was no family in this country except one aunt in Stockwell, so I felt terribly alone. To cope with the trauma, I played a lot of sports and kept myself very busy.
Looking back, I realise I was searching for something, I just didn't know what. I was 20 and working at the Treasury in Whitehall as a clerical officer. If a question was asked about war debts in Communist bloc countries, I would get the files together and write a short answer. It was an easy job because I'd only be called for about twice a year - and I had an assistan. Most of the time I was drinking tea, playing table tennis and dreaming of a better future.
Although it was a good job, all I had to look forward to was becoming an executive officer in 10 years' time. I knew I would never be able to afford a Rolls-Royce or take the holidays I wanted. I had observed that if you have a good standard of living you can have dignity and that is very important to me. I know the colour issue could come up at this point but I prefer not to talk about it because it is too cliched - everybody is striving for independence and to be in control of their lives.
I sensed there was something else I could do, but what? Amazingly the answer to all my searching was just across the street where I lived in West Hampstead. Back in 1968, through mutual friends, I met Tony Wilson whose flat was almost opposite mine. He was a musician who already had released a few singles. At that point, I had no ambition to be a songwriter and never thought I had any chance in the music industry. The only singing I had ever done was as a soprano in the church choir. Tony and I would go ten-pin bowling and generally hang out together. Round this time I began to get melodies in my head. Normally I wouldn't take any notice of them, but one day when Tony was driving the car it happened again. Instead of ignoring the tune, I started to hum it aloud. He asked me what it was. "Just something that popped into by mind," I replied.
After it had happened two or three times, he asked me to write some songs with him. I was amazed that he thought I could do it. However, like a duck finding water, I had discovered what I should be doing. That was the first miracle, and as my song says, "I believe in miracles". I am very spiritual and feel in touch with something greater. I can't help but think that maybe my mother had been some guidance. Or why else would I suddenly become so musical? Really it was the emotion of losing her that sparked off my writing and provided me with a much needed emotional outlet.
Tony and I formed Hot Chocolate, and I sat down and wrote new words to John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance". We demoed the song but being so new had no idea you needed permission. The guy that paid for the recording sent it to the Apple label for John's approval. We all laughed but four days later he called and said: "John Lennon loves it and wants to put it out straight away!"
For a group of kids in West Hampstead the great man being interested in them was another miracle. Although Tony Wilson was the lead singer of Hot Chocolate, I had to sing on the recording because he was still under contract to another company. I told him I couldn't, but he reassured me that I would be OK. The record came out and got a lot of attention, it was enough for me to gamble and give up the Treasury. We had written a song for Herman's Hermits and I discovered that their producer was Mickie Most. We took a tape of our songs to his office, but he didn't have a tape machine. We left without seeing him and thought that anyway he would never be interested in us. Three months later, I woke up with a very strong feeling: I had to go and see Mickie that very day. He listened to the original song I had wanted to play him but thought it was only pleasant. Since our first visit we had written another song and we put on this new demo and Mickie's response was "Thank God I came to work today." The second song got us the deal. My third miracle. After a while Mickie Most wanted us to write songs for ourselves too. Everybody thought that Tony had the better voice; he was certainly better at hitting the notes and had a better range. However Mickie felt that I should become the lead singer because I had the more commercial voice. I stood out while when Tony sung it sounded like several other people. Another twist of fate.
Tony and I had been extremely close, almost like brothers, and although he was happy that he had finally got off the ground with Hot Chocolate, he was probably a bit peeved that I was the singer. I don't think he ever got over that. I have never spoken about this before. I was very modest and previously didn't say much. We started arguing about what was a good idea for a song so decided to work separately. However, like Lennon and McCartney we credited them all as joint compositions and split the money right down the middle. We both presented songs to Mickie but he kept choosing mine - adding to Tony's frustration. I wrote most of the Hot Chocolate hits and in particular "Brother Louie" and "Emma" - Top 10 hits in America and all over the world. Tony had started as the front man but ended up having to hide behind me. The problems got worse, until we had a row about a B-side I had written. I told him: "If that is the way that you feel, I don't think we should share royalties any more." His retort was: "I don't want to share anything with you anyway." It must be very tough for him now because that song was "You Sexy Thing" which went on to become a standard. That one argument must have cost him millions of pounds.
Although Tony earned vast sums of money from my songs he begrudged my success. Fate meant "You sexy thing" didn't go that same way too. Now The Full Monty movie and the revival of "You Sexy Thing" have brought me to the attention of a whole new generation. I feel that justice has finally been served; perhaps my mother is still busy on my behalf. Tony and I have lost touch. However, I will always be grateful to him for planting the seed and helping me find myself. I understand his frustration so I can now look back with fondness.
Interview by Andrew G Marshall
Errol Brown's tour of the UK starts on 20 March in Portsmouth and ends on 22 May in Jersey.
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