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Brown, Errol Ainsworth Glenstorfree

(1943–2015)
  • Chloe Govan

Errol Ainsworth Glenstor Brown (1943–2015), by Fin Costello, 1978

© Getty Images

Brown, Errol Ainsworth Glenstor (1943–2015), singer and songwriter, was born on 12 November 1943 in Kingston, Jamaica. The result of a teenage pregnancy, he barely knew his police officer father, Ivan Brown, from whom his mother Edna (d. 1963), a secretary, had become estranged shortly after his birth. Desperate to rescue her son from a cultural backdrop of poverty and gang violence, Edna left for London when he was six, to raise money for a better future for them both. For the next five years Brown would remain trapped at home with an aunt and her husband, who vented their frustrations in life by beating him. He yearned to be reunited with his mother, who was juggling two jobs, as a shorthand typist and a Post Office worker. By 1954 she had finally earned enough to send for her son to join her.

Within a couple of years Edna’s efforts won Brown a place at a West Hampstead private school. Plunged into a sea of wealthy white children, he initially struggled to stay afloat and was ridiculed for his strong accent and skin colour. The silver lining was that his ambitions dramatically changed: while children at his former school in Streatham had aspired only to be bus drivers or postmen, in his new environment, well-paid jobs were not a mere fantasy, but an expectation.

A short-lived and unfulfilling career as a civil servant at the Treasury followed, before Brown realized that his future lay in music. When he was just twenty, his mother succumbed to cancer, and the trauma of her premature death prompted auditory hallucinations. The spontaneous lyrics and melodies that appeared in his head motivated him to pursue singing, and a friendship with Trinidadian musician and ten-pin-bowling partner Tony Wilson sparked a foray into songwriting.

Brown’s big break in music came in 1969 when a reggae version of John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ came to the Beatles star’s attention. Allegedly laughing hysterically at the makeshift lyrics, Lennon arranged for it to be released on the Apple label, and Brown and Wilson’s group was christened the Hot Chocolate Band. While that single flopped, it attracted the interest of producer Mickie Most, who had already helped engineer success for Herman’s Hermits and the Animals. Under his patronage, and now renamed simply Hot Chocolate, a second single, ‘Love Is Life’, reached number six in the charts in 1970. A string of annual hits then followed continuously for the group for the next fifteen years.

Hot Chocolate’s tunes were unusually meaningful for the disco era, from ‘Brother Louie’ (1973), a track about parental opposition to mixed-race relationships, to the number three hit ‘Emma’ (1974), which outwardly tackled the broken dreams of a suicide victim, but also referred to the death of Brown’s mother. The former was banned from American radio for its racially sensitive language, while the latter was initially considered ‘too depressing’ to be a realistic hit single, but both prevailed. Later, ‘Mindless Boogie’ (1979) revealed Brown’s political feelings about the Jonestown massacre, and the group’s cover of Elvis Costello’s ‘Green Shirt’ (1980) spoke of fascism.

Ironically, and against all odds, it was the more light-hearted disco classic ‘You Sexy Thing’ (1975) that would be one of Hot Chocolate’s most successful hits of all time—one that producer Most had originally insisted simply ‘wasn't working’ and relegated to B-side status. American radio DJs disagreed and while A-side ‘Blue Night’ became, in Brown’s words, ‘the worst flop we'd ever had’ (Lewis, ‘Errol Brown’), they were asked to redeliver the record with the tracks swapped around. That format produced an American number three and a British number two hit; and remixed by Ben Liebrand it reached the top ten again in 1987 and 1997. The group finally reached the number one spot in the UK with ‘So You Win Again’ (1977). Further hits followed with ‘Every 1’s a Winner’ (1978), ‘No Doubt about It’ (1980), and ‘It Started with a Kiss’ (1982).

For Brown, the latter half of the 1970s spelt the end of ‘falling out of clubs at 4am’ and on 11 December 1976 he married 22-year-old Mauritian former model (Leonie Cecile) Ginette Marie (daughter of Pierre Raymond Marie, carpenter), and settled down. They had two daughters, Collete (b. 1977) and Leonie (b. 1979). However, Hot Chocolate’s success continued, and in 1981 came an invitation to perform at Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s glitzy wedding reception at Buckingham Palace; it was, he said, ‘the first time I’d been onstage and all I could see was tiaras glistening in the night’ (Lewis, ‘Errol Brown’). He later performed John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ to a Thatcher-led Conservative Party conference in 1984, causing newspapers to chide that Lennon would have turned in his grave.

Gradually Brown became creatively frustrated; he was ‘struggling to write’, and realized that life in Hot Chocolate ‘just wasn’t fun anymore’ (Lewis, ‘Errol Brown’). Despite surviving five different line-ups as the ever-present front man of the group, he finally left in 1985, and was replaced, bizarrely, by a lookalike celebrity impersonator who had appeared on Stars in Their Eyes.

In 1987 Brown launched his solo career with a single, ‘Personal Touch’, which peaked at number twenty-five in the British singles chart. Although he failed to match the heights of his early career, moderate success followed for several years. He then enjoyed a monumental mainstream career comeback when ‘You Sexy Thing’ was featured in the 1997 film The Full Monty, an award-winning comedy about six unemployed Sheffield steel workers who form a striptease act. Soon after its release, it was certified the highest-earning British film ever, with gross profits of over $250 million. The publicity revived Brown’s solo career and he was soon surrounded by ‘screaming girls’ again: ‘like the old days!’ (Daily Telegraph, 7 May 2015).

However, during later years Brown’s dose of hot chocolate was more often accompanied by pipe and slippers than intoxication and strippers, and he gradually disappeared from the public eye. Silently and unbeknown to his fans, he and his wife had settled semi-permanently in the Bahamas, where his passion for golf inspired him to organize charity tournaments and raise $500,000 for disadvantaged children. His last album would be 2001’s Still Sexy—a defiant sentiment directed more towards his wife than himself as, in his words, ‘Women don't stop being sexy at age 18’ (Eastern Daily Press, 12 Feb 2005). In 2003 he was appointed MBE for his contribution to music, while the following year he was acknowledged with an Ivor Novello songwriting award. His ‘farewell’ tour was in 2009. Thereafter he divided his time between London, Surrey, and the Bahamas, where he quietly enjoyed hobbies such as bridge, golf, and racehorses. After battling liver cancer, he died at his island home on 6 May 2015, survived by his wife, Ginette, and daughters Colette, a public relations account manager, and Leonie, a contestant in television talent show The X Factor in 2004 and subsequently a business consultant.

Refusing to conform to racial stereotypes or be defined by the colour of his skin, Brown said that it was ‘the combination of the cultures in me—black and white—that really became the basis of my music’ (Lewis, ‘Errol Brown’). While Hot Chocolate was not the first or the only multi-ethnic popular music group in Britain, the scale of its success helped break down barriers for those who followed.

Sources

Archives

Film

  • performance footage, BFI NFTVA

Sound

  • performance and interview recording, BL NSA

Likenesses

  • F. Costello, photograph, 1978, Getty Images [see illus.]
  • Y. Mok, photograph, with presenter Michael Aspel, 1997, AP Images
  • S. Dempsey, photograph, 1999, AP Images
  • photograph, 2001, AP Images
  • Y. Mok, photograph, 2002, AP Images
  • F. Hanson, photograph, with his wife Ginette after receiving an MBE, 2003, AP Images
  • Y. Mok, photograph, 2004, AP Images
  • M. Kehoe, three photographs, 2009, AP Images
  • photographs, Getty Images
  • photographs, Rex Features
  • photographs, Camera Press
  • photographs, PA Images
  • photographs, www.errolbrown.com/, accessed 10 August 2018
  • photographs, Alamy
  • obituary photographs

Wealth at Death

£2,061,397: Daily Mail (10 June 2017)

marriage certificate
British Film Institute, London
British Library, National Sound Archive