Graded on a Curve:
Hot Chocolate,
10 Greatest Hits

The U.K. funk/soul/disco outfit Hot Chocolate never made much of a dent statewide; they’re best remembered for their 1975 hit “You Sexy Thing,” although pop aficionados will also remember them for such curiosities as “Brother Louie”–which Stories took to Number One in the U.S.–and “Emma.”

And that’s too bad, because the racially mixed Hot Chocolate produced some damn good music, much of which found its way onto their 1974 debut Cicero Park, 1975’s eponymous Hot Chocolate, and 1976’s Man to Man. Lead singer Errol Brown and bassist/co-lead vocalist Tony Wilson were a formidable songwriting team before the latter’s departure, and Brown continued to turn out some excellent stuff, as is proved beyond a doubt on 1977’s 10 Greatest Hits.

It didn’t hurt that Brown’s soulful croon was one in a million, or that he could shriek just like Wilson Pickett. Just listen to the screams he tosses off at the end of the immortal suicide ode “Emma,” which works to a “T” thanks to the funky drumming of white guy Tony Connor and the guitar of other white guy Harvey Hinsley. And Hinsley’s guitar is a thing of wonder on the hard-charging funk rocker “You Could’ve Been a Lady,” which would have flown to the Top of the Pops in a just world. This baby remains one of my favorite songs of America’s Bicentennial Year; inexplicably, Hot Chocolate didn’t see fit to release it as a single.

“Disco Queen” shows off Brown’s funky vocals and Connor’s heavy manner on the drums; the horn section is hot, and when Brown sings “She don’t need no man to give her satisfaction/All she needs is a guitar playing high” Hinsley’s there to do just that. This baby is the Talking Head’s “Life During Wartime” for the dance set, and I love it. “Heaven Is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac” has an impossibly funky groove and brings the best out of Brown, whose vocal style on this one is impossible to describe. Suffice if to say that when he bends the words “Let me take you there” the ladies swoon, and never has the idea of cramped back seat love sounded so good.

“Brother Louie” is a timeless anthem to interracial love; whereas the Stories’ version boasted some Rod Stewart-style lead vocals and was straight up rock, Hot Chocolate’s version is more reminiscent of War at their best. Grainy vocals, a slower beat; this one cooks, and even makes good use of some sweeping strings. And features some back and forth talking to boot. “Rumours” is an oddball track and pure deep dish funk; a bunch of guys sing nonsense before Brown jumps in to sing a kind of nursery rhyme, and the keys to this baby are the most excellent percussion of Tony Olive and the chukka-chukka guitar genius of Hinsley. And the very weird vocals of Brown, natch.

“You Sexy Thing” needs no introduction; it’s a straight up disco funk classic and enough to make you believe in miracles. The strings are perfect; Olive cooks on percussion; and Brown’s vocals are as impassioned as Hinsley’s big guitar riff is inspired. As for “Don’t Stop It Now,” it’s nothing less than “You Sexy Thing” redux; the chief difference is that Brown’s vocals are wilder and woolier, while the song itself is a bit more restrained.

“Man to Man” is a slow burner with some great horns and some very cool organ drone over which Brown testifies and testifies. This is end of the night music for dance people right down to the spoken parts–if the lady can’t decide which of us to choose, goes the message, let’s sit down, talk it out, and make her mind up for her. The LP’s only weak cut is the only cut Hot Chocolate didn’t write. Russ Ballard’s “So You Win Again” features big disco strings, lots of big disco vocals, and works just fine, I suppose, in its big disco way. But it lacks the unique character of the rest of the songs on this compilation.

Hot Chocolate never got the props they deserved stateside. Especially when one considers that they produced a whole lotta songs as good as the ones that made it onto 10 Greatest Hits. Cicero Park and Man to Man are both good places to find them, and both are must owns. And while the quality of the songwriting dropped off some after Man to Man, anybody who has ever heard 1978’s “Every 1’s a Winner” knows Hot Chocolate still had some Soul Train quality product up their sleeves.

Dip your ears into some Hot Chocolate. They’ll thank you for it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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