The author of perhaps the strangest pick-up line in the history of pop music — “I believe in miracles/Where you from?/You sexy thing!” — is gone. Errol Brown, formerly of the band Hot Chocolate and the singer of “You Sexy Thing,” died Wednesday of liver cancer in the Bahamas at age 71.
The singer “had been poorly over the past few months, but he never discussed it,” Phil Dale, Brown’s manager, told the Associated Press. “He’d be sadly missed by his friends and family. He was an extremely good personal friend.”
If Brown’s legacy seems defined by those asking the DJ to play one more at a wedding reception or by “You Sexy Thing’s” cameo in the film “The Full Monty,” his life story is straight out of Charles Dickens. It features an absent father and a chance encounter with greatness — in the form of a Beatle — that led to fame and fortune.
Brown was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1943, as the New York Times reported. His father, a policeman, wasn’t around much. His mother jetted to foreign shores. Life wasn’t easy.
“My life was very difficult in the early days,” Brown told Blues and Soul magazine a decade ago during what was billed as his farewell tour. “I was a single-parent child. My father didn’t really figure much in my life. And, when my mother first left to come to England, she left me back in Jamaica with an aunty for five years.”
Brown went to England at 12 — missing out of the reggae explosion that put other Jamaicans of his generation, including no less a personage than fellow Kingstonian Bob Marley, in the international spotlight. But though Brown grew up half-a-world away, reggae stayed with him. Indeed, by the late 1960s, he viewed it as a hustle of sorts.
“We were gonna reggae-fy some popular songs of the day to try and make some money,” Brown said. “So I decided, with ‘Give Peace A Chance,’ I’d change the Lennon lyrics and add my own! But then, after listening to it, the guy who’d financed the demo session was outraged! He was like ‘You can’t do that to a John Lennon song! You’ve gotta get permission first!’ “
So, in an effort to get permission, the song was sent to the offices of Apple, the Beatles nascent — and grossly mismanaged — record label. The outcome was, pretty much, ideal: John Lennon didn’t just like the song, he agreed to release it.
“Then someone in the Apple office named us ‘The Hot Chocolate Band’; the record came out; had a lot of airplay … but didn’t really do that well,” Brown said. “So that was the end of that.”
But Hot Chocolate was not done yet. Transitioning out of the hippie era into disco under the tutelage of English uber-producer Mickie Most, the band scored a number of hits, including “Brother Louie” — a cover version of the song is the theme song to the Louis C.K. show “Louie” — and “You Sexy Thing” in 1975.
The song was inspired by Brown’s wife, to whom he was married until his death.
“When I was writing ‘Sexy Thing,’ I was in clubs until 4 a.m.; that was my life,” Brown told the Telegraph in 2009. “Once I got married and had my children, I left the life.”
Though Brown may have left clubbing behind, his song never did. Even 40 years after its release — after being spun countless numbers of times by DJs around the world — the song is incredibly infectious, and pretty weird. Strings, what sounds like bongos through a wah-wah pedal, Brown’s outer-space delivery of the declaration “Touch me!”: This track has it all.
“‘You Sexy Thing’ has a life of its own,” Brown said. “I first took it to Mickey, strummed it on my guitar … And, once I did a verse and chorus, he was like, ‘That’s a smash!’ “
“Cute, flirtatious reggae/soul,” AllMusic wrote. “… The unorthodox introduction is irresistible and no doubt worked like a charm for Brown with the ladies.”
If black British stars — and bald ones at that — in the 1970s were unusual, Brown didn’t seem to notice.
“Brown just ignored the fact that he was a rarity,” the Telegraph wrote. The singer said: “That didn’t come into my head. The fact that people were buying your records meant that it wasn’t troubling them.”
Brown stuck with Hot Chocolate through “a hit every year for 15 years, millions of records sold,” as the Telegraph put it. The band even played the ultimate wedding: a pre-party reception for the union of Prince Charles and Lady Diana at Buckingham Palace in 1981.
“The Royal Wedding reception was special, in the sense that it’s the first time I’d been onstage and all I could see was tiaras glistening in the night,” Brown said of the honor.
Still, Brown struck out for a solo career in 1987.
“I felt tired, and I felt — rightly or wrongly — that everything was on my shoulders,” he said. “You know, the other members of the band were happy to relax and enjoy their lives, while I was struggling and striving to come up with something.”
Brown continued to record and tour, but would never match his former success. He was, however, awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2003 by Queen Elizabeth.
The Telegraph offered words of tribute that perhaps cannot be topped.
“He is a man who has stayed with his wife for 30 years despite being pelted with ladies’ pants wherever he plays,” the newspaper wrote, “who has owned racehorses but never bet more that £100 on a race, and who, when the hits stopped, was happy to leave the music business at the height of his fame without rancour or regret.”