RIP Ben E. King & Hot Chocolate’s Errol Brown – An Aretha Franklin Cover + What ‘Emma’ Is Really About

Errol Brown.

A belated RIP to two soul stars who’ve recently passed away. Other than their time of departure from this world, both the American Ben E. King (76) and the Brit (by way of Jamaica) Errol Brown (71) were also linked by being disproportionately known for solitary songs.

The serious and the slightly silly, Stand By Me (King, 1961) and You Sexy Thing (Hot Chocolate, 1975) charted in multiple decades and will forever be the songs people think of when they hear of King or Brown. And yet both artists had plenty of other hits and substantial back catalogues. They were also both songwriters in an era and genre where that wasn’t always a given.

In King’s case his most famous song is such a towering soul standard that perhaps it’s not worth fighting too hard its dominance over his other hits. These include the likes of Spanish Harlem and Don’t Plat That Song (both covered by Aretha Franklin no less), not to mention his dozen or so recordings with the Drifters like Save The Last Dance For Me and There Goes My Baby.

With Stand By Me, it can’t be underestimated that when the song topped international charts the second time around in 1986 – 25 years after first reaching the top 10 – there was no remix. The original song, as written by King with added polish from songwriting greats Leiber / Stoller, not only had a timeless message but a timeless production. This lack of a remix for a decades-later chart re-entry puts Stand By Me in the select company of songs like Unchained Melody (the Righteous Brothers version 1965 and 1990) and Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen 1975 and 1992).

Ben E. King.

Hot Chocolate’s signature song would hit the UK top 10 in three successive decades (1975, 1987, 1997) complete with a slightly gimmicky remix for its 1987 update. While that kind of extremely rare success is inarguable proof of You Sexy Thing‘s unique popularity, it obscures a point made in this wonderfully titled recent Guardian tribute:

“Why Errol Brown’s Hot Chocolate were a far stranger group than they are given credit for”

Hot Chocolate were never a major shifter of albums, but in total they placed 25 separate singles in the UK top 40 between 1970 and 1984. And yet the near bubblegum pop of You Sexy Thing – and to a lesser extent songs like It Started With A Kiss and So You Win Again – make it easy to forget Hot Chocolate also hit the high end of the British charts with some genuinely dark material.

Brother Louie (1973) detailed the racism faced by a mixed-race couple, while Emma (1974) told of the suicide of a man’s childhood sweetheart: “I just can’t keep living on dreams no more.” The Isley Brothers-like falsetto wails that found such ubiquity on You Sexy Thing can be first heard here and Brown delivers them with heartbreaking sincerity.

Listen below to Stand By Me and remind yourself this tale of brotherhood is now 54 years old and still sounding fresh. But for something different from Ben E King, also find a clip below of Aretha Franklin’s outstanding 1970 cover of his 1962 hit Don’t Play That Song (You Lied). To listen to You Sexy Thing, just turn on any oldies station, but for a change up, Emma is below instead. If you remember the melody, listen to the lyrics closely for the first time. RIP Ben E. King and Errol Brown.

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