There's always something melancholy about red-letter biographies on Wikipedia. To think, that out of the internet encyclopedia's 100,000 active monthly contributors no-one has taken the time to add in basic biographical information on these landmark figures. One such overlooked artist is Hot Chocolate’s Tony Wilson, who was born on this day in Trinidad in 1947.
As far as I can work out, Wilson first recorded for Decca with (as?) The Souvenirs in 1963, covering Lou Christie’s How Many Teardrops. He then collaborated with future Deep Purple producer Derek Lawrence on a fine run of singles as The Soul Brothers, The New Soul Brothers and The Derek Lawrence Statement, before meeting up with Errol Brown in Brixton in 1968 and recording a lazily strange Caribbean cover of The Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace A Chance.
“Nothing ever seems to work out in Wilson-Brown world.”
Released on Apple with Lennon’s consent, and credited to The Hot Chocolate Band, Give Peace A Chance led to Brown and Wilson being snapped up by Mickie Most’s RAK Records where they wrote – as Wilson-Brown – for Julie Felix, Mary Hopkin and Herman’s Hermits, before releasing their first single as Hot Chocolate, Love Is Life in July 1970.
An anthemic prog-reggae slowie, with an unshakeable air of autumnal sadness (all the wonderful things Brown is singing about are far off in the future, out of reach of the present), Love Is Life was a Number 6 hit that set the template for all of Hot Chocolate’s subsequent early ’70s singles: a unique kind of weary British soul-reggae, underpinned by paranoia, nightmare and depression.
Nothing ever seems to work out in Wilson-Brown world; everything is over before it’s begun. When Errol Brown’s girl fails to turn up for their date in You Could Have Been A Lady he sees it as a sign of her imminent fall into a world of empty glamour and prostitution: it’s Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone as disconsolate disco groove. By the time Brown sings “Ain’t no diff’rence ’tween black or white” on 1973’s Brother Louie you know he’s not preaching peace and love but making the troubling point that racism lurks in the hearts of all of us.
Still, despite the grey fog of defeat that imbues all of Hot Chocolate’s early ’70s singles, nothing quite prepares you for lower depths of despair reached in the group’s 1973 single, Emma.
The murky pulse of Tony Wilson and Tony Connor’s dampened bass-and-drums intro gives the track a heavy narcotic drag from the off, a muffled underwater groove reminiscent of the heavy meds Rhythm King soul of Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Harvey Hinsley’s double-tracked Gibson SG riff simultaneously seems to soar and pull everything down, while a background string section adds a foreboding note of edgy drama, so that when the past tense is invoked by Brown in the song’s near-spoken narration – “We were together since we were five” – you just know that darkness awaits. Yet exactly how dark is always up for debate.
“I have to ask just how reliable is our narrator here?”
I love songs with unreliable narrators and I have to ask just how reliable is our narrator here? Are we meant to detect just a hint of jealousy when he tells us that “We were together since we were five / She was so pretty / Emma was a star in everyone’s eyes”? What role does he play in the relative success (or failure) of her movie career dreams? How believable is Emma’s dream in the first place? When Errol cries, Hinsley’s guitar cries, raising further questions about the absolute truth of the narrator’s voice. Like Glen Campbell’s version of By The Time I Get To Phoenix, I’m just not sure how far I believe his story. So I have to keep to the song. It's perfect, because there’s something missing.
Wilson left Hot Chocolate in 1976, cut a great solo album, I Like Your Style, for Bearsville and, in 1983, he released an epic slice of visionary electro soul called Hangin' Out In Space. The Diamond Recordings label put out a compilation in 1998 called Sweet 'N' Soulful – The Tony Wilson Story but since then, nothing. He's on Facebook if you fancy saying hello and wishing him a happy birthday. And if any of you contribute to Wikipedia, could you fill in the man's biography? He deserves so much more.