In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
A multi-racial British soul-funk band writes a song about an interracial couple. It’s a hit in the UK, but it goes nowhere in America. Then a white American rock band records the same song, and it’s nothing like anything else they’ve released. The white band’s cover of the song goes to #1, and then they never score another hit again. (Meanwhile, the British soul-funk band, who have become huge stars in the UK, go on to have a nice little run in the US.)
What is that? What is that story supposed to teach us about the music industry, or racial power dynamics, or the way the public receives lyrics based on the race of the person singing those lyrics? I have no idea. But that’s the story of “Brother Louie.”
“Brother Louie” came from Hot Chocolate, a London band that got together in 1968 and briefly signed to Apple Records. In the UK, Hot Chocolate became big stars, landing songs in the top 10 every year for 14 years straight. And when disco came in and they adapted to the sound, they got pretty big in America, as well. (In the US, Hot Chocolate’s highest-charting single is 1975’s “You Sexy Thing,” which peaked at #3 in 1975. It’s a 9.) Hot Chocolate hadn’t yet released an album when they dropped “Brother Louie,” but they’d already been in the UK top 10 a couple of times.
Errol Brown, Hot Chocolate’s Jamaican-born singer, co-wrote “Brother Louie” with Tony Wilson, their Trinidadian-born bassist (not the Factory Records guy). It’s a song about a white man — a man “whiter than white” — dating a girl who’s “blacker than night.” The man introduces the girl to his family, and they predictably freak the fuck out: “He took her home to meet his mama and papa / Louie had a terrible fight.” In Hot Chocolate’s version of the song, he meets her family, too, and they also disapprove: “Louie knew just where he stood.” The white British blues guitarist Alexis Korner shows up on the song, playing the parts of both families, muttering that he “don’t want no spook” or “honky” in his family.
The song never resolves its conflict, but it’s clear that Brown is on Louie’s side: “Nothing bad, it was good.” But Brown might also imply that Louie doesn’t know what he’s getting into: “Danger, danger when you taste brown sugar.” It’s a deep burble of a funk song, and while the lyrics aren’t terribly sophisticated, they do give the listener a sense about how a couple’s happiness can be ruined by the ingrained prejudices of the people around them.
Hot Chocolate’s “Brother Louie” did no business in the US, but Stories singer Ian Lloyd heard the song one day in his A&R guy’s office. Stories had formed in 1962, when Lloyd met Michael Brown, former frontman of the Left Banke, a pretty successful New York baroque pop band. (The Left Banke’s highest-charting single is 1966’s “Walk Away Renée,” which peaked at #5. It’s a 6.) Lloyd had a nicely strangulated howl-rasp tenor, and he and Brown got together with the intention of becoming a Beatlesque rock band. That’s exactly what they did. Stories’ self-titled debut and 1973 follow-up About Us are fairly pleasant, undistinguished rock records that take clear inspiration from the later Beatles. They are just about as generic as their band name.
When Lloyd heard “Brother Louie,” he knew it was a hit, though he claims that he thought the finished Hot Chocolate record was just a demo. Stories took the song and adjusted it, making it a bit harder and more streamlined. They took out the stuff about Louie meeting the girls’ parents, and they left off the spoken-word bits. But a lot of the song is strikingly similar — the icy string-stabs, the wah-wah guitar scratches, the interplay between bass and organ. The real difference is Lloyd’s voice, a strutting yelp that a whole lot of people confused for Rod Stewart.
Both versions of “Brother Louie” have groove to spare. In Stories’ hands, it’s a tense funk vamp, a satisfying rhythmic squelcher. Between those strings and Lloyd’s histrionic delivery, as well as the simple and steady pulse of the song, it’s basically a disco song. Disco hadn’t really come together as a genre yet, but Stories were from New York, and I would guess that they at least had some idea of what was beginning to happen in the clubs there. In any case, Lloyd’s delivery — high-pitched, intense, theatrical to the point of silliness — would basically lay the blueprint for how white rock singers (including Rod Stewart) would adapt to the disco sound in the years ahead.
About Us, Stories’ sophomore album, had already come out when Stories released their “Brother Louie” cover. Kama Sutra, the band’s label, quickly released another version of the album, with “Brother Louie” tacked onto the end. “Brother Louie” sounds absolutely nothing like anything else on About Us. It’s a clear outlier for a band that wasn’t much interested in that sound. Michael Brown had already left Stories after About Us came out. Ian Lloyd stayed with the band for another year, but they didn’t make any more hits, and they broke up soon after. Lloyd went solo, and he didn’t really make any hits, either. (He did, however, come pretty close to joining Foreigner, a band that will eventually show up in this column.) “Brother Louie” ended up being an absolute one-off, a quick brush with something larger. The people who made “Brother Louie” won’t be in this column again, but the song hints at a sound that sure as hell will.
BONUS BEATS: Louis CK used a slightly adjusted version of Stories’ take on “Brother Louie” as the theme song for his FX show Louie. (Reggie Watts put the cover together, and Ian Lloyd came in to re-record his vocals.) But we don’t talk about Louis CK anymore, so fuck that! Instead, let’s go with Bon Jovi — a band who will appear in this column — attempting to get funky by covering “Brother Louie” during their 1992 MTV live special:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: DJ Shadow flipped a “Brother Louie” sample for “Hot Breath,” a song from the rapper Mack B. Dog, which appeared on the 2000 compilation Solesides’ Greatest Bumps. Here’s that:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Duck Sauce, the duo of A-Trak and Armand Van Helden, sampling “Brother Louie” on their 2014 dance track “Louie The First”: