‘Hot Hot Hot’ turns 40: Story behind Arrow’s soca classic is a bit complex, but song’s legacy secure

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Arrow's album "Hot Hot Hot" was released in 1982. The song's popularity continues to increase across the globe.

“The idea is not to live forever but to create something that will.” – Andy Warhol

In 1972, Alphonsus “Arrow” Cassell and brother Justin “Hero” Cassell traveled to Trinidad to promote Arrow’s debut album, The Mighty Arrow On Target. One of their stops was in the town of Diego Martin – slightly northwest of Port of Spain – to visit Slinger Francisco (the Mighty Sparrow). The brothers knew that an endorsement from the calypso king of the world would be vital for the album’s prospects. They arrived on time for the meeting but Sparrow kept them waiting for hours as he sipped cocktails and hobnobbed with his pals. Finally, Sparrow turned to the visitors.

“The boys from Montserrat, what do you have for me to hear?” Arrow played Invitation To The Caribbean – the first song on the album – and waited for a response. “Nobody wants to hear that nonsense!” Sparrow said. “People want to hear songs like Pussy Bite Me!”

A humiliated Arrow left the meeting in tears, but he remembered something else Sparrow told him that day. “Young man, if you want to succeed, be different than everybody else.”

In the subsequent years, Arrow’s music evolved substantially. There was a clear shift from traditional calypso to faster tunes. Even his social commentaries were now uptempo, such as Man Must Live (1978) and Bills (1980). And in 1982, he reached his pinnacle with a song whose legacy and impact would outlive him.

Hot Hot Hot – the most popular soca song of all time – turns 40 this year. In the years preceding his death in 2010, Arrow – while performing – often outlined the litany of accolades the song has achieved, including being performed in a dozen different languages and selling more than 12 million copies. Both figures have surely increased in the 12 years since Arrow’s passing.

Arrow boasted many hits during his storied career, including Long Time, More Fete and Groove Master, but Hot Hot Hot was his magnum opus. The story of Hot Hot Hot from conception to recording is a bit complicated. But one thing is certain: It was a synergy of ideas from several sources, including Hero, who was Arrow’s frequent writer, plus arranger Leston Paul, musician Clarence “Oungku” Edwards, five-time Montserrat calypso monarch Everton “Reality” Weekes, and Arrow himself.

Several factors must align for a song to become a hit: melody, lyrics, arrangement, timing, luck. Hot Hot Hot checked all the boxes. It takes listeners on a symphonic journey, with driving bass riffs, gleeful horns, several hooks and a resounding guitar solo. The seven-minute trip takes excursions but always returns home to the refrain. Trinidad might be the cradle of soca music but Montserrat is the birthplace of soca’s world anthem. And those who know Arrow best were not surprised that he made musical history.

Photo courtesy Cassell family
Arrow showed a knack for business at a young age.

IT’S SHOW “BUSINESS”

For all his success as an entertainer, Arrow was truly a businessman at his core. As a young lad growing up in Town Hill, he displayed an entrepreneurial spirit. He raised suckling pigs, sold customized rubber stamps, and owned pigeons, more than 60 of them. He would often stand with his arms outstretched, and the birds would perch on them. In fact, Arrow’s first calypso name was “Pigeon King”. Arrow was also a self-taught barber.

“I remember the Governor used to come to our house and Arrow would cut his hair on our verandah,” says Lorenzo Cassell, Arrow’s elder brother. “When he was selling rubber stamps, one year I went to Dominica, and he had me going from business to business in downtown Roseau asking if they needed rubber stamps.”

Years later, Arrow also sold insurance, and in 1974 he and good friend Johnnie “Mecca” Wyke opened clothing stores in Plymouth. To avoid direct competition, they agreed that Johnnie would sell women’s clothes, and Arrow would open a Man’s Shop. In between all that, Arrow was recording albums yearly, performing and also competing. He was clearly driven, he hated to lose, and he was willing to go to any lengths to succeed.

Arrow was also shrewd. He surrounded himself with as much talent and as many ideas as possible. He sought out the best musicians, writers and arrangers. He relied on the advice of local composers and musicians, including Cyril “Lasso” Fergus, Roy “Pig Hog” Dyer, Gus White and Randy Greenaway. He even covered songs by local artists, such as Woman Come To Jam by Reality.

Photo courtesy Alphonsus Cassell Foundation
Arrow, right, with brother and frequent collaborator Justin “Hero” Cassell.

ANATOMY OF A CLASSIC

There are many stories about the creation of Hot Hot Hot. Everyone wants to be associated with a classic, no matter how minuscule their contribution, and sometimes it’s difficult to decipher fact from fiction. During an interview October 22, 2022, Reality – speaking from his home in Connecticut – provided some clarity.

“I am the original writer of Hot Hot Hot,” he said firmly. “Arrow came to me and told me he heard an Indian song and he liked the melody. He wanted me to copy it. I told him I would rather come up with my own song. I got my guitar and just started singing, ‘Me mind on fire, me soul on fire, feeling hot hot hot.’ From there, they embellished what I started. The original name of the song was Fundamental Jam. I believe the ‘O-le, O-le’ part came from the same Indian song.”

Edwards, the longtime leader and keyboard player for Antigua’s Burning Flames, was Arrow’s bass player for the Hot Hot Hot album. He came up with the signature bass riff at the start of the song. He addressed it in 2019 during a show (see video).

Clarence “Oungku” Edwards discusses the bass riff of “Hot Hot Hot” as brother “Crocus” demonstrates.
Photo courtesy Alphonsus Cassell Foundation
Arrow and bass player Clarence “Oungku” Edwards.

Reality acknowledges that he didn’t have a hand in certain parts of the song, such as the bridge with the lyrics: “People in the party, hot, hot, hot . . . you’re hot, I’m hot . . .” However, Reality says he wrote several other songs on the album, including Menu and Party Hopping. The liner notes state that all songs were composed by Arrow.

Leston Paul, who hails from Trinidad, reportedly spent about five weeks in Montserrat working on the arrangement for the album. As for the decision to change the name of the song, that came during a meeting at the Cassell household on Wall Street in Town Hill.

During a 2012 interview, Hero said the meeting got heated because he insisted that the song title be changed from Fundamental Jam to Hot Hot Hot. “I used some colloquial adjectives and my mother kicked me out of the meeting,” Hero says.

Hero eventually won out, and Hot Hot Hot became official. The naming convention followed a pattern Hero has utilized in songwriting: repeating the same word or phrase three times. By the way, Arrow often held listening sessions at the family home whenever he was working on new material. Sometimes, his mother – matriarch Mrs. Vonnie Cassell – would enter the meeting room and dance when she heard a song she liked. Friends say that was always a sure sign that the song would be a hit.

Everton “Reality” Weekes played a key role in the development of “Hot Hot Hot”.

RECORDING AND MIXING

The Hot Hot Hot album was recorded at Eras Studios in Manhattan. Basil Morgan was Arrow’s road manager for several years. He was present for the recording of Hot Hot Hot and recalls Arrow’s penchant for being a perfectionist.

“Arrow rented a studio in Boston for 12 hours to do the mixing for the album,” Morgan says. “They started with Hot Hot Hot. When the 12 hours elapsed, they were still working on Hot Hot Hot.”

In the days before CDs and streaming, when vinyl was king, artists usually placed their best songs on the A side of the record. Hot Hot Hot is actually on the B side, indicating that the song possibly was not expected to be the biggest hit on the album.

When the album was finally released for Montserrat Festival in 1982, it was well received. But Hot Hot Hot (the song) actually got better with age. And in 1987 it got a huge boost when American singer David Johansen – performing under the alias Buster Poindexter – covered Hot Hot Hot. His version rose to No. 45 on the U.S. Hot 100 chart and enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV, the most popular music video channel at the time.

Buster Poindexter’s version of Hot Hot Hot gave Arrow’s song an international boost.

Due to its simple theme, Hot Hot Hot became low-hanging fruit for advertisers, including Toyota, which featured a commercial declaring, “Toyota’s Hot Hot Hot!” The song became a staple at weddings and a frequent choice for cover bands and karaoke. At Spanish clubs and functions, Hot Hot Hot was a sure bet to draw a conga line. For Arrow, the song became a gift that kept on giving. As owner of the publishing rights, he negotiated directly with those who sought permission to use the song – and it proved lucrative.

By the way, Arrow’s 1983 album – the follow-up to Hot Hot Hot – was simply called Heat, perhaps hoping to piggy-back off the momentum of its predecessor.

LEGACY OF A CLASSIC

On Monday, August 8, 2022, Idris Elba was a guest on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. Elba, best known as an actor, is also a professional disc jockey who famously played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Fallon asked Elba what is his “go-to” song when he wants people to get on the dance floor at a wedding. Elba replied: “Are you familiar with a song called Hot Hot Hot?” Fallon immediately began belting out the opening lyrics – “O-le! O-le! O-le! O-le!” – as the studio audience and the house band joined in.

Imagine that: A British-African actor and an American comedian discussing a song that was created on a tiny island in the Caribbean. It was a defining moment that revealed the impact of a tune that has become an international hallmark.

A look at the back of the Hot Hot Hot album (1982).

It’s amazing how good music can transcend even the person who created it. Arrow is the most famous person in Montserrat history, but to date, many outside the volcanic island still believe he’s a Trinidadian. When Elba spoke about Hot Hot Hot on The Tonight Show, he stated that it was sung by “a band called Arrow.” So the struggle for accurate recognition remains a work in progress. But the music speaks for itself.

It must also be noted that Justin “Hero” Cassell is also the composer for Tiny Winey, another eternal soca smash, so for Hero to have left his fingerprints on two of the most iconic Caribbean recordings in history is a feat to be applauded.

In the late 1980s and 1990s – with Hot Hot Hot now a bona-fide classic – Arrow performed throughout the Caribbean, the United States and Canada and introduced soca to cities such as Tokyo and Amsterdam. He was the only soca artist at Reggae Sunsplash in 1985 at Crystal Palace in London. He even promoted shows. Before one concert, Arrow was contacted by a performer asking to please add him to the lineup. His name?

The Mighty Sparrow.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I appreciate the story and the sentiments expressed in the Arrow story, all fantastic. However with all the names mentioned I realise that mine was not mentioned. I was there for playing rhythm guitar with Everton Reality Week, his brother Clyde Organiser Weeks for all the years when Arrow made it big. We played for hours from afternoons to nights day in day out, but for some reason my name was not mentioned, interesting! Be as it may my name is on some of the albums jacket along with a number of many other people who were not there when the songs were being created and written. However the article is a good one but I a much bigger role in the hits development than 90 percent of the people mentioned in it.

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