First Choice lead singer Rochelle Fleming has one of the most distinctive and enduring voices of the disco era. The Philadelphia, PA, native's vocals range from breathless urgency, as on the group's first big hit "Armed and Extremely Dangerous" (a Top 20 R&B hit from 1973), to saucy, energetic sensuality, as on their dance classic "Let No Man Put Asunder."
Lead singer Rochelle Fleming and Chester, PA, native Annette Guest were part of a vocal quintet when both were students at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia. Rehearsing in Guest's mother's house, the group began making the rounds of talent shows and public events. After contacting WDAS Radio DJ Georgie Woods, they were introduced to Philly soul guitarist/songwriter/producer Norman Harris and Delfonics manager Stan Watson. By the time the group went into the recording studio, the lineup was Fleming, Guest, Wardell Piper, and Mulaney Star. Their first release was a song written by Harris and Allan Felder, the pumping "This Is the House Where Love Died," which was leased to New York's Sceptor Records and issued on their Wand imprint in 1972. The single received airplay in Philly and other markets, but failed to chart nationally. Star left the group and went into private life.
In 1973, the group signed to the Philly Groove label which was distributed by Bell Records. Their next single, the Harris-produced "Armed and Extremely Dangerous," was their first big hit, going to number 11 R&B on Billboard's charts in early 1973; it was also a Top 20 U.K. hit. Around this time, Wardell Piper exited the group and in 1979 recorded a self-titled disco LP produced by John Fitch and Reuben Cross (the writers of Evelyn "Champagne" King's "Shame") for Midsong International Records that included "Super Sweet," number 20 R&B, summer 1979, and "Captain Boogie," number 33 R&B, early 1979. She was replaced by Joyce Jones.
The Armed and Extremely Dangerous album was released in fall 1973, just as "Smarty Pants," a cautionary tale about unwanted pregnancy, reached number 25 R&B. The album included a cover of the Al Green/Mabon Hodges song "Love and Happiness." The trio's next single, the pumping "Newsy Neighbors," peaked at number 35 R&B in early 1974. On the flip was "This Little Woman." For the bulk of their records, First Choice was backed by the tight rhythm section of guitarist Harris, bassist Ron Baker, and drummer Earl Young, who were part of MFSB, the house band for Gamble & Huff's Philadelphia International Records.
The next single, "The Player-Part 1," reflected the popularity of the "blaxploitation" movies of the time ([RoviLink="VW"]Shaft, [RoviLink="VW"]Superfly, [RoviLink="VW"]The Mack) and was their highest charting R&B single, hitting number seven R&B in summer 1974, though the group enjoyed many high-charting hits on Billboard's disco charts. The Player LP was issued in fall 1974. More Philly Groove releases were "Guilty" (number 19 R&B, late 1974) and "Love Freeze" (number 61 R&B, spring 1975) with "A Boy Named Junior" on the flipside. A switch to Warner Bros. Records proved be a disappointing tenure. All of their releases were minor hits: "Gotta Get Away (From You Baby)" (number 64 R&B, spring 1976), "Let Him Go" (number 97 R&B, fall 1976) and the LP So Let Us Entertain You. Around 1977, Joyce Jones left the group and was replaced by Ursula Herring.
The following year Norman Harris formed Gold Mind Records, which was distributed by dance label pioneer Salsoul Records, and co-founded Baker-Harris-Young Productions with his bandmates. Salsoul was having hits in the then-burgeoning disco music field with the Salsoul Orchestra ("You're Just the Right Size," "Nice 'N' Nasty," "Getaway") and Double Exposure ("Ten Percent," "My Love Is Free," "Everyman (Has to Carry His Own Weight)"). Already dance-floor favorites because of "Armed and Extremely Dangerous" and "The Player-Part 1," First Choice signed with Gold Mind, and their first release for the label, the ultra-catchy "Doctor Love," went to number 23 R&B in summer 1977. On the flipside was the beautiful ballad "I Love You More Than Before." An album, Delusions, followed in fall 1977. Generally regarded as the trio's best LP, it featured lyrically rich dance tunes as well as luscious ballads, and gave Philadelphia native Fleming her best showcase, displaying one of the most distinctive lead vocalists in soul/dance/pop music. Fleming's vocals are also some of the most sampled, as they can be heard on countless dance records from around the world.
"Doctor Love"'s follow-up was a fat, funky cover of Stevie Wonder's "Love Having You Around" (the opening track of his 1972 LP Music of My Mind). It was a huge disco hit and charted number 68 R&B, late 1977. On the flip was "Indian Giver." Several tracks from Delusions received massive club play and airplay on disco-oriented and R&B stations: the snappy "Chances Go Round," the galloping "Gamble on Love," the mesmerizing perfect-at-midnight ballad "Do Me Again," and the classic "Let No Man Put Asunder." Fleming sings the Bruce Gray/Bruce Hawes song with barely-contained abandon, charging the track with a soul-shaking eroticism. Even though "Let No Man Put Asunder" was a huge disco hit and received massive radio airplay as an album track, it wasn't released as a single until 1986.
During the mid-'80s, the disco/Philly soul-influenced house music genre emerged, bringing new attention to disco groups like First Choice. Their "Love Thang" and "Let No Man Put Asunder" began to surface in club DJs' dance-floor mixes, and were met with loud enthusiasm from the crowd. Possibly bolstered by countless bootlegs, Salsoul issued a 12'' single remix of "Let No Man Put Asunder" by DJ Frankie Knuckles, who helped popularize the record by including it in his turntable mixes during his stints at Chicago house music/dance club The Warehouse and on his lunchtime "hot mixes" on local radio station WBMX-FM. On the flipside was a remix by New York DJ and future Madonna producer Shep Pettibone. Delusions was issued on CD by U.K. label Charly in December 1994.
Their next Gold Mind LP, Hold Your Houses, was released March 1979, with the title track becoming a disco classic and peaking at number 73 R&B, early 1979, and the follow-up, "Double Cross," charting number 60 R&B, spring 1979. One album track, the chunk-funky "Love Thang," received heavy club and radio play. That same year, Debbie Martin replaced Ursula Herring. In 1980, their final Salsoul LP Breakaway was released. After legal wrangling with Salsoul (including the rights to their name, a common record contract stipulation), the group left the label and broke up the following year. Fleming took a two-year break from the record business. Around 1983, Salsoul ceased operations to focus on the emerging home video market by starting their First Choice Video division.
In 1987, Fleming reformed a version of First Choice with her cousin Laconya Fleming and Lawrence Cottel, who recorded a single for Prelude Records, "Love Itch." Salsoul/Double J Records issued "Double Cross-'93 remixes," a 12" single that included the original mix and six remixes in 1993; that same year, "Let No Man Put Asunder" was similarly issued. In the '90s, Rochelle Fleming continued to record songs in the U.S. and Europe, including "Danger!" and "Suffer the Consequences" for Cutting Records. ~ Ed Hogan
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