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Founded in 1968, the vocal team of leader Rochelle Fleming and backup singers Joyce Jones and Annette Guest started their journey in Philadelphia, playing local bars and clubs, earning a large, loyal following. The three ladies called themselves The Debonettes. Their sound, evolved from gospel, blues, and soul music, typified the "Philly" vibe of the time. Their sound was technically proficient, well-rehearsed and as joyous as the spunky women who made the music.

The "Philadelphia" or "Philly" sound is typically heavy on string riffs, a definitive power horn section, and soulful material set to a catchy beat. A strong bass line and soul essentials such as a Hammond B3 organ were featured in the lushly orchestrated arrangements. The seminal example of the Philly sound is the cut "TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)" by the group MFSB (Mothers, Fathers, Sisters and Brothers) (Philadelphia International Records).

1972 brought a turn of good fortune to the popular, yet humble trio. Philadelphia disc jockey George Woods heard the Debonettes. He brought them to the attention of Norman Harris, a musician and producer. Harris, genuinely wanting to further their career, introduced the singers to Stan Watson, the promotional force behind soul acts such as The Delfonics.

A Slow But Sure Start

Watson signed the group to his own record label. He released their first single, "This Is The House Where Love Died," in 1972. February of 1973 saw the song "Armed and Extremely Dangerous" charted at 11 (R&B). Sales of the Armed and Extremely Dangerous album were lackluster, but the group garnered praise from music critics. Cash Box magazine dubbed them "Best R&B Female Group."

Singer Joyce Jones caved to the pressures of the touring life the group enjoyed in the early '70s. Ursula Herring replaced Jones when she bowed out of the group, amicably, in 1973.

The new First Choice earned R&B chart success with "Love and Happiness," "Newsy Neighbors," "Smarty Pants," and their most successful R&B offering, "The Player," which topped the charts as a Summer hit in 1974 at an astronomical 7 (R&B).

Troubles with distribution and promotion resulted in sales that barely beat Armed and Extremely Dangerous. Watson, Fleming and her back up singers managed to get signed to the Warner Brothers label in 1975. The dance clubs of the day, particularly clubs popular with a gay clientele, embraced each and every single released by the group. Hits like "Gotta Get Away (From You Baby)" (replete with steam train sound effects) were enormously popular in clubs. By late 1976, First Choice was their best-selling album so far.

He don't need no office light,
'Cause he operates at night,
Doctor Love ...

— lyrics: "Dr. Love," First Choice, (Gold Mind, 1977)

Another label change meant added success for the lively ladies. Norman Harris formed the Gold Mind label in 1976, to be distributed by the popular Salsoul label. First Choice's first effort on Gold Mind was so successful it became their signature tune. "Dr. Love," from the 1977 album Delusions, charted at 23 (R&B) in summer of the same year. The 12" single was a runaway hit in clubs. Delusions was a polished, well-produced, approachable collection of dance tunes sprinkled with ballads that was popular with the young dance crowd as well as hardcore R&B and soul fans.

"Dr. Love" has since been included in disco compilation albums nearly as often as any of the work done by First Choice's peers. The tune has been remixed by every one of the prominent dance mixers active between 1977 and 1990.

Supernova

Vocalist Ursula Herring was replaced by Debbie Martin in early 1978. Sessions for the group's next album, Hold Your Horses, commenced in Munich, Germany under the direction of famed producer Tom Moulton (of "Tom Moulton Mixes" fame). Nine months later, what was to become the group's highest-selling album was released. The 1979 singles released from the album, "Hold Your Horses," "Double Cross," and "Love Thang" were rapid-fire hits across the U.S. that enjoyed some success overseas.

From 1976 until 1980, one couldn't help but hear one tune or another from First Choice at any club in the country, on any given evening.

By 1980, as the soulful roots of disco gave way to the Euro sound and later high-energy music, the group's popularity was on the wane. First Choice's last album, Breakaway, was not a repeat of the previous two years' efforts by the group. The album's one 12" single, "I Can Show You (Better Than I Can Tell You)" received club play but was not much of a commercial success.

...we broke up by mutual agreement. We had endured a particularly difficult period and had gone through a long legal wrangle with our then-manager that knocked the spirit out of the group. Eventually, we arranged to meet for dinner, just the three of us, and we had a final meal together as First Choice....at the time it was like losing part of your family. I had decided to stay in the business and Annette has continued writing with her husband..in the gospel field and Debbie is married with kids of her own, but still sings in her church choir.

— Rochelle Fleming, in a 1987 interview

Rochelle Fleming is still recording, earning moderate R&B success. A number of First Choice revivals have taken place under her direction.

UPDATE: May, 2012: In 2010 Rochelle Fleming appeared in an East-Coast (USA) "GLBT Open House" and sang "Dr. Love" to a track. The response was somewhat lack-luster (as was her performance) but then, attendance at the event was sparse and lack-luster in and of itself.

First Choice's music is still commercially available, in album form and on compilations.

SOURCES:

  • http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/firstchoice.htm
  • http://www.discomusic.com/records-more/333_0_2_0_C/
  • http://www.discogs.com/artist/First+Choice
  • Discussions between Rochelle Fleming and the writer.

 

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