Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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In May 1973, First Choice – a precociously talented teenage vocal trio fresh out of Philadelphia high school – exploded on the UK pop charts with 'Armed & Extremely Dangerous'. An infectious, melodramatic number about a slick street Casanova, its sense of sonic theatrics was enhanced by blaring police sirens and a Dragnet-style “calling all cars” voiceover.

A few months later, the group dented the UK Top 10 with 'Smarty Pants', another catchy Philly soul tune aimed at the dance floor. After that, First Choice seemingly struggled to interest UK record buyers, though in the States, they continued to rack up big R&B hits, like the proto-disco number 'The Player' and club dance floor favourite, 'Doctor Love'. The group split in 1980, and although lead singer, Rochelle Fleming, issued a few solo singles, she faded into relative obscurity. In recent years, though, via compilations and reissues, interest in First Choice has been spectacularly revived. On the eve of a new, career-spanning 2-CD compilation, 'The Best Of First Choice', B&S caught up with the group’s front person, Rochelle Fleming.

“I’m still working off those old records,” reveals Rochelle, who continues to ply her trade as a singer in her native Philadelphia while also holding down a day job. “When Norman (Harris) and Allan (Felder) wrote those songs for us, they didn’t have a clue that they would have this longevity.”

A huge Aretha Franklin fan, Rochelle honed her singing craft under the guidance of her grandmother in the Christian Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia. By the time she reached Overbrook High School as a teenager, she’d formed a group called The Debonettes with fellow pupils Annette Guest, Wardell Piper and Mulaney Star. One day, in an act of bravado, the group turned up unannounced at Philadelphia’s WDAS radio station to sing for influential DJ, Georgie 'The Man With The Goods' Woods.

“We went over to see him because we were very headstrong back then,” Rochelle remembers. “We bust into the radio station and told him ‘we want you to hear us sing and help us make a record.’ He said, ‘well, no one’s ever done this before but I’ll allow you guys to do it because you had a lot of nerve.’ So we sang an a capella version of Aretha’s ‘I Say A Little Prayer.’ He was just mesmerised.” Suitably impressed, Woods phoned fellow DJ (and studio background singer), Carl Helm and Stan Watson, a would-be music mogul. Watson became the girls’ manager and contacted up-and-coming producers/writers Norman Harris and Allan Felder to supply the music. “After the contracts were done, we went to a model school to learn etiquette and learn how to be ladies,” says Rochelle. “We learned how to put make up on and walk elegantly.”

Although the group’s first single, 'This Is The House (Where Love Died)', a Motown-style stomper, didn’t make any waves chart-wise, the release of their second 45 'Armed & Extremely Dangerous' proved a momentous event. Says Rochelle: “Oh God, it changed our lives in a big, big, big, way. After it came out we had our High School graduation day at the Civic Centre in Philadelphia. It was 1972. I’ll never forget that when we walked through the hallways people would be whispering ‘look, it’s First Choice!’ Our success didn’t hit us until graduation night. We were marching down the aisle and the principal of the school said he wanted to congratulate First Choice on their upcoming hit record, ‘Armed and Extremely Dangerous.’ Then the whole graduation class just stood up and hollered and screamed. Then it became a reality to us. It’s a moment that I will never forget. We were so excited.”

But that was just the start of a roller coaster ride for the girls. A slew of television appearances followed. “We did Soul Train,” Rochelle recalls “and we got to meet its creator, Don Cornelius. I couldn’t believe it. Then we did Dick Clark’s American Bandstand – he was a very nice man – and went on The Midnight Special and did the Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore shows. We even did a couple of TV shows in London.” After a disappointingly short tenure with Warner Bros. in 1976 – “I don’t think they knew how to market First Choice” says Rochelle - the trio signed with Norman Harris’s Salsoul-distributed Gold Mind label and became the darlings of the nascent disco scene. During this period, they got to work with Stevie Wonder on a version of his song 'Love Having You Around'. Recalls Rochelle: “Oh gosh, Stevie was so funny. We had a fantastic time with him. He was a real jokester. He’s the nicest man and years after that, I remember we were working at the Copacabana with The Stylistics and he came over to the show. We were singing ‘Smarty Pants’ at the time and he was singing right with us from the audience. He knew the whole song - I was so surprised! That was quite an experience. He’s such a genius, he really is.”
Nowadays when she performs live, Rochelle still includes First Choice songs in her set but reveals she’s in the process of recording a new album: “Actually, I’ve been working on my first solo CD. It’s not complete: we’ve only done three songs. We did remakes; ‘One Last Bell’ by the Fifth Dimension, I did that over and I also did a Nora Jones tune. I’m going to finish that album. I don’t know when I’m going to release it but trust me, I’ll make sure Blues & Soul knows about it.”

“The Best Of First Choice” is out now on Union Square.

Thanks to Reid Whitelaw and Andy Lewis.
Words Charles Waring

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