By the time First Choice signed to Gold Mind Records in 1976, they’d already released three albums since forming in Philadelphia 1972. First Choice would go on to release three albums for Gold Mind Records, a subsidiary of Salsoul Records. Their first release was 1977s Delusions, which contained two tracks that would become synonymous with First Choice and become true disco classics. These tracks were Doctor Love and Let No Man Put Asunder. Doctor Love reached number forty-one in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty-three in the US R&B Charts, giving First Choice their most successful single since 1973s Armed and Extremely Dangerous. Buoyed by the success of Delusions, First Choice and producer Norman Harris, the man who had guided their career since 1972 headed Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios to record the followup to Delusions, Hold Your Horses. However, things were changing at Salsoul, Gold Mind’s parent company, with new arrangers and producers joining the company. Would this mean a change in First Choice’s sound and fortunes when Hold Your Horses was released? Before I tell what happened, I’ll tell you about First Choice’s career 

First Choice started their career as The Debronettes when they were just fifteen years old. The original lineup of lead singer Rochelle Fleming, Annette Guest and Joyce Jones breakthrough came when they auditioned for Georgie Woods a DJ at Philadelphia’s WDAS radio station. Georgie was so impressed he contacted Stan Watson, who owned Philly Groove Records. He liked The Debronettes so much, he signed them straight away. However, the only thing he didn’t like was their name, so The Debronettes became First Choice. Stan Watson then sent First Choice into the studio with the man who’d guide their career, writing and producing many of their greatest songs…Norman Harris. 

Norman Harris was the guitarist in the legendary Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, who in 1972, were part of Philadelphia International Records’ house-band M.F.S.B. Norman’s first session with First Choice saw them record This Is the House Where Love Died. Although the single wasn’t a commercial success upon its release on Philly Groove Records, it gave First Choice a minor hit when leased to the Sceptre/Wand Label. The next single First Choice released would give the group their first and biggest hit single.

Armed and Extremely Dangerous was First Choice’s second single, and reached number twenty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number eleven in the US R&B Charts in 1973. First Choice’s debut album was also called Armed and Extremely Dangerous. It reached number 184 in the US Billboard 200 and number fifty-five in the US R&B Charts. After the success of Armed and Extremely Dangerous, First Choice and producer Norman Harris would begin work on their second album.

The Player was First Choice’s second album and was released in 1974. On The Player was another First Choice classic, The Player (Part 1). It reached number seventy in the Us Billboard 100 and reached number seven in the US R&B Charts. When The Player was released, it reached number 143 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-six in the US R&B Charts. The success of The Player lead to First Choice signing to a new record label, Warner Bros.

Having signed to Warner Bros, First Choice only released one album for their new label. The album was 1976s So Let Us Entertain You. It failed to match the success of their two previous albums, reaching number 204 in the US Billboard 200 and number fifty-three in the US R&B Charts. After the release of So Let Us Entertain You, First Choice signed to another record label Gold Mind Records, a subsidiary of Salsoul Records.

Although Gold Mind Records was a subsidiary of Salsoul, it was run by Norman Harris, the man who’d written and produced so much of First Choice’s music. The Cayre’s who owned Salsoul, thought that if Norman Harris had his own label, he’d work even harder. Norman Harris’ production vehicle was The Harris Machine, which have him access to some of Philadelphia’s best songwriters, musicians, arrangers and producers. He’d used many of these songwriters, musicians, arrangers and producers on the various albums he’d worked on, including First Choice’s and their Gold Mine debut Delusions. Sadly, Joyce Jones, an original member of First Choice left the group, and was replaced by Ursula Herring, who’d previously sang backing vocals for the group. 

Delusions was released in 1977, and contained two tracks that would become synonymous with First Choice, becoming disco classics. These tracks were Doctor Love and Let No Man Put Asunder. Doctor Love reached number forty-one in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty-three in the US R&B Charts, becoming heir most successful single since Armed and Extremely Dangerous. On the release of Delusions, it reached number 103 in the US Billboard 200. This meant Delusions was First Choice’s most successful album. 

After the success of Delusions, First Choice set about recording the followup album Hold Your Horses. However, things were changing at Salsoul. Whereas Delusions saw Norman Harris, Ron Baker, Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey and Baker, Harris, Young producing tracks, it seemed Philly’s finest were being replaced by the new guard at Salsoul. This included Tom Moulton and Thor Baldursson who’d produce four of the albums six tracks in Munich, Germany, where Giorgio Moroder was one of the most successful Euro Disco producers. Given how successful Delusions had been, the decision to change things around so much seems strange. However, the departure of Vince Montana Jr. over dispute over royalties had affected Salsoul. Sadly, First Choice’s mentor Norman Harris only wrote one track for Hold Your Horses. Mind you, it was the best track on Hold Your Horses…Double Cross.

The six tracks that would feature on Hold Your Horses included Double Cross, written by Norman Harris and Ron Tyson, with Norman arranging and producing the track. Let Me Down Easy was written by Andrew Smith and David Jordan, while McKinley Jackson and Melvin Steals cowrote Love Thang. Great Expectations was written by British songwriter Peter Belotte. Hold Your Horses, the title-track, was co-written by Frank Ricotti, Kathleen Poppy, Les Hurdle and Peter Gosling. The two tracks were co-written by Thor Baldursson. These tracks would be recorded two studios, two continents apart.

Of the six tracks that comprise Hold Your Horses, Only Love Thang and Double Cross were completely recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in Philly. However, all the vocals and horns were recorded at Sigma Sound Studios. The rhythm and string sections of the other four tracks were recorded in Music Land Studios, Munich. Considering that the greatest rhythm section of the seventies, Baker, Harris, Young were based in Philly, this seemed an unnecessary journey. Given how good Baker, Harris, Young were, you’d expect something outstanding to be the result of Tom Moulton and Thor Baldursson’s journey. Would that be the case when Hold Your Horses was released in 1979.

On the release of Hold Your Horses in 1979, the album didn’t fare as well as Delusions in the US Billboard 200. It only reached number 135 and number fifty-eight in the US R&B Charts. The title-track Hold Your Horses reached number seventy-three in the US R&B Charts. Double Cross, arranged and produced by Norman Harris reached number 104 in the US Billboard 100 and number sixty in the US R&B Charts. Overall, Hold Your Horses’ commercial success must have left First Choice with mixed feelings. Granted it hadn’t fared as well in the US Billboard 200 as Delusions, but had reached number fifty-eight in the US R&B Charts. However, had the changes in producers affected the music on Hold Your Horses? That’s what I’ll tell you, after I’ve told you about the music on Hold Your Horses.

Opening Hold Your Horses is Let Me Down Easy, the first of the Tom Moulton and Thor Baldursson productions, which Andrew Smith and David Jordan cowrote. By 1979, Tom Moulton had established his reputation as one of the best remixers of the seventies and had moved into production. Pounding drums are placed at the heart of the arrangement, as percussion and John Davis’ rasping saxophone solo combine before Rochelle Fleming’s vocal enters. It’s heartfelt and impassioned soaring above the arrangement, while Annette Guest and Ursula Herring add tight, dramatic harmonies. The arrangement flows along, before thunderous drums are unleashed, replacing the lush strings from the Munich Philharmonics. When they drop out, the piano, rhythm section and strings combine, as John Davis unleashes a blazing saxophone solo. When all this is combined with First Choice’s vocals, it’s an impressive opening track from that’s both soulful and dance-floor friendly.

There’s a real Spanish sound to Good Morning Midnight, as the track begins to reveal its secrets. Percussion, bass and acoustic guitars combine, before a distant horn adds to the Spanish influence. When First Choice’s soulful vocals sweep in, the arrangement takes on a punchy sound. Bursts of rasping horn punctuate the arrangement, while sweeping, swirling strings are crucial to the track’s sound. They’re combined with the rhythm section as waves of tight harmonies are unleashed. By now elements of Euro Disco are combined with Philly Soul, funk and traditional Spanish music. Although It’s very different from the previous track, and unlike anything on Delusions, it’s catchy and shows another side to First Choice’s music.

Straight away, there’s a Euro Disco influence on Great Expectations. Later in the track elements of disco and Philly Soul are fused by arranger and producer Thor Baldursson. Drummer Keith Forsey and bassist Les Hurdle provide the track’s pulsating, pounding heartbeat. They help create a dramatic, moody sound, but sometimes, Thor’s arrangement briefly, sounds crowded, before swathes of dancing strings, growling horns and a piano join the mix. When Rochelle’s vocal enters, it’s sassy and sensuous, while Annette and Ursula add cooing harmonies. Thor Baldursson’s arrangement unfolds in dramatic waves, with cascading strings and braying horns accompanying First Choice’s joyous harmonies. They’re key to the sound and success of what is the best track on Side One of Hold Your Horses and joyous, uplifting slice of disco.

The title-track Hold Your Horses opens Side Two of Hold Your Horses. It’s the last in the quartet of tracks partly recorded in Munich. With thunderous drums galloping along the arrangement, percussion and quivering strings join the mix, before the rest of the rhythm section enter. Then come First Choice delivering some of their best vocals on the album. When Rochelle’s lead vocal enters, her vocal is sultry and powerful. Annette and Ursula add dramatic, soaring harmonies while the best arrangement of the first four tracks unfolds. Apart from a piano panned hard left, the mix is well balanced. Tom Moulton mixed and arranged the track, and his combination of a pounding rhythm section, quivering strings and blazing horns results in a masterpiece of modern production, that over thirty years later, still has a timeless sound. Mind you, with First Choice at their very best, he couldn’t go wrong.

 Love Thang sees some of Philly’s finest musicians accompany First Choice, with McKinley Jackson arranging and producing the track. The rhythm section features guitarist Norman Baker, drummer Keith Benson and bassist Jimmy Williams. Add in guitarists T.J. Tindall and Bobby “Electronic” Eli and Don Renaldo’s strings and you can’t go wrong. From the opening bars, you realize that something special is about to unfold. With a pounding, punchy rhythm section, shimmering strings and percussion combining First Choice add sweet and sassy vocals. With handclaps accompanying them, the track swings along, with Rochelle strutting her way through the track. Horns rasp, strings sweep and swirl, while the rhythm section produce the track’s funky heartbeat. Together they play their part in what is one of the real highlights of the album. It’s an eight minute Magnus Opus that’s got made in Philadelphia stamped right through it.

Closing Hold Your Horses is Double Cross, written by Ron Tyson and Norman Harris, who arranged and produced the track. The same band that featured on Love Thang play their part on what’s the highlight of Hold Your Horses. A funky rhythm section with Jimmy Williams’ bass anchoring the track, combines with lush cascading strings and guitars before Rochelle steps forward to produce her best vocal on the album. Her vocal is heartfelt, dramatic and fiery, full of frustration and regret. Annette and Ursula to their bit, adding tight, soaring harmonies that compliment Rochelle’s vocal. Meanwhile, a classic Norman Harris arrangement unfolds. He uses Don Renaldo’s grand, quivering strings, growling horns and the funky rhythm section to reflect the drama, passion and emotion in Rochelle’s vocal. This is a masterstroke, working brilliantly and resulting in the best track on Hold Your Horses. It’s the perfect way to close Hold Your Horses, and was the perfect reminder to the Cayre’s of Norman Harris’ considerable talents.

Much had changed since First Choice signed to Gold Mind Records and as a result, it was a very different lineup of arrangers, producers, musicians and songwriters who collaborated with First Choice on Hold Your Horses. Whereas Norman Harris had guided First Choice since their debut album Armed and Extremely Dangerous, things had changed since Delusions, First Choice’s Gold Mind Records’ debut album. Delusions had been and remained First Choice’s most successful album and saw Norman Harris, Ron Baker, Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey and Baker, Harris, Young producing tracks. By the time First Choice came to record their second album for Gold Mind Records, it seemed Philly’s finest were being replaced by the new guard at Salsoul. In came Tom Moulton and Thor Baldursson, who produced four of tracks on Hold Your Horses. 

A change in producer meant a change in sound. Tom Moulton and Thor Baldursson chose to record parts of these four tracks in Music Land Studios in Munich, where Giorgio Moroder recorded his albums with Donna Summer and The Three Degrees. This lead to a Euro Disco influence on these tracks. Although the quality of music doesn’t suffer, the music is different from that on Delusions. Of the four tracks recorded in Munich, Hold Your Horses, mixed and produced by Tom Moulton is easily the best track.That’s why it was chosen as one of the singles released from Hold Your Horses. Of the other three tracks, Great Expectations’ is dramatic and unfolds in waves, but sometimes, sounds slightly crowded. Having said that, the track is the highlight of Side One, while Good Morning Midnight, with its Spanish influence is a track that’s production works..just. 

Ironically, the two best tracks on Hold Your Horses are the two recorded in Philadelphia by Philadelphia musicians. Love Thang with that glorious bass line from Jimmy Williams and Double Cross arranged and produced by Norman Harris have since become First Choice favorites. Since the release of Hold Your Horses, they’ve also become favorites of remixers and compilation compilers. Double Cross’ sound has most in common with the music on Delusions, which to me, was First Choice’s best release for Gold Mind Records. I just wonder whether the same personnel that wrote, arranged, produced and played on Delusions had worked on Hold Your Horses, what the album would’ve sounded like? Would First Choice have built on the success of Delusions and become an even bigger commercial success than they were. Much as I’ve always liked Hold Your Horses, with many of the tracks having a timeless sound, and featuring some stunning vocals from First Choice, Delusions, produced by some of Philly finest, will forever remain my favorite First Choice album. That’s why for anyone looking to discover the magical music of First Choice, I’d recommend that they start with Delusions and then Hold Your Horses. These two albums will allow you to hear First Choice, Salsoul’s greatest ever female group at their very best. Standout Tracks: Let Me Down Easy, Hold Your Horses, Love Thang and Double Cross.


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