Three men played a huge part in the success of two of the most important and successful record companies of the seventies, but despite doing so, don’t get the credit they so richly deserve. These three men are bassist Ron Baker, guitarist Norman Harris and drummer Earl Young. Together, were known as the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section. Having being playing together since the sixties, playing on Thom Bell’s productions of The Detroit Spinners, The Delfonics and The Stylistics, Baker, Harris, Young went on to become members of Philadelphia International Records’ legendary house-band M.F.S.B. As members of M.F.S.B, Baker, Harris, Young featured on albums by Billy Paul, The O’Jays. Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes and of course M.F.S.B. Then in 1975, many members of M.F.S.B. left Philadelphia International Records after a dispute with Gamble and Huff over money. Baker, Harris, Young’s next destination was New York’s Salsoul Records, where they’d become part of The Salsoul Orchestra and write, arrange and produce several artists, including Loleatta Holloway, Double Exposure and First Choice, who Norman Harris had produced since their first single. Now that Baker, Harris, Young were at Salsoul, Ken Cayre gave Norman Harris a record label to run, Gold Mind Records. One of his first signings for Gold Mind in 1976 was First Choice, featuring Rochelle Fleming, Annette Guest and Joyce Jones. Now Baker, Harris, Young’s through their production vehicle Baker, Harris, Young Productions, would begin work on First Choice’s first album for Gold Mind, Delusions, which will be rereleased by BBR Records on 17th September 2012. Delusions would contain two songs that would become synonymous with First Choice and become disco classics, Dr. Love and Let No Man Put Asunder. Before I tell you about Delusions, I’ll tell you about First Choice’s pre-Salsoul career and the making of Delusions.
First Choice’s career had started back in Philadelphia, when Rochelle Fleming, Annette Guest and Joyce Jones were just fifteen and known as The Debronettes. They got their breakthrough after auditioning for Georgie Woods a DJ at Philadelphia’s WDAS radio station. He was so impressed with The Debronettes that he called Stan Watson, owner of Philly Groove Records. Stan liked the group, but not their name, so The Debronettes became First Choice. To produce First Choice’s debut single, Stan Watson brought in Philly-based guitarist, songwriter, arranger and producer Norman Harris.
For their first single, First Choice recorded This Is the House Where Love Died. It wasn’t initially a success, but when rereleased under license by Scepter/Wand gave First Choice a minor hit. First Choice’s second single Armed and Extremely Dangerous gave them a hit single, reaching number twenty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number eleven in the US R&B Charts in 1973. When their debut album Armed and Extremely Dangerous was released, it reached number 184 in the US Billboard 200 and number fifty-five in the US R&B Charts. With their debut album having given them a commercial success, Norman Harris started work on First Choice’s second album The Player.
1974 saw the release of The Player, First Choice’s second album. The Player featured another First Choice classic, The Player (Part 1), reaching number seventy in the US Billboard 100 and 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. After the success of The Player, First Choice Stan Watson their manager signed a deal for Warner Bros to distribute their his Philly Groove releases, including First Choice.
Following the success of The Player, big things were expected of First Choice now they had a major label distributing their third album. Sadly,1976s So Let Us Entertain You failed to match the success of their two previous albums. It only reached 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 then signed to Gold Mind Records, run by Norman Harris.
Now signed to Gold Mind Records, work began on First Choice’s fourth album Delusions in February 1977. Producing Delusions would be Baker, Harris, Young through their production vehicle Baker, Harris, Young Productions. Eight of the nine tracks on Delusions were written by Philly based songwriters or musicians. Norman Harris cowrote three songs with Ron Tyson and Alan Felder, Dr. Love, Indian Giver and Chances Go Around. Ron Baker cowrote Gamble On Love with Ron Tyson, while Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey cowrote I Love You More Than Before. Bruce Gray cowrote two tracks, Let No Man Put Asunder with Bruce Hawkes and Do Me Again with Mikki Farrow and T.G. Conway. Jimmy D was co-written by Bruce Hawkes and Mikki Farrow. The other track on Delusions was a cover of the Steve Wonder and Syreeta Wright penned Love Having You Around. These eight tracks would be recorded at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios with what amounted to The Salsoul Orchestra accompanying First Choice.
Accompanying First Choice were many of The Salsoul Orchestra’s personnel. This included the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, who providing the Delusion’s heartbeat. Augmenting Baker, Harris, Young were bassist Michael “Sugarbear” Foreman and Jim Williams plus drummer Keith Benson. They were joined by guitarists Bobby Eli, T.J. Tindall and Keith Dockins. Vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr. was joined by Larry Washington on congas and bongos, flautist Jack Faith, Carlton “Cotton” Kent on keyboards and Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey on keyboards and synths. Violinist Don Renaldo was part of the string and Leon Zachary part of the horn section. Among the arrangers and producers were Ron Baker, Norman Harris, Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey, Bruce Hakes and Baker, Harris, Young. Each of these arrangers, producers and musicians played their part in First Choice’s first album for Gold Mind Records Delusions. Would Delusions prove to be a commercial success for First Choice?
Before Delusions was released in August 1977, Dr. Love was released as a single and had been remixed by Tom Moulton. Given how successful Tom Mouton was a remixer, and how innovative his mixes were, this would prove crucial in Dr. Love’s success. Helped by having a Tom Moulton remix Dr. Love, it reached number forty-one in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty-three in the US R&B Charts, becoming their most successful single since Armed and Extremely Dangerous. When Delusions was released in August 1977, it reached number 103 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-seven in the US R&B Charts. This meant Delusions was First Choice’s most successful album. Love Having You Around was then released as a single in November 1977, but only reached number sixty-eight in the US R&B Charts. Given that Delusions gave First Choice their most successful album and contained two disco classics, Delusions was the perfect way to mark their debut release for Gold Mind Records. Not only that, but it made up for the disappointment of their previous albums So Let Us Entertain. However, why was Delusions such a successful album and one that marked a change in First Choice’s fortunes? That’s what I’ll tell you, once I’ve told you about the music on Delusions.
Opening Delusions, is a classic track from First Choice and one that’s become synonymous with them Dr. Love, which was arranged and produced by Norman Harris. With a combination of a pounding Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section combining with blazing horns, cascading strings and a sizzling guitar the track bursts into life. A flourish of keyboards gives way to Rochelle’s vocal. It’s perfect for the arrangement, with its mixture of power, passion and confidence. Behind Rochelle, the rest of the group contribute soulful, soaring harmonies. All the time, Ron Baker’s bass and Earl Young’s drums anchor the track, each matching the other note for note. By now, Rochelle is overflowing with confidence. Her vocal is a powerful sassy, vamp with Annette and Joyce responding to her call. Strings quiver and shiver, horns growl, Norman Harris adds a jazzy guitar solo and The Salsoul Orchestra are in full flight. Together with First Choice and Rochelle’s vocal tour de force which is a mixture of power, passion and emotion. Add in Norman Harris’ stunning arrangement a disco classic has unfolded over the previous five-minutes.
Indian Giver, like Dr. Love, is a Norman Harris, Ron Tyson and Alan Felder composition, arranged and produced by Norman Harris. It’s a quite different sounding track, with the introduction slower, but dramatic. A good comparison of the production is Thom Bell’s work with The Stylistics, which Norman played on. With a roll of Earl Young’s drums, Rochelle’s heartfelt vocal enters, accompanied by sweeping, swirling strings, gently rasping horns, keyboards and Norman’s spacious, jazzy guitar. As Rochelle delivers a vocal filled with emotion and hurt, Annette and Joyce add dramatic harmonies, while strings cascade. Later, Rochelle’s vocal is softer and she ad-libs, as Vince Montana Jr’s vibes, keyboards and strings combine, while the arrangement takes on an understated sound. This really works and demonstrates another side of First Choice, one that’s very soulful, and full of emotion and heartache.
The only cover version on Delusions is Love Hanging You Around, written by Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright. Ron Kersey arranges and produces the track. Here, Ron uses a synth-vocoder during the arrangement which adds to the uber funky sound. Keyboards, rhythm section and vocoder combine, before the blazing horns and the sultry, sensual vocals enter. Rochelle switches from singing lead to joining Annette and Joyce singing harmonies. All the time the vocoder accompanies them, while the keyboards and horns sound similar to the original on Stevie’s Music of My Mind album. Ursula Herring’s fiery, sassy vocals are key to the track, and she’d later replace Joyce when she left First Choice. Together with testifying and cascading harmonies, warm, melodic keyboards and the vocoder, First Choice brings new life and meaning to a familiar track.
It wasn’t just Norman Harris who contributed tracks for Delusions, so did Ron Baker who cowrote Gamble On Love with Ron Tyson. Ron Baker arranged and produced the track, and the result is one of the slickest and most soulful tracks. He uses swathes of the lushest dancing strings, rasping horns, keyboards and the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section to provide the track’s jaunty heartbeat. Rochelle’s vocal is much more tender, and very soulful with tight cascading harmonies augmenting her vocal. The arrangement just flows elegantly along, with occasional flourishes of keyboards and dramatic bursts of Earl’s drums punctuating the arrangement. Key to the arrangement are the lush strings, rasping horns and First Choice sumptuously soulful vocals.
Chances Go Round see Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey taking charge of arranging and production duties on a track where funk and disco are fused. The two genres immediately unite, with the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section adding funk, as Ron Baker gives a funk masterclass, slapping his six-string bass. Sweeping, swirling strings, keyboards and braying horns are responsible for the disco influence. When Rochelle’s vocal enters, it’s fiery, full of frustration and anger, while tight, punchy harmonies accompany her. Flourishes of strings, the rhythm section and growling horns all add to the drama, in Rochelle’s vocal. It’s filled with emotion, regret and bravado as she brings the lyrics to life, sounding as if she’s lived and survived them. While funk and disco are fused, there’s a real Philly Soul sound in a track that’s laden with drama and hooks.
Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey cowrote I Love You More Than Before with Cheryl Dickinson, where the tempo drops way down and we hear First Choice at their soulful best. He arranged and produced this very beautiful track, which features a totally heartfelt vocal from Rochelle. She’s accompanied by the lushest of strings, the rhythm section and keyboards that are central to the arrangement’s sound and success. With Annette and Joyce adding tight, tender harmonies and occasional bursts of drama from The Salsoul Orchestra, this is a gorgeous, romantic track with Rochelle Fleming at her soulful best.
Let No Man Put Asunder is the second First Choice classic on Delusions and was written and arranged by Bruce Hawkes and Bruce Gray. Baker, Harris, Young produced the track and this is very definitely one of their very best productions and is a dance-floor classic, one that’s spanned several generations. Against a backdrop of the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, percussion and handclaps, Rochelle’s sassy vocal enters. She’s full of bravado and confidence, while harmonies accompany her. Rochelle literally vamps and struts her way through the track with sizzling guitars, punchy harmonies, cascading strings and the pounding rhythm section, with Norman Harris’ jazz-tinged guitar accompanying her. Over the years, I’ve heard numerous reedits and remixes of this track, but the original is the best and a true classic, with Rochelle’s vocal full of fire and defiance.
Do Me Again was arranged by Bruce Hawkes and produced by Baker, Harris, Young and the tempo is dropped way down, with a dramatic, pulsating arrangement unfolding. The Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, quivering, shimmering strings and keyboards accompany Rochelle’s heartfelt, emotive vocal. Harmonies reflect Rochelle’s powerful, impassioned pleas as the arrangement threatens to explode. Throughout the track, the drama and emotion is almost palpable, with the production perfect for the vocal. Drama and emotion go hand in hand, as Rochelle delivers a needy vocal that demonstrates her soulful roots. She demonstrates how she can make a song her own, and with Annette and Joyce adding harmonies, First Choice show just why they were Salsoul’s most successful female group.
Closing Delusions is Jimmy D which has a much more poppy sound than any other track. Mikki Farrow cowrote Jimmy D with Bruce Hawkes, who arranged and produced the track. Quivering, shivering strings, bursts of rasping horns, keyboards and a pounding rhythm section combine before Rochelle adds an uptempo vocal that swings. Her vocal is accompanied by soaring harmonies while the arrangement has a catchy, poppy and uptempo sound. A piano meanders throughout the arrangement, Jack Faith’s flute, cascading strings and the rhythm section combine to create the perfect track to close Delusions. It’s bright, breezy, hugely catchy and puts a smile on your face. What could be better than that?
After the disappointment of their previous album for Warner Bros. So Let Us Entertain You, First Choice’s career was rejuvenated by Baker, Harris, Young at Gold Mind Records. With Baker, Harris, Young’s guidance, First Choice’s first album for their new label Delusions, proved to be the most successful album of their career, containing two stonewall disco classics Dr. Love and Let No Man Put Asunder. Along with arrangers and producers like Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey, Bruce, Hawkes and Bruce Gray, Baker, Harris, Young fused disco, funk and Philly Soul over the nine tracks on Delusions. While Dr. Love and Let No Man Put Asunder are the two best-known tracks on Delusions, there’s much more to the album than just two tracks. Indian Giver, Gamble On Love, I Love You More Than Before and Do Me Again see First Choice revisit their soulful roots and feature some of their best vocals on Delusions. On Indian Giver and Gamble On Love Rochelle delivers some of her most emotive, heartfelt and soulful vocals. Truly, this is a quite irresistible side of First Choice. Just as these tracks show the soulful side of First Choice, Chances Go Round sees Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey fusing disco, funk and Philly Soul, where Ron Baker gives a funk masterclass on his six-stringed bass. The cover of Stevie Wonder’s Love Hanging You Around was a brave inclusion on Delusions, but one that payed off and is truly uber funky, bringing new life and meaning to the track. Jimmy D, which closes Delusions, shows a much more poppy side of First Choice and demonstrates their versatility. Whether it was disco, funk and Philly Soul or pop, First Choice were just as comfortable singing it, and on Delusions, which will be rereleased by BBR Records on 17th September 2012, they do this and much more. Of all the albums First Choice released, Delusions is their finest, their Magnus Opus, which features two classic tracks Dr. Love and Let No Man Put Asunder. Much of the success of Delusions is down to three men Ron Baker, Norman Harris and Earl Young who rejuvenated and relaunched First Choice’s career on Delusions and would do with many other artists at Salsoul Records. Standout Tracks: Dr. Love, Indian Giver, Gamble On Love and Let No Man Put Asunder.
- Posted in: Disco ♦ Funk ♦ Philadelphia Soul
- Tagged: Baker Harris Young, Delusions, Dr. Love, First Choice, Gamble On Love, Indian Giver, Let No Man Put Asunder, Rochelle Fleming, Salsoul Records, The Salsoul Orchestra