After becoming one of Norman Harris’ first signing to his new record label Gold Mind Records in 1976, First Choice released Delusions in 1978 and Hold Your Horses in 1979. Soon, Double Choice became one of Gold Mind Records and indeed, Salsoul’s biggest commercial successes. This lead to First Choice touring worldwide and by the end of the seventies, were at the height of their fame. For what would be First Choice’s sixth and final album, they returned to their Philly roots, after excursions into Euro Disco on Hold Your Horses. The Euro Disco influence had come courtesy of Munich-based Thor Baldurrson, who had become one of the Cayre’s favoured producers. Hold Your Horses was very much an album of two separate styles, four Euro Disco tracks and two Philly Soul tracks. Of the two styles, the Philly Soul won out and were the highlights of Hold Your Horses. So, when First Choice recorded their sixth album Breakaway, gone was the Euro Disco and in came Philly Soul. This welcome return to the Philly roots also saw the return of Norman Harris, First Choice’s longtime mentor. Norman produced four of the tracks on Breakaway, while T.G. Conway, Alan Felder and Cary “Hippy” Gilbert produced two other tracks. However, as had been the case at Salsoul, things were still changing, with new personnel, including songwriters and producers joining the post-disco Salsoul. How would this affect First Choice and their sixth album Breakaway?
Ever since Vince Montana Jr, had left Salsoul in 1978, things had been changing. Personnel came and went, with musicians, producers and remixers seemingly becoming flavor of the month. Now that disco was no longer as popular, after the events of Disco Demolition Night, organized by the Disco Sucks movement. It took place on 12th July 1979, at Comiskey Park, Chicago. After that, disco labels and artists were no longer popular, so Salsoul as a label had to change. So too did groups like First Choice, after the Euro Disco of Hold Your Horses. Among the changes at Salsoul were the introduction of new songwriters and producers. These changes didn’t please First Choice, but they changed their minds after meeting the new arrivals, who included included Melvin and Mervin Steals and McKinley Jackson. They’d write and produce songs for Breakaway. Another change concerned First Choice’s mentor Norman Harris.
Norman Harris was going through a difficult time by the time First Choice were about to record Breakaway. He was having contractual problems with Salsoul and Gold Mind Records was experiencing financial problems. Eventually, later in 1979 Gold Mind Records’ financial problems got so bad that the label became part of Salsoul. However, Norman assured First Choice that these problems wouldn’t affect the recording of Breakaway. He also told First Choice about the new personnel that would be joining Salsoul. A combination of this new personnel and some Salsoul legends would play their part in recording Breakaway.
For Breakaway the new songwriting teams got to work, Melvin and Mervin Steals cowrote Sittin’ Pretty and cowrote Can’t Talke It With You and House For Sale with McKinley Jackson and Bobby Ledbetter. The Rober Strothers, Frank Alstin Jr and Matt Farrow cowrote I’m the One and Pressure Point. The Philly songwriters played their part too, with T.G. Conway, Alan Felder and Cary “Hippy” Gilbert penning A Happy Love Affair and I Can Show You (Better Than I Can Tell You), while Norman Harris and Ron Tyson cowrote the title-track Breakaway. So, with First Choice returning to their Philly roots, recording got underway at three studios.
Recording took place at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios, Alpha International and Eras Recording Studio, with a band that included many of The Salsoul Orchestra. This included a rhythm section of bassist Jimmy Williams, drummer Keith Benson and and guitarist Norman Harris. They were joined by guitarist Bobby Eli, T.J. Tindall, Dennis Harris Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey and Cotton Kent played keyboards, Larry Washington and Ron Tyson congas plus Don Renaldo’s Swinging Strings and Horns. Other musicians playing on the sessions recorded away from Sigma Sound in Philly. They included Richard Adderley on guitar, vibes and percussion, pianist Eric C. Butler, saxophonist George Bussey and Melvin and Mervin Steal on percussion. These musicians accompanied the three members of First Choice, Rochelle Fleming, Annette Guest and Debbie Martin for recording of Breakaway. Once Breakaway was recorded, First Choice would release their sixth album as a new decade dawned.
Breakaway was released in March 1980, but wasn’t a commercial success. It failed to chart and the only single to chart was the title-track Breakaway, which reached number eighty in the UK. Part of the problem was the lack of airplay on radio, but a bigger factor was that during this time First Choice were leaving Salsoul. So just as First Choice got back to their Philly roots, after an excursion into Euro Disco, their was indeed a Breakaway. First Choice broke away from Salsoul and sadly, Breakaway proved to be their final album. Was Breakaway a return to form from First Choice?
Opening Breakaway is I’m The One arranged and produced by Norman Harris. It’s the first of four Norman Harris productions. Strings sweep in dramatically, while wistful horns and harmonies combine. Then comes Rochelle’s heartfelt vocal, full of hurt and sorrow. Harmonies match the emotion in her vocal, while the rhythm section join the strings in building the drama. This is a much better track from many of the Euro Disco tracks on Hold Your Horses, and much more suitable to First Choice. Woodwind add to the flourishes of strings and powerful drums in providing a dramatic backdrop for First Choice’s impassioned, heartfelt vocals and harmonies. In doing so, they get Breakaway off to an emotive and quite beautiful start.
Breakaway was penned and produced by Norman Harris and Ron Tyson. It’s very different from the opening track, with a much more uptempo, dance-floor friendly sound. It could be described as a disco track released post-disco. Searing guitars riff before keyboards, a pounding rhythm section, dancing strings and growling horns combine. They’re joined by Rochelle’s powerful, emotive vocal. Her delivery and the quality vocal is almost reminiscent of tracks like Doctor Love and Let No Man Put Asunder. Similarly, the track has the same catchy, hook-laden, dance-floor friendly sound. Everything you’d expect on a Salsoul track is here. Swirling strings, growling horns and a rhythm section that produces the track’s pounding, dance-floor friendly heartbeat. Add to that Rochelle’s powerful, feisty vocal and those sweeping, soulful harmonies. Together, this results in a glorious track from the First Choice.
Melvin and Mervin Steals and McKinley Jackson’s first contribution to Breakaway is Sittin’ Pretty. Straight away, you realize that something special is about to unfold. Lush strings cascade, while the rhythm section and guitars help create a dance-floor friendly arrangement. Annette Guest takes charge of the lead vocal, unleashing a powerful, feisty vocal, as Rochelle and Debbie add cooing, sweeping harmonies. Bursts of rasping horns and flourishes of keyboards are added as your swept away amidst the lushest of dancing strings, pulsating beat and Annette’s vocal tour de force, where power and passion are combined. Ironically, if this track had been released a couple of years earlier, at the high of disco’s popularity, it would’ve fared much better. Sadly, by the time it and Breakaway were released music had changed. However, despite that, it’s still a great dance track, one that’s stood the test and one that showcases the skills of the new songwriting and production team.
Side One of Breakaway closed with A Happy Love Affair penned and produced by T.G. Conway, Alan Felder and Cary “Hippy” Gilbert. It was the first of their two tracks on Breakaway. The combination of rhythm section and blazing horns tease you before flourishes of strings usher in Rochelle’s powerful, impassioned vocal. She’s accompanied by tender harmonies, while vibes, dancing strings and rasping horns accompany her. Rochelle delivers one of her best vocals, sounding confident and happy. As her vocal drops out, the myriad of horns, strings and rhythm section takes charge, before tender, then punchy harmonies accompany Rochelle’s feisty, sassy vocal.
Pressure Point opens Side Two of Breakaway and is arranged by Leon Mitchell and produced by Norman Harris. Flourishes of grand, dramatic strings cascade before a powerful, dramatic rhythm section are joined by equally dramatic harmonies. The interplay between Rochelle and the harmonies sees the drama grow. Similarly, blazing horns, woodwind and the thunderous rhythm section play their part in this dramatic, but soulful track. Here First Choice make a welcome return to their Philly Soul roots, aided and abetted by The Salsoul Orchestra who, like First Choice, are responsible for one of their best and most dramatic performances on Breakaway.
I Can Show You (Better Than I Can Tell You) is the second track from the T.G. Conway, Alan Felder and Cary “Hippy” Gilbert songwriting and production team and is arranged by Jack Faith. Just pounding drums create the track’s pulse before guitars enter. Then a flourish of keyboards, the track reveals its secrets. Punchy harmonies are accompanied by bursts of blazing horns and drums, before Rochelle unleashes a feisty, sassy vocal, that’s part vamp. Don Renaldo’s Swinging Strings and Horns join the rhythm section in creating the track’s joyous, catchy arrangement. Norman Harris adds a brief, but effective bursts of jazzy guitar, before Rochelle, Annette and Debbie kick-loose. Together with The Salsoul Orchestra they go on to deliver one of their best, most joyous and catchy performances on Breakaway.
Can’t Take It With You was the second contribution from Melvin and Mervin Steals and McKinley Jackson. It has a more understated sound than other tracks when it opens. Just keyboards, guitar and rhythm section combine as First Choice add heartfelt harmonies. Bursts of rasping horns stabs of keyboards are joined by Rochelle’s powerful, impassioned vocal. Her power and passion is complimented by the tender harmonies. By now the arrangement has grown, with the rhythm section, bursts of rasping horns and elegant strings combining. It’s beautiful combination, especially given some poignant lyrics and a vocal that’s soulful and full of emotion from Rochelle.
Closing Breakaway is House For Sale arranged by Leon Mitchell and produced by Norman Harris. Rasping horns that sound as if the belong on an old jazz album are joined by pounding drums, woodwind and the lushest of strings. First Choice turn back the clock, adding tight, impassioned harmonies. They sound as if they belong on an old big band album. Rochelle’s vocal is heartfelt and soulful, while The Salsoul Orchestra are transformed into a jazz band. Norman Harris’ guitar playing is perfectly suited to this, and so are Don Renaldo’s Swinging Strings and Horns. Together they play their part in helping First Choice create very different, but very beautiful song that not only closes Breakaway, their career at Salsoul.
It seems almost ironic that Breakaway, First Choice’s final for Salsoul Records was a real return to form. Breakaway was a far better album that its predecessor Hold Your Horses and its Euro Disco sound. On Breakaway, First Choice sensibly returned to their Philly Soul roots, with the eight tracks a combination of soulful and dance-floor friendly tracks. With Norman Harris playing a bigger part than he had on Hold Your Horses, plus the Philly songwriting and production team of T.G. Conway, Alan Felder and Cary “Hippy” Gilbert penning and producing two tracks it’s no wonder Breakaway was a much better album. Such a multi-talented combination of songwriter, producers, arrangers and musicians were joined by some new faces. These were Melvin and Mervin Steals and McKinley Jackson. Their contributions played their part in making First Choice’s best album since Delusions. Sadly, by the time Breakaway was released, First Choice had left Salsoul. As a result, Breakaway was neither promoted like it deserved to be, nor did it receive the airplay it needed. Listening to Breakaway thirty-two years later, it’s a shame that it didn’t receive the promotion and airplay it needed and deserved. Given it was such a return to form from First Choice, it could’ve been a much bigger commercial success if it had received the promotion and airplay it needed and so richly deserved. That wasn’t to be and since then, First Choice’s Breakaway has remained a hidden gem, that’s awaiting discovery.
Worse was to come when First Choice had left Salsoul. Having made a clean break from Salsoul and manager Stan Watson, they became embroiled in a dispute with Stan Watson over who owned the name. Stan believed he owned the name, while First Choice believed they owned the name. Annette and Rochelle were ready to fight this all the way. Then after Salsoul released Let No Man Put Asunder as a single, Rochelle decided that was it. She decided that it was time for First Choice to call it a day. Their lives were changing, with Rochelle and Annette having recently married. So after releasing six albums, between 1973 and 1980, First Choice’s final album was Breakaway, an album which saw them return to their Philly roots, reunite with their mentor Norman Harris and release an album that’s a true hidden gem, awaiting discovery and one that’s I’d throughly recommend. Standout Tracks: I’m The One, Breakaway, Pressure Point and House For Sale.