FIRST CHOICE-BREAKAWAY.

FIRST CHOICE-BREAKAWAY.

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.

FIRST CHOICE-BREAKAWAY.

6 Comments

  1. Reading these remarks brought back powerful memories of the contributions that Mckinley Jackson, my twin brother Mervin and I made to the recording of this album. At long last Mervin and I had found the missing link, in the person of Mckinley Jackson, that could elevate the three of us to the level of international popularity as the other well-known Philadelphia songwriting and production teams. Unfortunately our dearly departed friend Norman Harris made the transition from this to the hereafter at this point. Now after a 30-year hiatus Mckinley, Mervin, and I have reunited. Thanks to the powerful remixing of our production of former Fat Larry’s band lead singer Darryl Grant’s ALL I NEED IS YOU TONIGHT CD by the indefatigable Tom Moulton those who enjoyed our songs and productions on the Salsoul Breakaway LP will have the opportunity to thoroughly enjoy our latest project. Darryl will be performing at Fay Jones’ SOULDHAM event in Oldham in the UK on January 12, 2013. Melvin H. Steals, Ph.D.

    • Hi Melvin,

      I’m glad you enjoyed my review. It’s always great to hear from someone who worked on an album. So often, when I write reviews your names come up. If a song is by the trio of Melvin and Mervin Steals and McKinley Jackson, then I know I’m in for a musical treat. Here is another of the great Philadelphia songwriting and production teams. Sometimes, when it comes to songwriting and production, a partnership just works. It’s like ying and yang. There’s a chemistry between people, resulting in some fantastic music. With you, it was with your brother Mervin and McKinley. Looking through a pile of albums, the songs you’ve written include many a classic track. Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, Honey Bee and Trusting Heart to name but three.

      Working in Philly during the seventies must have been like being in the midst of everything good musically. Philly Soul and disco are two musical of the genres I love most and write about. Over the past few years, I’ve written about so many albums recorded in Philly. What I try to get across is how Philly was such a hive of creativity. So many of M.F.S.B. and The Salsoul Orchestra were much more than musicians, they were songwriters, arrangers, producers and ran labels. Baker, Harris Young, Bobby Eli, Vince Montana Jr all epitomise this. Sadly, so many of these legends are no longer with us. Norman Harris and Ron Baker died way too young and Larry Washington, Teddy Pendergrass, McFadden and Whitehead and recently, Major Harris are all sadly gone.

      It would be great to play some part in telling this story in more detail. Each review I write and the more I research, the more I discover. People like Vince Montana Jr, Earl Young, the two remaining Sweethearts of Sigma, plus you and your brother Mervin are all part of this wonderful story, having played such an important part in what I always say is the soundtrack to the seventies. Hopefully, people like myself can play some small part in keeping the music alive and telling the next generation about this wonderful music.

      I’m so glad that the trio of Melvin and Mervin Steals and McKinley Jackson are reunited after so long apart. You’ve got so much catching up to do and I’m so glad that you’ve even got a new project. Keep me posted as I’m sure my readers would love to hear more about it. It’s also great to hear Daryl’s coming to Souldham. He’ll receive a warm welcome from everyone, as Oldham, near Manchester as soul music has always been huge in that area, right back to the sixties and through the Northern Soul era, which is still hugely popular.

      Thanks very much for contacting me. It’s always a pleasure to hear from songwriters, musicians, arrangers and producers. The Philly Sound and the music of Salsoul are still hugely popular and hopefully that will always be case. Thanks for the part that the trio of Melvin and Mervin Steals and McKinley Jackson played in it.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek.

  2. Good Morning Derek,

    Did you know that HOUSE FOR SALE was written by Mervin, Bobby Ledbetter, and me. Ron Tyson recently told me that he thought it was one of the best songs on this LP. He and Mckinley are working together with the Temptations. Mckinley Jackson is their current musical director. Bobby Martin (producer of KISS AND SAY GOODBYE by the Manhattans) told me that he was most impressed by Mckinley, who at my behest had invited Bobby, his wife, and grandson to the Temptation’s 2012 performance in San Diego.

    Another little known fact about the First Choice’s recording of SITTIN’ PRETTY on their Breakaway album is that it was Annette Guest and not Rochelle Fleming who sang the lead vocal. Moreover, it and the other songs that we wrote and produced for this project were completed at the same time as LOVE THANG which was one of the songs recorded on the “Hold Your Horses” LP.

    Northern Soul fans might also be interested to know that Mervin and I along with Joe “Boobie” Thomas, an accomplished Philadelphia guitarist who played for Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions in the late 1960’s, co-wrote the Northern Soul favorite, I’M NOT STRONG ENOUGH. Mervin and I were college students at Cheyney State College outside of Philadelphia at the time.

    We and our classmates Barry Lessene, who attended Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia with the members of the Del Phonics and Raymond “Chip” Porter from Pittsburgh, PA were the Four Perfections. I sang lead on the aforementioned song and Barry sang lead on HOLD ON.

    It is significant to note here that Norman Harris and Ronnie Baker played on this session. I can’t prove it but I strongly believe that it was Bobby Martin who played the vibes. Mervin and I also wrote IF YOU AND I HAD NEVER MET that was recorded by Magic Night.

    In closing, I’ll never forget the varied experiences in the music industry I had in Philly. Meeting and becoming good friends with Eddie Holman (HEY THERE LONELY GIRL) was one of them.

    • Good evening Melvin,

      Thanks very much for your email, there’s so much great information there. I was really interested to hear about the songs you were involved in writing and producing for Breakaway. I never knew they were recorded at the same time as Love Thang, from Hold Your Horses. Hold Your Horses has always been a favourite of mine. It has a real vintage sound, with has some exquisite harmonies, accompanying Annette’s lead vocal. I picked it as one of my favourite tracks in the review. I was interested to hear how highly Ron Tyson rated the song, as he was involved in so much great music at Salsoul.

      I was pleased to hear Bobby Martin, whose one of favourite arrangers at Philadelphia International Records is working with McKinley Jackson as The Temptations’ musical director. The Temptations are one of my favourite Motown acts and was pleased to see the box set released earlier this year.

      The Manhattans’ back-catologue was rereleased two years ago in the UK by Superbird Records. I’ve reviewed The Manhattans, which featured Kiss and Say Goodbye, produced Bobby Martin. Of all The Manhattans album, The Manhattans and After Midnight are two of my favourites.

      I know Four Perfections’ I’m Not Strong Enough,it’s a real Northern Soul classic. If I remember right, you, Mervin and Joe “Boobie” Thomas cowrote the track and Kip Gainsboro produced it. That’s been played at many a Northern Soul night over here. Northern Soul is still huge over here. Hardly a month goes by, but compilations of Northern Soul tracks are released. I’m always fascinated by the personnel that played on songs and sometimes, spend ages trying to track down who played on songs.So to hear Norman Harris, Ron Baker and possible, Bobby Martin played on the sessions is something else I didn’t. Sadly, often when researching albums, details of personnel are sketchy. Eventually, I usually can find out, because I always like to mention someone who played a significant part. I always mention songwriters, producers, songwriters and backing vocalists like the legendary Sweethearts of Sigma.

      It’s interesting that you mention Eddie Holman, as I was listening to a couple of his albums recently. Hey There Lonely Girl is a stonewall soul classic, one of the most emotive and heartfelt songs I’ve heard. You’ve been really lucky to have worked and been friends with so many musical legends. For someone like myself, who loves Philly Soul, disco and soul music in general, it must have been a dream to be involved, like you were. Philadelphia in the seventies must have been a fantastic city to live and work in. There were so many great songwriters, musicians and producers working there.

      With it recently being the fortieth anniversary of Philadelphia International Records, a number of box sets and albums have been rerelease. Over here, Harmless Records released a ten-disc box set entitled Philadelphia International Records 40th Anniversary Box Set. It’s a real treasure trove. There was also a four disc box set of Tom Moulton remixes entitled Philadelphia International Classics: The Tom Moulton Remixes. Both box sets are among my favourite releases of 2012. There’s also been rereleases of Billy Paul’s 360 Degrees of Billy Paul and M.F.S.B’s Love Is The Message.

      Similarly, there’s been a number of Salsoul reissues this year, including The Salsoul Orchestra’s The Salsoul Orchestra, Instant Funk’s Instant Funk, First Choice’s Delusions and Double Exposure’s Ten Per Cent. They were rereleased by BBR Records, who will rerelease albums by Loleatta Holloway, Candido and Skyy. These are really welcome rereleases. Sadly, so many great Philly Sound albums have yet to make it onto CD. Even vinyl copies are becoming really hard to find. Hopefully, sometime soon, these albums will be rereleased and make it onto CD for everyone to enjoy.

      Thanks again for all your information Melvin. For someone like myself, it’s fascinating to discover all this information. Recently, I’ve been revisiting many Philly Soul classics, plus albums that featured many of the original lineup of M.F.S.B. who include some of my musical heroes. It’s my small way of keeping the history of Philly Soul alive and helping other people to discover this magical, timeless music. Thanks for all your help, keep in touch.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek.

  3. Johnny Santana

    Hi Derek

    How are you? Hope everything is going well. I was just reading some of your reviews and came across this one FIRST CHOICE. Wow, I love this group and brings back so many memories. You are not going to believe this but I recorded and played the congas on the track Breakaway, the conga track was an OD done at Boris Midney’s Eras Sound Studios New York, unfortunately I was not given credit. I didn’t even know that this album was ever released at the time but I own the 12″ LP.

    Best Wishes
    Johnny Santana

    • Hi Johnny,

      It’s good to hear from you. I hope all is well with you. I’m fine thanks.

      I’m glad that you enjoyed my review of First Choice’s albums. They released a lot of good great music during their six album career. It’s quite a coincidence that you played on the track Breakaway. Sadly, often people who play on sessions aren’t given credit. Maybe if the album gets rereleased on CD eventually, then you’ll get the credit you deserve. Keep in touch.

      Best Wishes
      Derek.

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