FIRST CHOICE-ARMED AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.
FIRST CHOICE-ARMED AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.
Next year, 2013, marks the fortieth anniversary of First Choice’s debut album Armed and Extremely Dangerous. First Choice were one of the most successful of Philly Soul’s female groups, releasing six albums between 1973 and 1980. The story of how First Choice made their commercial breakthrough is very different to most groups. Rochelle Fleming, Annette Guest and Joyce Jones were just fifteen when they formed The Debronettes. After rehearsing at Annette Guest’s home, they started singing in public, and at talent shows. They were just one of Philly’s many aspiring groups. Then their luck and lives changed, when they decided to audition for one of Philly’s DJs. George Woods was a DJ at Philadelphia’s W.D.A.S. radio station.
When The Debronettes attended the audition at W.D.A.S. George realized that here was a group with potential. He was so impressed with The Debronettes that he called one of the mainstays of the Philly’s burgeoning music scene, Stan Watson, owner of Philly Groove Records. Stan liked the group, but not their name. So he signed The Debronettes, but got them to change their name. Now The Debronettes became First Choice. The lives of Rochelle Fleming, Annette Guest and Joyce Jones would never be the same. While success wasn’t quite overnight, it never is, except in dime store novels, success came quickly for First Choice. One man would play a huge part in the First Choice story, Norman Harris.
To produce First Choice’s debut single, Stan Watson brought in Philly-based guitarist, songwriter, arranger and producer Norman Harris. Norman was a founder member of Philadelphia International Records’ house-band M.F.S.B. and the guitarist in the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section. By the time he met First Choice, he was establishing a reputation as one of the hottest producers of the time. With First Choice guided by Norman Harris, success wasn’t far away for First Choice.
With the newly named First Choice, they set about recording their debut single, 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. Encouraged by the success of This Is the House Where Love Died, work began on First Choice’s debut album Armed and Extremely Dangerous.
Stan Watson couldn’t have chosen a better producer for First Choice. The reason for this is quite simple. Norman Harris wasn’t just a producer, he was a songwriter, arranger and one of the best guitarists of the seventies. He was also a founder member of M.F.S.B, Philadelphia International Records’ legendary house-band. At the heart of M.F.S.B, were the rhythm section of Ron Baker, Norman Harris and Earl Young. Known as Baker, Harris, Young, they provided the heartbeat to numerous Philly Soul classics. With Norman producing Armed and Extremely Dangerous what became Armed and Extremely Dangerous, this meant access to the creative talents of many of Philly’s most talented musicians, songwriters, arrangers and producers. Indeed, Armed and Extremely Dangerous features a cast of Philly Soul legends.
Norman Harris cowrote five of the tracks on Armed and Extremely Dangerous with Alan Felder. Another member of Baker, Harris, Young contributed a track. Ron Baker and Thom Bell cowrote One Step Away. Bobby “Electronic” Eli who establishing a reputation as a songwriter and producer cowrote This Little Woman with Carl Fisher. Other tracks included the Kay Rogers and Richard Ahlert composition Runnin’ Out of Fools, while Chuck Brooks penned A Boy Named Junior. The other track was a cover of a song made famous by Al Green, Love and Happiness. These ten tracks were recorded at Philly’s legendary studio Sigma Sound Studios, owned by Joe Tarsia.
Accompanying First Choice for the Armed and Extremely Dangerous’ sessions were many of M.F.S.B. Proving the album’s heartbeat were the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section. Guitarists included Bobby “Electronic” Eli and Roland Chambers and James Grant played bass. Vince Montana Jr, who arranged two tracks, played vibes, while Larry Washington congas and bongos. Violinist Don Renaldo, was part of a full string section and horn section, which also included alto saxophonist Zach Zachary. Arranging Armed and Extremely Dangerous were Bobby “Electronic” Eli, Vince Montana Jr, and Norman Harris who produced the album. Armed and Extremely Dangerous was scheduled for release in 1973, Now First Choice’s career started in earnest.
The title-track Armed and Extremely Dangerous was chosen as the lead singe, reaching number twenty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number eleven in the US R&B Charts. Considering this was only First Choice’s sophomore single, success had come their way quickly. Then when Armed and Extremely Dangerous was released in 1973, it reached number 184 in the US Billboard 200 and number fifty-five in the US R&B Charts. This was encouraging given Armed and Extremely Dangerous’ was First Choice’s debut album. Smarty Pants then reached number fifty-six in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty-five in the US R&B Charts. Newsy Neighbors was released as a single in 1974, reaching number ninety-seven in the US Billboard 100 and number thirty-five in the US R&B Charts. First Choice had now established their reputation as one of Philly’s up and coming groups. Three hit singles and a successful debut album, Armed and Extremely Dangerous, was proof of this. However, what does the music on Armed and Extremely Dangerous sound like, and has in stood the test of time, maturing like a fine wine since its release in 1973? That’s what I’ll now tell you.
Armed and Extremely Dangerous opens with Smarty Pants, the first of five Norman Harris and Alan Felder penned songs, which Norman arranged and produced. Bursts of breathy vocals, stabs of growling horns and Larry Washington’s congas and bongos build and build the drama. Then, with swathes of swirling strings and rasping horns for company, Rochelle’s delivers a sassy feisty vocal.Baker, Harris, Young provide the arrangement’s heartbeat and Bobby “Electronic” Eli adds a searing guitar. Punchy, urgent harmonies accompany Rochelle as she delivers a vocal that belies her years. Powerful, tenderness, sassy and smart, it’s all these things and more. Behind her, M.F.S.B. ensure the arrangement swings. Strings sweep and swirl, horns rasp and Vince Montana Jr, sprinkling the unmistakable sound of his vibes. Combine this with First Choice’s vocal prowess and you wonder why oh why, this wasn’t a huge hit single?
Runnin’ Out of Fools sees Rochelle take centre-stage. The rest of First Choice playing supporting roles. Earl Young’s drums, stabs of blazing horns and Vince Montana Jr’s vibes combine, before Rochelle delivers a powerful, heartfelt vocal. She lays bare her soul, displaying vocal that breathes meaning into the music. It’s as if she’s lived them. The arrangement has made in Philly written all over it. Cascading strings, subtle vibes, bursts of horns and the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section accompany Rochelle. Cooing harmonies sweep in, but mostly it’s Rochelle plays a starring role, bringing life and meaning, to the heartache and hurt in the lyrics. He’s hurt her once, but not again. Later, Zach Zachary unleashes a growling alto-saxophone solo, setting the scene for First Choice to take the song to its emotive, heartfelt and dramatic finale.
the tempo slows way down on A Boy Named Junior, penned by Chuck Brooks. Sad strings, a harpsichord and Ron Baker’s bass combine as the emotion and sadness builds. When Rochelle’s vocal enters, the scene’s been set. Her vocal is wistful, full of emotion and sadness, remembering A Boy Named Junior. Memories come flooding back. Things they did, people they met and times they had. Pictures are painted by First Choice and M.F.S.B, who add a subtle, emotive backdrop. Norman Harris’ chiming guitar, Vince Montana Jr’s vibes and strings which are central to the arrangement and its effectiveness. Tender harmonies and strings accompany Rochelle’s melancholy vocal, as she delivers a vocal that’s melancholy, but tender and quite beautiful.
Al Green cowrote Love and Happiness, a track from his Love and Happiness album. Here, First Choice reinterpret the song. Just meandering, melodic keyboards accompany Rochelle’s tender vocal. Soon, the arrangement unfolds. Stabs of grizzled horns, Norman’s chiming guitar and keyboards accompany Rochelle. Her vocal veers between tender and spacious, to sensual and sassy. Gospel tinged harmonies and growling horns accompany her, answering her call. Mostly, Rochelle’s vocal is tender, suiting the song, but when M.F.S.B. kick loose, her voice grows in power and sass. Although quite different from Al’s original, this cover version really works well, bringing something new and different to the original.
Wake Up To Me, which closes Side One of Armed and Extremely Dangerous is the second Alan Felder and Norman Harris song. Norman arranges and produces this slow, thoughtful track. With the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section providing a slow, pensive, backdrop, horns rasp, strings sweep and Vince Montana Jr, sprinkles his vibes. Having provided the perfect backdrop, First Choice do their part, adding tight, impassioned and soulful harmonies. Then when Rochelle steps out of the shadows, she delivers a vocal that’s needy, but filled with hope. Her voice grows in power and emotion, with the harmonies and M.F.S.B. providing a perfect, pensive and beautiful accompaniment.
Newsy Neighbors opens Side Two of Armed and Extremely Dangerous. It was one of three singles released from the album. Larry Washington’s congas and bongos give way to rasping horns, dancing strings and Baker, Harris, Young, who drive the arrangement along. Rochelle’s vocal soars powerfully above the arrangement, with harmonies sweeping in. Bursts of Earl Young’s drums add drama, Norman Harris’ guitar is understated and jazz-tinged, while Bobby “Electronic” Eli’s sizzles. Vince Montana Jr, adds vibes, strings cascade and horns kick, while Rochelle and the rest of First Choice drive each other to greater heights of soulfulness. This results in not just a First Choice classic, but a Philly Soul classic.
How do you follow one classic track? For First Choice it’s simple, with another, Armed and Extremely Dangerous. This was the lead and gave First Choice their commercial breakthrough. Like Newsy Neighbors, it was written by Alan Felder and Norman Harris. From the get-go, M.F.S.B. are in full flight. Larry Washington’s congas and bongos, swirling strings and sirens are joined by growling horns. Baker, Harris, Young do their part, providing a pulsating heartbeat. Urgent harmonies sweep in, surrounded by swathes of swirling strings and grizzled horns. Rochelle’s vocal is powerful and sassy, but tinged with regret. Highlighting the danger are Earl’s thunderous drums and stabs of horns. Rochelle unleashes one of her best vocals. Power, passion and emotion unitie with frustration and regret, at falling for a guy like that? While M.F.S.B. and First Choice play their part on the second classic track on Armed and Extremely Dangerous, Rochelle Fleming plays the part of the leading lady perfectly.
Carl Fisher and Bobby “Electronic” Eli cowrote This Little Woman, which Bobby arranged. It’s a slow ballad, where First Choice showcase their harmonies, against a string drenched backdrop. Vince Montana Jr, subtly sprinkles vibes and guitars weep, while Rochelle delivers a vocal that’s tender, thoughtful and filled with emotion. As the song progresses, the drama and emotion builds. Rochelle’s vocal grows in power, breathing beauty and meaning into the lyrics, while Annette and Joyce add some of the best harmonies on Armed and Extremely Dangerous.
There’s Spanish and Latin influences present when This Is the House (Where Love Is) opens. It’s the frantically strummed acoustic guitar, percussion, urgent strings and braying horns that makes me think this. Then the arrangement almost explodes. With the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section powering the arrangement along, Rochelle’s vocal sees power and urgency combine. Sweeping, punchy, soaring, soulful harmonies have a similar urgency, as this Alan Felder and Norman Harris penned track reveals plenty of subtle poppy hooks.
Closing Armed and Extremely Dangerous is the Ron Baker and Thom Bell composition, One Step Away. A breezy flute floats above an arrangement driven along by Baker, Harris, Young. Strings sweep and swirl, horns rasp and Vince Montana Jr, adds vibes as Rochelle delivers a despairing vocal. “I’m one step away from self destruction,” she sings, while gospel tinged, soaring harmonies urgently answer her call. Bobby “Electronic” Eli adds a blistering guitar line, while strings cascade and Earl Young’s drums dramatically punctuate the arrangement. By now First Choice have hit their stride, the interplay between Rochelle’s lead and the harmonies peerless. It’s as if First Choice are determined to close Armed and Extremely Dangerous on a high. That they do and then some.
Earlier I wondered whether Armed and Extremely Dangerous had stood the test of time? The answer to that is simple, yes. Nearly forty years after First Choice released Armed and Extremely Dangerous, it’s an album that improved with age. With each listen, you hear something new. A subtlety or nuance reveals itself. You never tire of hearing the ten tracks on Armed and Extremely Dangerous. These songs, a mixture of ballads and uptempo tracks alike, are like short stories. They’re narrated by Rochelle Fleming in her own inimitable way. She breathes life, meaning and beauty into each track. While Rochelle Fleming was the leading lady in First Choice, Annette and Joyce played their part. Their harmonies were the finishing touche, the icing on this delicious musical cake.
Similarly, Norman Harris’ role was crucial. Norman Harris, produced Armed and Extremely Dangerous. He also cowrote five tracks and arranged seven of the ten tracks. Whatever project Norman produced, Ron Baker played bass and Earl Young played drums. Many of M.F.S.B. also played on Armed and Extremely Dangerous, and provided the Philly-made backdrop for First Choice’s vocals.
What’s remarkable about First Choice’s debut album Armed and Extremely Dangerous, is that in 1973. each of First Choice were still teenagers. First Choice’s performances on Armed and Extremely Dangerous belies this, showing that a great future lay ahead of the three members of First Choice. That was to be the case, with First Choice becoming one of the most successful of Philly Soul’s female groups. Armed and Extremely Dangerous their debut album, is one of the finest debut albums in the history of Philly Soul and nearly forty years later, is a stonewall, timeless classic. Standout Tracks: Smarty Pants, Wake Up To Me, Newsy Neighbors and Armed and Extremely Dangerous.
FIRST CHOICE-ARMED AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.