FIRST CHOICE-SO LET US ENTERTAIN YOU.

FIRST CHOICE-SO LET US ENTERTAIN YOU.

Ever since First Choice signed Stan Watson’s Philly Groove Records, they’d enjoyed commercial success. Guiding their career had been songwriter, guitarist and producer Norman Harris. Stan Watson, owner of First Choice’s label Philly Groove Records, had also played an important part in First Choice’s career. Norman had produced First Choice’s first two albums, Armed and Extremely Dangerous and The Player. For First Choice’s third album, So Let Us Entertain You, Norman wouldn’t be in charge of production. Instead, Stan Watson, owner of Philly Groove Records, would produce So Let Us Entertain You, with Norman Harris’ “assistance.” This wasn’t Stan’s first production. Previously, Stan had produced The Delfonics and Ben Aitken. With hindsight, this might seem a risky move. Especially given First Choice’s reputation was in the ascendancy. First Choice had established themselves as Philly Soul’s premier female vocal group, and So Let Us Entertain You would be released by Warner Bros. With a change in producer and record label, things were changing for First Choice. More changes would follow. Indeed, after So Let Us Entertain You was released, there would be a change in First Choice’s lineup. Before that, First Choice had an album to record and release, which would see even more changes. So, would So Let Us Entertain You match the success and quality of their first two albums? That’s what I’ll tell you, once I’ve told you about So Let Us Entertain You.

For Armed and Extremely Dangerous and The Player, most of the songs had written by Norman Harris and his Philly friends. Not so, with So Let Us Entertain You. Instead, new songwriting teams were brought onboard. The album opener, First Choice Theme, was penned by Arnold Coley Jr, Harold Cephas and Stan Watson. James Dean and John Glover cowrote five tracks. Their contributions were Ain’t He Bad, I’ll Stay Right Here, Gotta Get Away (From You Baby), Let Him Go and If The Sun Shines. Buddy Turner, Jerry Akins, John Bellmon and Victor Drayton penned Yes, Maybe No, Are You Ready For Me and Don’t Fake It. The other track was I Got A Feeling, a cover a Carl Hampton and Homer Banks. These ten tracks comprised So Let Us Entertain You. Recording took place at the familiar surroundings of Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios in Philly, where there would be more changes.

When recording of So Let Us Entertain You. began at Sigma Sound Studios, there were changes in the lineup of musicians accompanying First Choice. They were still all former members of M.F.S.B, who’d now left Philadelphia International Records to become The Salsoul Orchestra. However, rather than the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, bassist Michael Foreman and drummer Charles Collins accompanied Norman Harris. They were joined by guitarists Dennis Harris and Bobby “Electronic” Eli, Larry Washington on congas, vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr and Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey on clavinet, keyboards and piano. Strings came courtesy of Don Renaldo. Arrangers included Norman Harris, Vince Montana Jr, Bobby “Electronic” Eli and Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey. Newcomers included Arnold Coley, arranged the rhythm parts on three songs and Carl Helm who helped arrange the vocals. With Stan Watson producing So Let Us Entertain You, much had changed since First Choice’s sophomore album The Player. Would So Let Us Entertain You match the success of The Player, First Choice’s most successful album?

When So Let Us Entertain You was released in 1976, Stan Watson’s Philly Groove had licensed the album to Warner Bros. It reached number 203 in the US Billboard 200 and fifty-three in the US R&B Charts. This was a disappointment, as The Player had reached number 143 in the US Billboard 200 and thirty-six in the US R&B Charts. The singles proved more successful. Let Him Go stalled at number ninety-seven in the US R&B Charts. Things got better when Gotta Get Away (From You Baby) reached number sixty-four in the US R&B Charts and number five in the US Disco Charts. First Choice Theme then reached number five in the US Disco Charts, while Ain’t He Bad went one better, reaching number four in the US Disco Charts. First Choice’s music, it seemed, had proved a hit in American clubs and dance-floors. However, sales of So Let Us Entertain You had been disappointing. After this, there would be changes in First Choice’s personnel. After that, First Choice would leave Stan Watson’s First Groove Records. However, before I tell you about that, I’ll tell you about So Let Us Entertain You.

First Choice Theme opens Side One of So Let Us Entertain You, exploding joyously into life. It’s a mass of lush, dancing strings, growling horns, tough, edgy, keyboards, percussion and a pounding rhythm section. Scatted harmonies give way to the sweet, soulful vocals of First Choice. A sizzling saxophone solo, weaves its way across the arrangement, as First Choice ensure the arrangement swings along. They add punchy doo-wop style harmonies, as Philly Soul and disco become one. Having gotten your attention, can First Choice keep it? 

Ain’t He Bad is the first of two tracks Norman Harris arranged.  A pulsating beat, hissing hi-hats, cascading strings and wah-wah guitars signal the arrival of First Choice’s sassy, jokey half-spoken vocals. With swathes of swirling strings and punchy braying horns for company, Rochelle to deliver a strident, sassy vocal. Joyce Jones and Annette Guest add confident, sweeping harmonies. The arrangement fuses Philly Soul, funk and disco. Strings and horns add a Philly Soul sound, while the guitars and keyboards add a tough, funky twist. For their part, the rhythm section create a dance-floor friendly heartbeat, as First Choice deliver a sassy, assured vocal.

Bobby “Electronic” Eli takes over arranging duties on I’ll Stay Right Here. Straight away, you realize something special is unfolding. Keyboards are joined by dramatic drums, blazing horns and flourishes of strings. Harmonies sweep soulfully in, while Vince Montana Jr adds vibes and Bobby “Electronic” Eli wah-wah guitar. Then comes Rochelle’s heartfelt, emotive vocal. It’s her best so far on So Let Us Entertain You. Filled with defiance, and delivered against a dramatic backdrop, Rochelle’s at her soulful best. Harmonies sweep in, reflecting the hurt and emotion in her vocal, while The Salsoul Orchestra add to the drama and heartache, as Rochelle delivers a soul-baring vocal, full of defiance, bravado and emotion. 

Yes, Maybe No allows First Choice to showcase their combined talents. The rhythm section set the scene, adding waves of drama. With a burst of thunderous drums, Rochelle takes centre-stage. She delivers a powerful, heartfelt vocal, accompanied by tight, sweeping, soulful harmonies. They fuse elements of jazz, doo wop and Philly Soul. Behind them, layers of the lushest strings dance, braying horns kick and the rhythm section provide this hook-laden track’s heartbeat. First Choice and The Salsoul Orchestra are as one. Both play their part in what is one of the catchiest tracks on So Let Us Entertain You.

Gotta Get Away (From You Baby) closes Side One of So Let Us Entertain You. Again, it’s a dramatic opening to the arrangement. Although the sound of a train whistle opens the track, The Salsoul Orchestra are like a musical juggernaut. The rhythm section dramatically drive the arrangement along. Bobby “Electronic” Eli adds wah-wah guitar and Norman Harris’ guitar has a jazzy feel. Strings sweep and swirl furiously, while Rochelle delivers a powerful, fearful and emotive vocal. She’s accompanied by punchy, then whispered harmonies, while the arrangement fuses funk, Philly Soul and disco, becoming a dramatic, emotive musical juggernaut.

Are You Ready For Me is arranged by Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey and opens Side Two of So Let Us Entertain You. Ron’s keyboards and Larry Washington’s congas are at the heart of the punchy, driving arrangement. It unfolds in waves. Soon, strings dance, horns growl and the rhythm section add a pulsating heartbeat. Having set the scene, First Choice make their entrance, adding tight, elegant harmonies. Rochelle’s vocal is needy, sassy and sensual. Harmonies sweep elegantly and soulfully. By now, you realize just how well First Choice compliment each other. The harmonies and Rochelle’s lead vocal are a perfect fit. So too, is the performance of The Salsoul Orchestra. Like First Choice, when they’re in full-flight, it’s a joy to behold.

Don’t Fake It sees the tempo drop, as Norman Harris takes charge of arranging duties. Horns rasp, strings quiver and shiver and the rhythm section add a slow, deliberate backdrop. Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey’s keyboards, Norman Harris’ guitar and Vince Montana Jr’s play important parts in the arrangement. Rochelle’s vocal is needy and emotive, her heartbroken pleas, accompanied by subtle harmonies, while a sultry male vocal. A sultry male vocal drifts in and out, as Rochelle decides “the thrill is gone” pleading “Don’t Fake It.” The result is one of the most moving tracks on So Let Us Entertain You.

Larry Washington’s congas open I Got A Feeling, a cover of Carl Hampton and Homer Bank’s track. Strings sweep in, while a hustle arrangement complete with Norman Harris’ chiming guitar unfolds. Rochelle’s vocal veers between tender and powerful, filled with hope and happiness. Drums add bursts of drama, while the harmonies match Rochelle for emotion and soulfulness. Later, Rochelle scats and the harmonies become punchy, powerful and overflow with emotion and hope.

Let Him Go is another of the slower tracks. Strings add an emotive backdrop, while the rhythm section is deliberate and dramatic. This is perfect for Rochelle’s pleading, hopeful vocal. Her vocal ranges from tender and understated, to powerful and filled with emotion. Harmonies match her every step of the way. Vince Montana Jr. sprinkles his vibes, while a prowling bass and deliberate drums help First Choice close the track on a dramatic high.

If The Sun Shines closes So Let Us Entertain You, and is arranged by Vince Montana Jr. Vince’s vibes, percussion and Norman Harris’ jazz guitar accompanies tender, cooing harmonies before Rochelle adds a tender, heartfelt vocal. The bass weaves its way across the arrangement, while strings sweep. Meanwhile, Rochelle unleashes an ethereal, elegant vocal with tight, tender and soulful harmonies. In doing so, First Choice demonstrate that whether dance-floor tracks, or beautiful ballads like this, they were equally comfortable.

In some ways, Stan Watson’s decision to produce So Let Us Entertain You didn’t pay off. It failed to match the success of The Player, their previous album. Indeed, it only reached number 203 in the US Billboard 200 and number fifty-three in the US R&B Charts. Granted the singles proved popular in the US Disco Charts, but album sales were what counted. What makes the commercial failure of So Let Us Entertain You even more disappointing, was that it was First Choice’s first album to be released on a major label. Philly Groove released the album through Warner Bros. However, why was So Let Us Entertain You not a bigger commercial success?

Part of the problem with So Let Us Entertain You was the standard of the songs. Although the standard of songs are good, they don’t quite match the standard of songs on Armed and Extremely Dangerous and The Player. They weren’t quite as memorable, hooky and timeless. Having said that, So Let Us Entertain You isn’t a bad album. Far from it. It’s all a matter of comparisons. After all, the songs on Armed and Extremely Dangerous and The Player were penned by some of the best songwriters of the time. Many of these songs were tailor made for First Choice. Having said that, there’s still much to commend So Let Us Entertain You. Indeed, So Let Us Entertain You contains a number of songs which are the perfect showcase for First Choice’s vocal talents. Sadly, after So Let Us Entertain You First Choice’s lineup would change.

So Let Us Entertain You  was Joyce Jones last First Choice. She was replaced by Ursula Herring. That wasn’t the last change in the First Choice story. After So Let Us Entertain You, First Choice would sign to Norman Harris new label Gold Mind Records, which was a subsidiary of Salsoul Records. At Gold Mind, First Choice would release three further albums, Delusions, Hold Your Horses and Breakaway. For First Choice, So Let Us Entertain You marked the end of an era. Since then, So Let Us Entertain You, like their final album Breakaway, has remained something of a hidden gem in their back-catalogue. For anyone who loves Philly Soul, then So Let Us Entertain You with its fusion of Philly Soul, funk and disco, is well worth investigating and discovering. Standout Tracks: Ain’t He Bad, I’ll Stay Right Here, Don’t Fake It and Let Him Go.

FIRST CHOICE-SO LET US ENTERTAIN YOU.

 

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