The Three Degrees
When you hear the name, The Three Degrees, you immediately think of their most famous song, “When Will I See You Again”, and the vision of three beautiful ebony women, perfectly coordinated in both their dance routines and their vocal harmonies. True, “When Will I See You Again” was a major hit record throughout the world, topping the chart in the U.S.A., the U.K., Japan and most European countries, earning the trio every conceivable accolade at the time — not to mention enough Gold records to make Fort Knox a little envious!
More than four decades on, the threesome have retained all three of their major qualities — their beauty, their sparkling choreography and their precise vocal qualities. And, in between, they have amassed an impressive list of hit records.
Today, the line-up consists of Valerie Holiday, Helen Scott and Freddie Pool.
The actual beginning of the group dates back more than 4 decades, when their then-manager, the enigmatic Richard Barrett brought three young teenagers together in Philadelphia. After a couple of years of constant rehearsing and local record hops, the group made its first mark on the recording scene by way of the Philly-based Swan Records.
But they were tough days for the teenagers! “I remember taking the bus to rehearsals every day,” recalls Helen. “We’d rehearse until 8 or 9 o’clock every night and on weekends. And we’d play local record hops whenever we could. Gradually, we started to make noise outside of Philadelphia and we went to Pittsburgh, into Ohio and Rhode Island. Always on weekends, though, because we were all still at school.”
During the Swan years, the group’s line up was Helen, Fayette Pinkney and Janet Harmon. Their biggest success on Swan was probably “Gee Baby”, which featured Fayette on lead vocals. “Those original recordings were quite different from the way we record now,” Helen reflects. “We would record with a ‘live’ band, all in one room at the same time. Only towards the end of the years with Swan did we record our vocals after the band had finished recording the tracks. Many of the musicians went on to become members of MFSB and I remember when Kenny Gamble would come by the office and the studio to tout his songs!
“You know, we were just happy-go-lucky teenagers…we had no big expectations and we did it for the sheer pleasure of music. We just wanted to sing! I remember getting my first TV paycheck…it was for $90 and I thought I’d hit the jackpot. To a fifteen year old, that was a lot of money.”
Soon thereafter Helen got married and left the group. By this time, they had signed with New York-based Roulette Records and the line-up was Fayette, Valerie Holiday and Sheila Ferguson and this line-up was to remain intact for their glory years with Roulette and Philadelphia International.
The hits began with a remake of the Chantels 1958 hit, “Maybe” and continued through “I Do Take You”, “You’re The One”, “There’s So Much Love All Around Me” (all produced by Barrett) and closed out with “Trade Winds” for Roulette. It was during this two-year span that they made a cameo appearance in the movie, “The French Connection”, singing “Everybody Gets To Go To The Moon”, portraying themselves in a cabaret scene.
In 1972, they aligned their recording fate with Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label and hit immediate paydirt in 1972 with “Dirty Ol’ Man”. Soon after came “TSOP”, which featured the ladies with MFSB. The following year came ‘When Will I See You Again”. “The whole Philadelphia Sound was the brainchild of Kenny (Gamble) and Leon (Huff),” Valerie explains. “They wrote and produced most of the hits…Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, The O’Jays, Billy Paul, The Intruders. In all honesty, we weren’t aware of the potential of the label when we first signed but at our first session with them, we felt the magic. It was different from anything we had ever experienced before.
“To be perfectly honest, I didn’t hear “When Will I See You Again”! We had released “Dirty Ol’ Man” as the first single and, to me, it was just another track on the album! I really wasn’t knowledgeable enough to be a good judge.
“I was very disappointed when we left the label. I thought that Kenny and Leon were the best writers and producers we had ever worked with. I liked their work and I liked working with them. To this day, Richard Barrett has never explained why we left!”
During their 3 year stint with Philadelphia International, they enjoyed a good measure of success with “Year Of Decision”, “Take Good Care Of Yourself” and, again with MFSB, “Love Is The Message”.
It was during this era that the threesome made their biggest forward strides. A great deal of attention has been given to the fact that Prince Charles publicly acclaimed The Three Degree as his favourite group….Charlie’s Angels, they were tagged! “It was a great feeling…a feeling of awe,” is how Valerie remembers this accolade. “Going to Buckingham Palace was……I’m lost for words! The British royal family was an institution and it really didn’t sink in at the time the magnitude of the people we were meeting. But the British people….the actual people…also took to us very quickly and very warmly and that warmth has always remained.”
“It was actually the press who tagged us Charlie’s Angels,” Helen interjects. “I don’t know if Prince Charles himself ever said that. But we did many charity events for several members of the Royal Family and we met Princess Diana, of course. In fact, on one occasion, just after she had given birth to Prince Harry and I was pregnant with my daughter, Karis, she whispered to me that she thought she was pregnant, too!”
In fact, The Three Degrees were invited guests at the wedding reception of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. “The only other American guest was Nancy Reagan and (actress) Susan George was the only other show business guest.” Helen recalls.
Helen had rejoined the group in 1976, replacing Fayette. They moved on to Epic Records, where one album was released but did not achieve any major success for the ladies. A year later, they teamed up with Giorgio Moroder (he of Donna Summer fame) and a new string of hits began. “Giving Up, Giving In”, “My Simple Heart” and the lush ballad, “Woman In Love”, were the highlights of this period.
In 1986, Sheila decided to leave the group and after a short period of regrouping, Valerie and Helen brought in Cynthia Garrison and set about their business again. Ever since, they have been constantly touring all over the world, occasionally recording but always working.
Their hard work in the early years has held them in good stead for today’s more demanding audiences. “For us, it is still exciting and we still enjoy our work,” Valerie points out. “We are blessed with a wide age group appeal….from fifteen to sixty-five. This is why we have survived, I think. We learned and were taught how to entertain and even before we had hit records, we knew how to do our job — our choreography, our costumes, the lights…these were all things that we learned at an early age.”
“I think we have done many firsts in our career.” Helen adds. “We have opened a lot of doors for other entertainers. In some cases, we may not have always succeeded but we have never given up. It still amazes me when we see teenagers singing along with our songs. And yet we still have the fans who have grown with us.”
At the end of 2010 and after more than 20 years as a Degree, Cynthia was forced to retire from the group due to medical reasons. It brought to an end the most stable period in the trio’s long history. Her place has been taken by Freddie Pool, a hugely talented and experienced vocaliste who has enjoyed past success both as a solo artiste and as a member of other groups. Vocally, she is the perfect blend for both Valerie and Helen and continues the rich tradition that the Three Degrees has always represented.
In 2015, the threesome returned to the recording studios to record their tribute to the music of their home city. Entitled “Strategy: Our Tribute to Philadelphia”, the album features their unique rendition of some of the best known and most revered songs from the golden era of the city – such as “Love Train”, “Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now”, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” as well as their slant on “Me & Mr. Jones”, “You’ll Never Find Another Love” and an update on their own “TSOP”. Fans of the threesome and the press have all offered their thumbs on the CD!
So it is that after more than four decades of existence, the Three Degrees can still make the claim as being the longest running female vocal group in history….see the Guinness Book of Records for confirmation of this fact! And they show no signs of slowing down!
Group personnel listing:
1963 Fayette Pinkney, Linda Turner, Shirley Poole
1963 Fayette, Helen Scott, Janet Harmon
1966 Fayette, Janet, Sheila Ferguson
1967 Fayette, Sheila, Valerie Holiday
1976 Sheila, Valerie, Helen Scott (return)
1986 Valerie, Helen, Vera Brown
1987 Valerie, Helen, Rhea Harris
1988 Valerie, Helen, Victoria Wallace
1989 Valerie, Helen, Cynthia Garrison
2011 Valerie, Helen, Freddie Pool
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