The Three Degrees: Degrees In Motion
Featured in the Guinness Book Of Records as the longest-running female vocal group in history, legendary Philadelphia soul trio The Three Degrees are currently trekking across the UK on an extensive, 24-date ‘Greatest Hits’ tour. Which finds them performing such classic Seventies hits as their world-conquering signature tune - the haunting 1974 ballad ‘When Will I See You Again’ - alongside other Philly-soul favourites like ‘Take Good Care Of Yourself’ and ‘Year Of Decision’; in addition to later, disco-flavoured smashes like 1978’s ‘Giving Up, Giving In’ and 1979’s catchy ‘My Simple Heart’.
Interestingly, the origins of the group date way back to 1963, when their then-manager - producer/songwriter Richard Barrett - brought three teenagers (Fayette Pinkney; Linda Turner; Shirley Poole) together in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Following which, after a couple of years of constant rehearsing and performing at local record hops, The Three Degrees made their first mark on the recording scene via the Philly-based Swan Records, for whom their biggest success was the 1965 single ‘Gee Baby’.
With the group undergoing numerous line-up changes in its early days, it was not however until Valerie Holiday joined already-existing members Fayette Pinkney and Sheila Ferguson that what many consider “the classic line-up” of the Three Degrees was formed – a line-up which would stay intact throughout the trio’s early-and-mid-Seventies “glory years” with both Roulette Records and Gamble & Huff’s globally-successful Philadelphia International label.
Scoring their initial US R&B Top Five breakthrough in 1970 with their remake of The Chantels’ 1958 ballad ‘Maybe’, The Three Degrees would go on to score four further American chart singles for the New York-based Roulette label, with whom they also released their first two albums - 1970’s ‘Maybe’ and 1972’s ‘So Much Love’. All of which in turn also landed them an acclaimed cameo appearance in the 1971 hit movie ‘The French Connection’ - filmed during one of the trio’s appearances at prestigious Copacabana nightclub in New York.
However, it was after the glam threesome signed with Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff’s then-red-hot Philadelphia International label in 1973 that bona fide global stardom would finally happen for The Three Degrees. As the two albums they recorded for the company - 1973’s ‘The Three Degrees’ and 1975’s ‘Take Good Care Of Yourself’ - spawned a string of international hit singles, peaking in 1974 with the world-conquering, haunting ballad ‘When Will I See You Again’. Whose multi-million-selling, chart-topping global success saw it prestigiously become both The Three Degrees’, and Gamble & Huff’s, biggest-selling record ever.
Despite the success group and label had achieved together, however, 1975 surprisingly found the now-world-acclaimed Three Degrees unexpectedly leaving Philadelphia International and pacting with Epic Records for a relatively-unsuccessful couple of years. A period that nevertheless included the interesting 1976 concept album ‘A Toast Of Love’, which the threesome recorded in Japan with Japanese musicians primarily for the Far East market.
Meanwhile, with 1976 also seeing original member Fayette Pinkney leaving the group and being replaced by Helen Scott (who’d previously been a group member from 1963 to 1966), 1978 next found the trio signing to Ariola Records and working with German disco super-producer Giorgio Moroder, then red-hot from his huge global success with Donna Summer. All of which resulted in a further run of international success for the group - their two Ariola albums (1978’s ’New Dimensions’ and 1979’s ‘3D’) impressively spawning no less than four UK top 20 singles - ‘Giving Up, Giving In’; ‘Woman In Love’; ‘The Runner’; and ‘My Simple Heart’.
The late-Seventies meanwhile also saw The Three Degrees in the world’s media spotlight with Prince Charles publicly acclaiming them as his favourite group. Which in turn led to a highly-publicised ongoing relationship with the British Royal Family -with the threesome performing at Buckingham Palace for The Prince’s 30th birthday party and later becoming the only American guests (alongside America’s then-First Lady Nancy Reagan) at the 1981 wedding reception of Princess Diana and Prince Charles.
Nevertheless, while their presence at Diana and Charles’ royal celebrations may have boosted the group’s media profile, in terms of record sales the Eighties found The Three Degrees’ chart presence significantly diminished. A situation hardly helped by the departure in 1986 of the charismatic Sheila Ferguson, which in turn led to a series of unsettling membership changes until l989 - when longstanding members Valerie Holiday and Helen Scott brought on board Cynthia Garrison as the group’s new, third member… Since which time the trio have remained a consistently-successful touring act worldwide, while occasionally releasing newly-recorded material.
… Which in turn brings us almost up-to-date - the only addition now being that in December 2011 the aforementioned Garrison, after 21 years, left the group to be replaced by newest member Freddi Poole in time for their current UK tour.
…Cue a forthcoming and affable Valerie Holiday on the line to ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis, to discuss in-depth both The Three Degrees’ groundbreaking career and current activities.
PETE: Can you fill me in on the group’s current line-up for your current ‘Greatest Hits’ UK tour?
VALERIE: “Alongside myself, the current line-up comprises Helen Scott - who’d been with the group in the early days, but left for about 11 years to start a family before rejoining in 1976 - and our newest member, Freddi Poole… Though, having said that, Cynthia Garrison is probably the lady who - alongside myself and Helen - is in most of our PHOTOGRAPHS right now. Because what happened is, Cynthia had been suffering with a spinal condition that affected the sciatic nerve. So, when we got home from our last Japanese tour in December, she actually had to leave the group. And so, as we’d been friends with Freddi during her time as a member of Former Ladies Of The Supremes and knew she’d since left, we asked if she’d like to come and join US!... So yeah, Freddi is now our newest permanent member. We debuted her during some early-January dates in San Francisco, California, and now of course she’s touring the United KINGDOM with us!”
PETE: So is anything currently happening with The Three Degrees on the recording front?
VALERIE: “We released a single called ‘Holding Back’ on Energise Records a few months ago. It’s a nice, uptempo dance track, and you can actually purchase it right now on I-tunes via the internet. Because as you know, everything today is done online and there are no longer many record stores per se… But then, as far as making a new album goes, I really don’t KNOW. You know, we’ve always been concerned about the type of material that we perform. So we’re constantly looking for the right label, the right producers... Plus nowadays it’s all about being very YOUNG, and unfortunately they kinda kick the veterans to the SIDE!... So, as I say, in terms of recording an album we’re not quite sure at the moment.”
PETE: You originally joined The Three Degrees back in 1967 and have remained a member ever since. What was the story behind you first joining the group?
VALERIE: “I was actually performing solo at that particular time, when a friend said he knew a group he wanted me to go see. He was like ‘They’re in need of replacing a member. So if you like what you see, maybe you’d be interested in JOINING’…So I went along, I watched the show… Then afterwards I went back and met the ladies; we chatted for a while; they asked me ‘Can you do this dance step?’… And when I DID, it was like ‘OK, you’re definitely IN!’’… And so it was just like a pure love-match from there ON!”
PETE: How do you now recall those mid-to-late Sixties days of the group, with Richard Barrett as your manager?
VALERIE: “Well, it was a much, MUCH different industry back then! And we actually spent the majority of our early years in rehearsal halls just going over dance routines. You know, because the choreography at that time was our main thing, we were the ones who’d come up with all the routines, and it took time to put those things TOGETHER! Because Richard would often come in and be like ‘No, you need to do something ELSE!’!... And so we’d then go and change it all AGAIN - until he’d come in and say ‘Well, if that’s as good as you can do, I guess that’s what we’ll have to HAVE!’!... You know, we were never given a lot of praise! I guess he thought it would go to our heads! So in those early days I think he kind of conditioned us - so that, when we did finally hit the stage and receive standing ovations, it was like ‘WOW! We did GOOD!’!... You know, we grew up learning that one needed to have honed one’s craft to be able to entertain an audience without the aid of a hit RECORD. Because we were actually working quite extensively before we even RECORDED our first single for Neptune Records, which was called ‘What I See’.”
PETE: So what was the recording process like back then?
“Studio-wise back then the musicians would go in and, while they were laying down their tracks, we’d be in a separate booth laying down a guide backing vocal. Then Richard would listen back to what we’d recorded and usually be like ‘OK, I don’t wanna redo this. I wanna keep exactly what we HAVE’… You know, he’d generally be happy with what we’d already DONE… So yeah, even in those early days, we always did all the vocal arrangements on all of our recordings.”
PETE: The Three Degrees’ initial US R&B Top Five breakthrough occurred in 1970 with ‘Maybe’ - a Richard Barrett-penned ballad that still remains one of your biggest American hits…
VALERIE: “Yes, as you say, Richard Barrett was the writer of the song - and he’d first recorded it with (Fifties New York girl-group) The Chantels way back in 1958. Plus Janis Joplin had done a recording of it - and even the Three Degrees THEMSELVES had first recorded it back in 1966 with, I think, Helen on the lead. So, in order to give our new version a different twist, Richard basically said to me ‘I want you to sit down, and I want you to write a monologue to go in front of the song. Because that’s the way we’re going to present it this time’… So I DID - and that’s what we ended up RELEASING!”
PETE; “’Maybe’ also marked your debut release (and the start of a string of US R&B hit singles) for the New York independent Roulette Records, for whom you also went on to record your first two albums - 1970’s ‘Maybe’ and 1972’s ‘So Much Love’. So how do you now look aback on your time with Roulette in the early-Seventies?
VALERIE: “Oh, working with the record-label was fine. Though at that time - being as we were with Richard - we weren’t really involved as far as business or things like that were concerned. Our concentration was strictly to make sure that our VOCALS were up to speed. And in that department, Richard was a very hard task-master! Because in the studio in those days you didn’t HAVE things like pitch control! You know, back then it wasn’t a case of ‘OK, we’ll sing this chorus and we’ll just push the computer-button so it’ll duplicate it four or five times for us!’! In those days, if the background needed to be layered, you had to go in there and sing LIVE each time! You know, you’d record it once, and then you’d go back and you’d sing that same thing over AGAIN - three or four times - in order to make the harmony sound nice and full! Everything was done MANUALLY - and, instead of the computerised things they have now, you had these reels of recording tape! So everything you heard - from the music through to the vocals - had always been done LIVE!”
PETE: Your true “glory years” of international success obviously began when you signed to Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff’s then-red-hot Philadelphia International label in 1973…
VALERIE: “It was Richard Barrett’s decision that we should sign to Philadelphia International. We’d actually worked with Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff before, when (in 1969) we recorded the single ‘What I See’ for their Neptune label - which, after Kenny and Leon’s regrouping, they later renamed Philadelphia International. And obviously it was always great working with Gamble & Huff, simply because they’re great songwriters of fantastic music. Plus there were always so many exciting things happening when we were recording with them! Like when we were in the studio working on our first Philadelphia International album (1973’s ‘The Three Degrees’), they were also there at the same time recording the music for the ‘Soul Train’ theme. And so Kenny just walked in; asked us to listen to the track they were doing (under the name MFSB) and see if we wanted to put some vocals on it… So we did - and that track (‘TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)’) actually took off to where it became a US Number One record! Which for us was just PHENOMENAL!”
PETE: 1974 obviously brought fourth the REAL biggie - the world-conquering, haunting ballad ‘When Will I See You Again’, which became your (and Gamble & Huff’s) biggest record of all time… Yet strangely it actually started life as just the relatively-low-key, third single from your by-then-struggling ‘The Three Degrees’ album…
VALERIE: “Well, you know, in those days - as I think probably today - the record company were the ones who basically decided things like what song was going to be the first release from an album. So, when we were actually RECORDING ‘When Will I See You Again’, for us it was just a great ballad! We just had no IDEA that it was going to do what it eventually DID! So for ALL of us - the Three Degrees AND Gamble & Huff - it was a very pleasant surprise! And I think we were actually in Japan when we had that really wonderful phonecall from Kenny Gamble telling us it had gone to the Number One spot in The United States! Plus the fact it had also by then gone to Number One in The United Kingdom and Japan meant for us it was all a bit overwhelming - a very, very exciting time!”
PETE: After two internationally-successful albums (1973’s aforementioned ‘The Three Degrees’ and 1975’s Take Good Care Of Yourself’), 1975 found The Three Degrees unexpectedly leaving Philadelphia International and signing to Epic Records. For whom your first project was the unusual 1976 concept album ‘A Toast Of Love’, which was recorded in Japan with Japanese musicians primarily for the Far East market…
VALEIRE: “Oh, that was just so very, very exciting! Because it gave us the chance to absorb a totally different culture - to the point where today Japan has become a country that we visit maybe three or four times within a year!.. So yeah, the whole Japanese experience for us back in the Seventies was about us absorbing the culture, absorbing the language... I mean, we recorded ‘When Will I See You Again’ in Japanese, plus we also recorded an actual Japanese song called ‘Nigai Nameda’. And overall that whole ‘A Toast Of Love’ project was really beautiful, because we were working with exceptional musicians and songwriters while we were there. You know, people sometimes ask me to compare recording in Japan with recording in Philadelphia with Gamble & Huff. But rather than actually compare then, I instead look at them as two different life experiences. Because it was just two different times in our lives that we were totally absorbed IN, and totally thrilled WITH... And so we’re very grateful that both of them happened.”
PETE: Next, after releasing two relatively-unsuccessful albums for Epic (1976’s aforementioned ‘A Toast Of Love’ plus 1977’s ‘Standing Up For Love’), The Three Degrees then enjoyed a second run of major international hits after signing with Ariola Records and working with then-red-hot German disco producer Giorgio Moroder. A pairing which in 1979 alone impressively resulted in three UK Top Ten singles - ‘Woman In Love’; ‘The Runner’; and ‘My Simple Heart’…
VALERIE: “That came about through Ariola. At that particular time we were talking with the heads of the company, they were trying to decide the best producer to pair us with… So, because Giorgio at the time was coming off mega-hits on Donna Summer, they thought ‘OK, that would be a very good marriage’. And what was different about that was that we were then introduced to DISCO music - which for us it was a transition into the next step. You know, we were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, we were open to whatever changes were necessary, and we were fortunate to vocally be able to ADAPT to those changes. And in terms of working with Giorgio versus working with Gamble & Huff, in many ways the experience was about the SAME. Because each producer has their way of running things in the studio, and with Giorgio it was no different! He had a certain way that he liked to work, and we just adapted to his way of doing things.”
PETE: The late-Seventies also saw you making worldwide headlines after Prince Charles publicly acclaimed The Three Degrees as his favourite group - which in turn led to an ongoing relationship with the British Royal Family. What was that whole experience like?
VALERIE: “Well, coming from The United States, we don’t HAVE royalty. So for us, being publicly acclaimed by Prince Charles was totally mindblowing! Because of course, growing up in school we’d read about the different Kings and Queens in the different countries. But for us to get a chance to actually meet these people who were part of history was definitely one of those pinch-yourselves-to-make-sure-you’re-not-dreaming moments! You know, it was vey surreal! Because you’d HEARD about Buckingham Palace, you’d READ about Buckingham Palace... But never in our wildest dreams or wildest imagination did we ever think we’d actually one day go inside and meet the OCCUPANTS! So, although today we’re unfortunately no longer actually in touch with the British Royal Family, we do like to think that in Prince Charles’ heart we still have a little corner! Because he’ll always have a corner in OURS!”
PETE: You then, in 1981, became the only invited American guests - alongside America’s then-First Lady, Nancy Reagan - at the wedding reception of Princess Diana and Prince Charles! So again, what was that like?
VALERIE: “Well, there we so many dignitaries present that we were really just elated to BE there - not as performers, but as actual GUESTS! I mean, it was BEAUTIFUL!... You know, because Sheila at the time was pregnant with her twins and couldn’t go, only Helen and I actually attended - and we just had a fantastic TIME! I mean, coming out of Buckingham Palace at four o’clock in the morning was just WONDERFUL! And Charles and Diana themselves were just beautiful people! Because, despite all the excitement of the occasion and being so busy greeting all guests, they still at all times made us feel very welcome.”
PETE: The Three Degrees are officially the longest-running female vocal group in history. Yet, after Sheila Ferguson left in 1986, you went through an unsettling succession of membership changes before finally bringing in Cynthia Garrison in 1989…
VALERIE: “Well, when (original member) Fayette Pinkney left in ’76, we were fortunate enough to be able to reach back and get Helen Scott who’d already been in the group back in the Sixties. But when Sheila left, it was a bit more difficult. Because with us always working so hard at what we do, I guess we tend to take it for granted that, if you can sing, you should be able to dance - and vice versa. So, though when Sheila left we started interviewing one lady after another, what we found was that we kept coming across ones that could sing, but - when it came to the dancing - had more or less two left FEET! Or, if they could get the choreography right, then the VOICE match wasn’t there!... So yeah, we did have a struggle trying to find a seating for that third member. And, though we hoped that each young lady we DID decide to bring in to the group would be that person, it either came down to them not being able to maintain, or their personality not quite fitting with the OTHER two. So it was only when we finally were introduced to Cynthia Garrison in ’89 that it all finally kind of gelled! You know, she ended up being with us for 21 years - until the end of last year when, as I said earlier, she had to leave for heath reasons... Whereupon we straightaway were able to bring in Freddi Poole - someone who’d already been in the business, who’d already been in a group environment, and understood what it INVOLVED! Because being in a group is totally different from singing on your OWN - in a group you have personalities that are with each other 24/7, and so those personalities also have to kind of match and be able to LIVE with each other... So yeah, right now we are very happy to have Miss Poole with us, and so we’re looking to the future with new eyes and great expectations for whatever may be coming!”
The Three Degrees’ current ‘Greatest Hits’ UK tour runs from now until February 27. Dates include Barnstable Queens Theatre (15); Truro Hall For Cornwall (16); Rhyl Pavilion (20); Stevenage Arts & Leisure Centre (25); and New Brighton Floral Pavilion (27)
Words PETE LEWIS