The Three Degrees
Few in 1963 would have expected that three talented teenage girls from Philadelphia would come together to form the origin of a group that would continue into the next century, but that was the beginning of the Three Degrees, an act that, through more than 40 years and multiple lineups, has become one of the most internationally popular and long lasting Soul groups in history.
Fayette Pinckney, Linda Turner, Shirley Poole, then in their early teens, were brought together by veteran writer/producer Richard Barrett as the vehicles for his vision of creating the next great girl group. Turner and Poole were quickly replaced by Helen Scott and Janet Harmon, and Barrett began the process of molding the trio into a regional favorite, training them extensively and booking them at record shops and talent contests throughout the Eastern United States.
The group was signed by Philly-based Swan Records in the mid-60s and scored a regional hit with "Gee Baby," working with a number of great local musicians, some of whom would become the backbone of the Philadelphia soul movement of the 70s. In 1966 Scott temporarily left the group and was replaced by Sheila Ferguson, already an accomplished solo singer, and Valerie Holiday took over Harmon's slot. The act was then signed by Roulette Records and in 1970 scored their first major national hit, a top 5 remake of the Chantels' "Maybe." They followed later that year with the popular "You're the One," and landed a brief appearance singing in the Gene Hackman hit movie The French Connection.
A major career move for the Three Degrees was their signing by Gamble & Huff's up-and-coming Philadelphia International Records in 1972. They made an immediate splash with the disco hit "Dirty Ol' Man" before joining with MFSB (the Philadelphia International house band) to record the Soul Train theme song "TSOP," which became an across-the-board #1 hit. They then followed the next year with what would become their signature song, the sophisticated ballad "When Will I See You Again," one of the greatest songs ever to come from Philadelphia, and the group's biggest international hit.
The Three Degrees continued with moderate success at PIR before moving over to Epic Records in 1975 and then to Ariola. During the next decade their success in the U.S. was limited but they became bigger than ever in the U.K., where they continued to score with hits such as "Giving Up, Giving In" and "Woman In Love." Prince Charles proclaimed them his favorite group (they were guests at his wedding to Princess Diana) and they were consequently labeled by the British Press as "Charlie's Angels."
Helen Scott rejoined the group (replacing Pinckney) in 1976, and the lineup of Scott, Ferguson and Holiday continued for a decade, when Ferguson left the group, ultimately being replaced with Cynthia Garrison. With that lineup, the group continued to record throughout the 90s, last releasing a Christmas album in 1998. Cynthia Garrison left the group in December of 2010 due to health issues and has been replaced by Freddi Poole, resulting in the lineup (Valerie Holiday, Helen Scott and Freddi Poole) that continues to this day.
The influence and popularity of The Three Degrees is sometimes lost on US audiences who are largely familiar with the group for only one great song, but the trio has played an important role in bringing Soul music to the world and continues to be considered around the globe as one of the most important ambassadors of American Soul Music, more than four decades after its modest origin.
By Chris Rizik