Formation and early days
The all-girl vocal group trio The Three Degrees was the brainchild of producer and songwriter Richard Barrett, who used to be one of the vocalists of his own group The Valentines. Barrett also had previously discovered and managed other acts such as the Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and the Chantels (not to be confused with The Chantelles).
The original lineup of the Philadelphia-based group The Three Degrees consisted of Fayette Pinkney (or Pickney), Shirley Porter and Linda Turner. Barrett had them record their first single “Gee Baby (I’m Sorry),” which was released on Swan Records label and became a minor pop hit in 1965. Turner and Porter left; Helen Scott and Janet Harmon later made up of the newly-revamped group. Scott, however, left in 1966 to get married and raise a family.
Association with Gamble & Huff
Barrett had also begun managing another artist Sheila Ferguson, who also happened to be Scott’s high school friend. With Scott’s departure, Ferguson filled in for the former and began singing backup on all of The Three Degrees’ Swan recordings. In turn, the group sang backup vocals on many of Scott’s own singles. In 1967, Valerie Holiday came in to replace Harmon, who left. For the next three years Barrett subsequently had the group signed to short-term projects with labels Warner Bros., Metro Media and Neptune. Neptune’s owners Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff would later collaborate with Barrett and the group.
In 1970, the Philly soul trio inked another contract this time with Roulette Records. Their first hit on that label was their cover of the Chantel’s “Maybe,” which gave the Three Degrees their first Top 40 pop hit (at #29) and first Top 10 R&B (at #4). In 1971, The Three Degrees also made a cameo appearance on the Oscar-award winning film The French Connection. They also toured alongside star Engelbert Humperdinck.
In 1973, Barrett had a deal with Gamble and Huff’s to sign the Three Degrees to Philadelphia International Records (PIR). It was at this point where the girls were on the way to their commercial peak. The first record on that label, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” was their collaboration with the respected session band MFSB. The record was used as the new theme song for the hit show Soul Train. Because of the growing public demand for “TSOP,” it was eventually released as a single. It topped all pop, R&B and adult contemporary singles charts in 1973.
Biggest hit ever
The Three Degrees achieved this peak on their own in 1974, with the single “When Will I See You Again,” written by Gamble and Huff. It reached #2 on the Hot 100, and #1 on both the R&B and the UK charts, and #4 on the US Billboard R&B chart. It sold over two million copies, and was certified double platinum. It would also be their only major pop hit. Their eponymous second LP, which contained the hit single, climbed to #28 on the Billboard 200.
Personnel shifts, popularity in the UK and present lineup
In 1976, the most successful Three Degrees lineup of Pinkney, Ferguson and Holiday came to an end when Pinkney left the group, and Helen Scott returned to the fold. With Scott, the newly-reformed trio once again released Standing Up For Love on CBS label. Then they signed up to a European record imprint Ariola Records, releasing a number of singles (some of them disco songs) there including “Woman In Love” (#3 UK) and “The Runner” (#10 UK).
The Three Degrees had gained fame in the UK, as evidenced by their compilation album Gold (which became a Top 10 hit there), their Royal Alert Hall TV special gig, and appeared at Buckingham Palace for Prince Charles’ 30th birthday party as well as for his and would-be Princess Diana’s pre-wedding party.
The trio then released a number of UK-only records. In 1986, Ferguson quit, and new member Victoria Wallace came to replace her. That same year Scott became pregnant and had to leave for a while, and she was replaced temporarily by Miquel Brown.
In 1989, the lineup Scott, Holiday and Wallace released Three Degrees…And Holding on Ichiban Records. At the end of that year, Wallace left and her position was filled in by Cynthia Garrison. This lineup of Scott/Holiday/Garrison would form the longest-running Three Degrees roster until 2010 when Freddie Pool came to replace Garrison, (who was suffering a neuromuscular disease) as to fulfill the group’s upcoming touring commitments. This lineup of Scott, Holiday and Pool continues up to this day.