A Collection Of Their 20 Greatest Hits – (Epic 1979)
UK Chart Position – 8
This is a 1991 CD re-issue of a twenty track album originally released in 1979 five years after the start of this girl group’s run of hits. By this time they had left the Philadelphia International label which had brought them mainstream success, largely thanks to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff , and signed with the European Ariola label. Their pop chart success in their homeland had ground to a halt but the Ariola signing would give them another string of hits especially in the UK and Europe.
It had taken a while for Sheila Ferguson, Valerie Holliday and Fayette Pinkney’s careers to get going. There had been personnel changes in the first few years of the group but this trio had settled and scored their first US hit with a Roulette Records track, “Maybe” which reached number 29 in 1970. This was a big, sophisticated take on a girl group standard previously a 1958 #15 hit for The Chantels. Follow-up hits were not forthcoming even when the girls had good exposure in the 1971 Oscar-winning movie and box office smash “The French Connection” where they are featured in a nightclub scene.
In 1973 manager Richard Barrett got the girls a deal with a company that had been notching up an impressive list of R&B and Pop hits and had broken The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes and Billy Paul into the mainstream. Philadelphia International was challenging Motown as the leading black music label and this new signing would certainly boost this reputation.
Their introduction to the label came via backing vocals used to augment the instrumental “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” by the house orchestra MFSB. Being picked up as the theme tune to the classic US TV Show “Soul Train” certainly improved its chances and it became a US Pop number 1 single in April 1974, the third chart-topper for the label. In the UK the response was a little more muted and it reached number 22. It was another track, released almost simultaneously, with “TSOP” which introduced the group to British audiences. “Year Of Decision” was a strong example of a Philadelphia message song, a rallying cry to self-empowerment. The girls made TV appearances to capitalise on the initial warm response to this song and the British were won over by the wigs, the glamour and gowns and thus began a love affair which continues to this day. “Year Of Decision” reached #13 in the UK charts and a song with dubious lyrics “Dirty Ol Man” which hasn’t dated well lyrically but always went down a storm when performed live gave them a big hit across Europe. It was however, the next track which would change things for the girls on both sides of the Atlantic.
“When Will I See You Again” is a simple, wistful ballad which showed off the girls’ ability to harmonise and the great lead vocal of Sheila Ferguson. Written, as the previous hits had been by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the sophistication was in the arrangement rather than in the lyrics or the sentiment. It became the sound of the summer in 1974, topping the chart in the UK and number 2 in the US. Amazingly, this song just couldn’t be lived up to Stateside as it became their final pop hit.
The Prince and the Showgirls
In the UK, however, they became the darlings of the popular press and one thing that everyone seemed to know as The Three Degrees turned into household names was that they were cited to be Prince Charles’ favourite group. There were another four Top 40 hits for the girls in this phase of their career and they are all included on this CD. We get the singalong “Take Good Care Of Yourself” (UK#9) (always sounded a little bit like “Georgy Girl” by The Seekers to me), the uptempo, perhaps misguided follow-up to the number 1 single “Get Your Love Back” (UK#34), the pretty “Long Lost Lover” (UK#40) and the rather epic track “Toast Of Love” (UK#36) which saw them thought to the middle of 1976. The Gamble/Huff song-writing magic was present throughout except for the last hit which was written by Sheila Ferguson alongside T. Umegaki
By this point the girls had recorded two albums on the main Philadelphia International label. Their first eponymous album had the chart-topping hit and, as a result of that, reached #28 in the US and #12 in the UK. Europe decided to retitle the second album, “International” after the hit track “Take Good Care Of Yourself” and this became an even bigger hit in the UK reaching #6. There was also a live album from which we get an insubstantial version of The O’Jays “Love Train” which closes this CD. By 1976 they had parted company with Gamble and Huff and Philadelphia International and moved under the main CBS/Sony/Epic umbrella for a couple of albums from which tracks are included on this CD. Founder member Fayette Pinkney did not last to the move to Ariola. She was replaced by Helen Scott who had been a member of the trio in their pre-hit days and who has remained a third of the Three Degrees ever since, together with Valerie Holiday who now tour and record with Freddi Pool, who had previously recorded with “The Former Ladies Of The Supremes” despite never actually being a Supreme.
For me this incarnation of the group is all about the harmonising of Fayette and Valerie over the magnificent voice of Sheila Ferguson, a song stylist of the first order. Proof of this can be found on this CD on three different songs, the Broadway standard from “Chorus Line”, “What I Did For Love”, the Boz Scaggs pop classic “We’re All Alone” and the R&B Marvin Gaye smoocher “Distant Lover” all of which get exemplary lead vocals.
Where this CD shows its age is with some of the lyrics. “Dirty Ol’ Man” is more than a tad disturbing and the girls were hardly advancing the cause of feminism in the mid 70’s when they were recording “I Like Being A Woman” and “A Woman Needs A Good Man (To Be A Good Woman)” . These would not win any equal opportunities awards for writer Bunny Sigler who was involved with both tracks. The debut album did have this slightly off-kilter attitude. It was great that The Three Degrees broke through in such a big way as highly successful African American girl groups in the mid 70’s were a little thin on the ground. The girls were adorned in strong, Afro-centric outfits on the front cover yet open it up and they were in see-through body stockings which was all a little too much to this reviewer who purchased the album pre-puberty. Although I’ve criticised a couple of the Bunny Sigler songs there is one of his tracks, the seven minute epic “If And When” which I think is a sad omission on this CD and is only one of two tracks from “The Three Degrees” album not to make the cut.
The top half of the infamous body suit shot
I like that this album separates the Philadelphia/Epic output from the Ariola and beyond stuff. This is very much an album of a sophisticated Philly soul group with the lushness of sound which was often the sign of this label’s output but they would become far more pop based later on in their career. If you want a complete career overview the 2009 release “The Best Of” takes music from both phases. The 2017 double CD “When Will I See You Again” has 31 tracks but a number of short and long versions of the same song on the second CD. I have another release from the Camden label in 1997 (which might be difficult to source now) . This concentrates on the Ariola output and their work with Giorgio Moroder is very good indeed. It brought the girls back with a bang with a harder disco edge which made them feel relevant all over again. This CD has their four UK top 20 hits from 78-79 but despite this is not what I would consider to be essential. Their final hurrah came in 1985 with a track produced by Stock-Aitken and Waterman “The Heaven I Need” which should have seen them back up near the top of the Pop charts but stalled at #42.
As an example of Philly soul at its best this album is certainly essential. In 20 tracks you can appreciate the talent of this trio and appreciate the longevity potential. Valerie Holiday is still recording and performing with this group after 50+ years. Sheila Ferguson left in 1986 after her 20 year stint as lead singer but didn’t have the massive solo career she deserved. She is a regular face on TV screens (most recently as one of the “oldies” in the documentary series “The Real Marigold On Tour”) and Fayette Pinkney very sadly passed away in 2009 at the age of 61. But every time I hear the opening bars of “When Will I See You Again” I am transported back to the 1970s.
In 1975 The Three Degrees performed on BBC TV’s “The Les Dawson Show” and performed a medley of tracks available on this CD. I’m not sure we were used to such sophisticated polish on our TVs in those days. Enjoy!
A Collection Of Their Greatest Hits is currently available from Amazon from £10.18 and used from £0.01. In the US it only seems to be currently available used from $52.07. Other compilations of original recordings are available to buy and to stream on Spotify.