SINCE the 1960s, they have been the epitome of glamour in beautiful glittery gowns, perfectly timed dance moves and exquisite vocal harmonies.
Famously Prince Charles’s favourite group, The Three Degrees charmed the world in 1974 with their most famous hit When Will I See You Again, topping the charts around the world, and followed it up in 1975 with Take Good Care of Yourself.
On tour with dates in Crawley and Eastbourne coming up this month, the soul divas are celebrating more than 50 years in the business. Today the line-up consists of Helen Scott, who has been in the group since 1963 with a 10-year hiatus between 1966 and 1976, Freddie Pool, who joined in 2011, and Valerie Holiday, a member since 1967.
“I joined when I was 18,” says Valerie. “I was a solo performer at the time, travelling alone and very lonesome. I was asked if I was interested and I went to see one of their shows and enjoyed it, so I joined them. It was much more fun.”
The Three Degrees began in the early 1960s when the enigmatic Richard Barrett brought together three young teenagers in Philadelphia. It took two years of constant rehearsing and local record hops, informal dance events for teenagers, before the trio, Helen Scott, Fayette Pinkney and Janet Harmon, were signed up to Philadelphia-based Swan Records. Still at school, they would travel to Pittsburgh, Ohio and Rhode Island at the weekends to perform.
As Helen described it, “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 15-year-old, that was a lot of money.”
By the time they signed with New York-based Roulette Records, the line-up was Fayette and Valerie with Sheila Ferguson, a combination that remained during their glory years.
“Before I joined, they were making their own costumes but when I came in, Richard took us to a department store and bought some,” recalls Valerie. “It was all about what he thought we should be wearing. We did not have a great deal of say. We did sometimes say no but in the end we had to do it.
“We were rehearsing 24/7, all day every day. Richard was a perfectionist – he was not nice. He was a regimental dictator. When it came to the choreography, every hand had to move exactly at the same time. Richard would come in and poo poo everything and say ‘Fix it’ and then leave us to it.”
A big year for the group was 1972. Not only did they make a cameo appearance portraying themselves in a cabaret scene in the movie The French Connection, singing Everybody Gets To Go To The Moon, but they also signed up to the Philadelphia International label, the brainchild of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
“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,” Valerie has said. “It was different from anything we had ever experienced before.”
During their three-year stint with Philadelphia International, they enjoyed success with their hits Year Of Decision, Take Good Care Of Yourself and Love Is The Message.
And it was during this era that Prince Charles publicly acclaimed The Three Degree as his favourite group, with the press dubbing them Charlie’s Angels.
He was so smitten with the group he invited them to perform at his 30th birthday party at Buckingham Palace. “It was a great feeling… a feeling of awe,” Valerie has said. “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.”
She tells Pique, “They kitted up the stage and the sound, and they gave the Queen a volume button so the sound engineer could turn it down if it she pressed it because it got too loud. But she didn’t.”
Valerie tells Pique, “Charles was a charmer and a beautiful person. We are very proud of it even now and it is a feather in our cap. We hope we’re still one of his favourite groups.”
The Three Degrees were also invited as guests at the wedding reception of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. “Meeting Diana was exceptional,” says Valerie.
After the group teamed up with the Italian record producer Giorgio Moroder, who has been dubbed the father of disco and famously produced late-70s disco hits for Donna Summer including Love To Love You Baby, and had a new string of hits including Giving Up, Giving In, My Simple Heart and the ballad Woman In Love.
Sheila Ferguson left the group in 1986 to pursue a solo career, with Cynthia Garrison joining Valerie and Helen. Freddie Pool replaced Cynthia in 2011 after she was forced to retire from the group due to medical reasons.
“For us, it is still exciting and we still enjoy our work,” Valerie has said. “We are blessed with a wide age group appeal from 15 to 65. 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.”
With The Three Degrees the longest running female vocal group in history, their sparkling high heels are not easy to step into. “It keeps being said that there have been 15 members of The Three Degrees but they weren’t really because some were only there for a couple of days,” says Valerie. “As well as me, there have really only been four other members: Cynthia, Sheila, Helen and Fayette.
“The group is not one where you can just slip new people in. Not only do they have to be able to sing and dance. It’s a personality thing too.”
The Three Degrees appear at The Hawth, Hawth Avenue, Crawley, at 7.30pm on Wednesday October 10. Tickets £28.50. Phone 01293 553636 or visit parkwoodtheatres.co.uk.
The Three Degrees appear at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre, 108-112 Seaside Road, Eastbourne, at 7.30pm on Friday October 12. Tickets £26.50 Phone 01323 802020 or visit royalhippodrome.com.
The Three Degrees appear at the Embassy Club, Bunn Leisure Holiday Villages, Warners Lane, Selsey, at 6pm-11pm on Saturday October 13. Phone 01243 606080 or visit bunnleisure.co.uk.
Above: The Three Degrees today, (from left) Valerie Holiday, Freddie Pool and Helen Scott
Above: The Three Degrees with Prince Charles
Below: The group in many of their gorgeous gowns