Thanks to the crack hitmaking team of Gamble and Huff, the lush, string-laden ‘Philly sound’ was one of the foremost soul styles of the late-60s and 70s. When Will I See You Again made stars of The Three Degrees, an all-girl trio that had existed for over 10 years. They became the first black female group since The Supremes in 1964 to hit the top spot.
The Three Degrees began circa-1963 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The original line-up featured high-school students Fayette Pinkney, Shirley Porter and Linda Turner, but Porter and Turner didn’t stick around and were replaced that year by Helen Scott and Janet Harmon. In 1965 they were discovered by producer and songwriter Richard Barrett and they were signed to Swan Records. Their first single, Gee Baby (I’m Sorry), was released in 1965, the same year Sheila Ferguson joined their label.
Scott left The Three Degrees in 1966 to start a family, and was replaced by Ferguson, and by the end of 1967 Harmon had gone too and Valerie Holiday was in place, with Ferguson mostly on lead vocals, backed by Pinkney and Holiday, the ‘classic’ line-up had arrived. Barrett signed them with Warner Bros., Metromedia and Neptune over the next few years, but fame eluded them.
Their first LP, Maybe, was released on Roulette Records in 1970, and from there they landed a cameo in action thriller The French Connection (1971), performing Jimmy Webb’s Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon.
Things fell into place in 1973 when they signed with Philadelphia International Records, co-owned by Gamble and Huff. The duo had been making hits together since The Soul Survivors’ Expressway to Your Heart in 1967, and had worked with Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett and Archie Bell & the Drells. Then in 1971 they formed their own label to go up against Motown Records. Some of their greatest and most famous work includes If You Don’t Know Me By Now by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Love Train by The O’Jays and Me and Mrs. Jones by Billy Paul – all slick, mature and memorable soul records.
The Three Degrees’ first job at the label was to record the vocals for TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) by MFSB, which was the theme tune to the fondly remembered US soul/disco series Soul Train. Next they recorded the album The Three Degrees, and they began to make headway in the UK charts when The Year of Decision reached number 13.
When Will I See You Again was the third release from their eponymous LP, and it wasn’t popular with the trio. Ferguson later recalled that when Gamble played it to her on a piano, she threw a strop and said she was insulted he expected her to sing such a simple song. She admitted she was wrong after it had sold millions.
And she was wrong, as it’s a lovely song and rightly considered a soul classic. It’s worth it just for those angelic sighs, really – The Three Degrees’ harmonies really are something special. They make the yearning at the heart of the song seem real and identifiable. Ferguson is in love, but she’s being kept hanging by a thread, but her feelings are so strong, she can’t give him up. But his lack of commitment is leaving her desperately unsure – it’s worth noting every single line in the song is a question. The music is gorgeous too, another string-laden, clean, deep production from Gamble and Huff.
The Three Degrees were finally mainstream stars, and are still remembered as being Prince Charles’ favourite group, as he revealed in the 70s. When Will I See You Again was the fourth best-selling single of 1974, and reached number two in the US. Further singles success was sporadic, but Take Good Care Of Yourself was a top 10 hit in 1975. The following year, they left Gamble and Huff and moved to CBS Sony/Epic Records, but Pinkney, the only remaining original member, departed after an argument with their manager over her relationship with singer Lou Rawls. Scott returned to the fold.
Their 1978 album with disco genius Giorgio Moroder, New Dimensions, was an inspired move, scoring three big hits with Giving Up, Giving In (number 12), Woman in Love (number three) and The Runner (number 10). They performed at Prince Charles’s 30th birthday party that year and rounded up the decade with their final hit, My Simple Heart (number nine) in 1979, and a TV special, The Three Degrees at the Royal Albert Hall, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Three Degrees had further albums and TV specials, but time had moved on. They were one of the first acts to jump on the Stock, Aitken and Waterman bandwagon in 1985, but to no avail. A year later, Ferguson, the most famous of the trio, left, and it was never the same after that. After several attempts to find a replacement, Scott and Holiday went with Cynthia Garrison, creating the longest lasting formation, from 1989-2010. In 1993 they recorded a new version of their chart-topper with Thomas Anders of German duo Modern Talking.
Founder member Pinkney died in 2009 of acute respiratory failure, aged 61. In 2011 Garrison fell ill and was replaced by Freddie Pool. Their most recent album was Strategy: Our Tribute To Philadelphia, released in 2016. Pool, Holiday and Scott continue to perform. Ferguson has remained in the public eye since her 1986 departure, recording solo work and starring in TV and theatre. She was a contestant on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in 2004 and has also appeared in Celebrity MasterChef, The Weakest Link and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.
Written & produced by: Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff
Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 August)
Scottish actor Ray Park – 23 August
Actress Judith Furse – 29 August
29 August: The final Windsor Free Festival was broken up by Thames Valley Police. The tactics used were so violent there was a public outcry.