All Aboard! “Soul Train…Soul Train.” You can’t help but start singing the Soul Train theme song and finishing with a resounding, “Let’s get it on, it’s time to get down.” In 1974, MFSB along with the soulful trio The Three Degrees recorded the single “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” written and produced by the legendary Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. While the song is mostly an instrumental piece, it was The Three Degrees that put the train on the tracks that helped make the single a chart-topping hit and contributed to America’s soundtrack!
It’s been more than five decades since the group started and the The Three Degrees are still putting “The Sound of Philadelphia,” on the map. The Three Degrees consists of current members Valerie Holiday, Helen Scott, and Freddie Pool. Just like any group, they have had their share of personnel changes; but one thing is for certain, the foundation and core of the group has stayed intact; so much so the group was named as the longest running female vocal trio in the Guinness Book of World Records. The ladies are most remembered for “TSOP” and the hit “When Will I See You Again.” Mainstays of the group Valerie Holiday and Helen Scott have continued to cement the group’s legacy by touring around the world.
The group first made its mark on the recording industry when they were teenagers on Swan Records. At that time the group’s line up was Helen Scott, Fayette Pinkney, and Janet Harmon. Their biggest hit was a song called “Gee Baby.”
On the group’s website, Helen said “Those original recordings were quite different from the way we record now. We would record with a live band all in one room at the same time,” she said. Soon thereafter, Helen got married and left the group. They signed on with Roulette Records and the group’s new lineup consisted of Fayette, Valerie Holiday, and Sheila Ferguson. The hits for this lineup began with a remake of The Chantels 1958 hit “Maybe” and followed by “I Do Take You,” “There’s So Much Love All Around Me,” and “Trade Winds.”
In 1972 they started recording with Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label and came out with the hit “Dirty Ol’ Man.” Soon after, “TSOP” was released and cemented in Soul Train history.
The following year, their signature hit “When Will I See You Again” came out.
On the group’s website Valerie explained why she didn’t realize the impact of working with Gamble and Huff. “They wrote and produced most of the hits; Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the O’Jays, Billy Paul, the Intruders. 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. It was different from anything we had ever experienced before. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t hear “When Will I See You Again.” We had released “Dirty Ol’ Man” as the first single and to me it was just another track on the album. I really wasn’t knowledgeable enough to be a good judge,” Valerie said.
During the group’s tenure with Philadelphia International, they had hits such as “Year of Decision,” “Take Good Care of Yourself” and MFSB’s “Love is the Message.” Helen rejoined the group in 1976, replacing Fayette as they made the move to Epic Records. Fayette passsed away in 2009.
In 1986, Sheila left the group and Cynthia Garrison took her place. At the end of 2010, medical reasons forced Cynthia to retire and Freddie Pool joined the group.
With over 50 years in the industry under their belt and contributing to America’s soundtrack, the ladies told me in an interview for SoulTrain.com in 2014 that there is one thing that attributes to their longevity in the business. “I think it’s the uniqueness of the group. Performance wise, our aim is to mesmerize you, to make you laugh, to make you cry, and whatever we are singing is for you to feel as intensely as we do. That’s what has to happen every night. I think that’s what has helped us maintain our longevity. Our songs were brought out in an era when music really had meaning and because no matter what age you are, you can listen to our songs and identify. Gamble and Huff were really talented writers; we came about when lyrics were really important. I find that now it seems things are leaning back towards that way, because we’ve gone through the phases of the groove thing, being assassinated by the music side of it. I think the music industry is starting to get tired of it, like I hear what you’re saying, it’s moving me, but it’s starting to bore me. Fortunately, our songs did not have that problem. Anytime you listen to Gamble and Huff, you just think of good music. You have to move. We came along in an era when you had to perform, you didn’t have the lights, the dancers, the scenery, and you were it. It was you and the music; you had to create a performance,” said Valerie. Helen added that the reason The Three Degrees stands out is thanks to their manager early on in their career. “I was 15 years old when I started singing with the group and didn’t know anything about show business, so all I knew that I liked to sing. I had no idea what I was getting into. He taught us very well, at times I thought he was a tyrant, but I’m grateful for what I learned from him. He tried very hard not to make us like anyone else at all because it was a competitive business, you had to be yourself,” said Helen.
In 2016, The Three Degrees decided to pay homage to their roots by releasing a covers album called Strategy: Our Tribute to Philadelphia. The album pays tribute to songs crafted in Philadelphia, with their soulful versions of songs like “You’ll Never Find Another Love,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” and “Love Train.”
While the group is legendary overseas, they are still working hard to remind audiences in the United States, that “Love is the Message” and they won’t be “Giving Up, Giving In” until everyone knows who they are.