THE THREE DEGREES-INTERNATIONAL.

THE THREE DEGREES-INTERNATIONAL.

Recently, I’ve been looking back at some of the albums released on the Philadelphia International Records label. Now, when many people think of Philadelphia International, they immediately think of artists like The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, Billy Paul and Teddy Pendergrass, some of the biggest and most successful artists on that great label. One group everyone forgets, were The Three Degrees, who produced two excellent albums in 1973 and 1975. They were the eponymous The Three Degrees and International, which this article is about. After releasing these two albums, the group signed for Epic, where sadly, they failed to have the same success. 

However, the two albums The Three Degrees released on Philadelphia International included some of the best music the group ever recorded, including When Will I See You Again and TSOP. Released in June 1975, International which was produced by Gamble and Huff and Richard Barrett, reached number thirty-one in the US R&B Charts and ninety-nine in the US Billboard 200. In the UK however, the album was a huge hit, reaching number six. Similarly, the first of the three singles released from the album fared better in the UK than in the US. Take Good Care of Yourself which reached number nine in the UK, only reached number twenty-four in the US R&B Charts. Of the two other singles Long Lost Lover only reached number forty in the UK, while Get Your Love Back did slightly better, reaching number thirty-four in the UK. Neither of these singles charted in the US. 

Although this was just The Three Degrees second album on Philadelphia International, they were originally formed in 1963. Since then, the line-up had changed several times. By 1973, when The Three Degrees released their first album on Philadelphia International, the line-up was Sheila Ferguson, Valerie Holiday and Fayette Pinkney. This to me, was the ultimate line-up, the one that produced the best sounding music. 

Back in 1970, they released their debut album Maybe which reached number sixteen in the US R&B Charts and 139 in the US Billboard 200. This was followed by So Much Love in 1972, which peaked at number fifty-six n the US R&B Charts and 139 in the US Billboard 200. Things changed when they joined Philadelphia International and hooked up with musical visionaries Gamble and Huff.

Their eponymous titled album The Three Degrees was released in 1973, and was produced by Gamble and Huff. It surpassed the success of their two previous albums, reaching number twenty-eight in the US Billboard 200 and thirty-three in the US R&B Charts. Meanwhile, in the UK, the album became a huge hit, reaching number twelve in the album charts. The album included the group’s biggest hit single When Will I See You Again, which reached number two in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. In the UK, the single reached number one, and in the process, helping make the group hugely popular in the UK. 

After the release and success of International, The Three Degrees signed for Epic, and released their next album A Toast of Love in 1976. This was around the time Helen Scott replaced Fayette Pinkney. Sadly, A Toast of Love, like their 1977 album Standing Up For Love failed to chart in either the UK or the US. After just two albums on Epic, the group changed labels again, this time to Ariola, where their two albums New Dimensions and 3D had limited success in the UK, reaching numbers thirty-four and sixty-one respectively. Only New Dimensions in 1978 entered the US Billboard 200, at 169, while 1979s’ 3D never troubled the charts. The group only released three further albums, Album of Love in 1982, And Holding in 1989 and Out of the Past Into the Future in 1989. Only And Holding charted in either the US or UK, reaching number seventy-six in the US R&B Charts. All of this was a long way from their Philadelphia International days, when their albums The Three Degrees and International made them huge stars in the UK and US. However, just what was so special about these two albums? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

The Three Degrees opens with Another Heartache a Gamble and Huff penned track, which has a dramatic opening. A roll of a piano, gives way to a slowly picked out piano solo, before drums dramatically interject before the vocal enters. When the vocal enters, the group sing a tight, thoughtful vocal, before a hugely, sad lead vocal enters, with the rest of the group singing backing vocals. Meanwhile, lush strings sweep in while drums veer between subtle and dramatic, while a piano, guitars and percussion combine. The arrangement is mostly slow, laden in sadness and regret, matching Gamble and Huff’s lyrics. Throughout the track, drums are used to add drama, while those lovely strings add atmosphere, and provide the perfect backdrop for the passionate, but wistful lead vocal and equally beautiful backing vocals. Another Heartache, produced by Gamble and Huff and arranged by Bobby Martin, is a quite beautiful song and is the perfect track to open the track. 

Of all the tracks on the album, Take Good Care of Yourself is, by far, the best known on the album. When it was released as a single in March of 1975, I remember this song well. It never was off the radio, ultimately reaching number nine in the UK. When the song opens, there’s only one city, one label and two men who could’ve produced it. They’re Philadelphia, Philadelphia International and of course, Gamble and Huff. It’s that lovely, lush, sweeping and powerful, combination of rhythm and string sections, chiming guitars, keyboards, percussion and of course, the sweet, united vocal of The Three Degrees who harmonize beautifully, before the vocal emerges. The lyrics have a wistfulness, about how hard it is for lovers to part, and how they long to be reunited. Here, the vocal is strong, emotive and heartfelt, accompanied by sweet and subtle swooning, cooing backing vocals. Meanwhile, waves of the most incredible sounding music unfold. M.F.S.B. play brilliantly, with the rhythm section, guitars, percussion and keyboards, combining and uniting magnificently, while strings sweep, their sound lush, as they rise and fall throughout the track in perfect harmony with the vocals. The longer the track goes on, the better both the vocal and the arrangement gets. Quite simply, it’s by far the best track on the album, a combination of outstanding vocal and arrangement uniting perfectly, to produce a catchy, hooked and ultimately brilliant track.

Get Your Love Back is very different to the previous track, Take Good Care of Yourself, which is a hard act to follow. However, this quicker, slightly rockier sounding, Gamble and Huff penned track takes the group in a quite different direction. The tempo is quick, with a piano, buzzing bass, drums, sweeping strings and brief bursts of horns combining before the vocal enters. When it does, it has a lovely joyous sound, laden in passion and power, accompanied by soaring backing vocals. As the track progresses, the arrangement fills out, becoming a melodic combination of driving rhythm section, braying horns and grand, sweeping string which create a dramatic backdrop for a dynamic and energetic vocal. Although very different from the smoothness of the previous track, this drama drenched track features a hugely dramatic and dynamic arrangement and vocal, which allows us to see a very different side of the group, one that’s laden in energy and emotion.

After the driving, dynamism and energy of the previous track, The Three Degrees turn down the lights on Lonelier Are Fools, a lovely slow ballad. It opens with chiming, shimmery guitars, piano, the lushest of strings and gentle interjections from horns before the vocal enters. When it enters, it’s gentle, tender and heartfelt, accompanied by equally tender and sweet backing vocalists, and a slow atmospheric bass. From there, the track meanders beautifully, an exercise in just how to deliver, arrange and produce the most beautiful, tenderest of ballads. Horns subtly rasp, as the piano and swirling strings combine to produce the perfect backdrop for the vocal. Like Another Heartache, drums punctuate the sound, injecting drama, a contrast the gentleness of the rest of the arrangement. By the end of the track, you can’t help but be smitten by this gorgeous track, thanks to the tenderest of vocals and a deeply moving arrangement.

Distant Lover sees The Three Degrees move seamlessly from one slow and quite beautiful track to the next. Like the previous track, helping to make this such a great track is a slow, melodic arrangement, one designed to tug at your heartstrings. A combination of drums, chiming guitars, sweeping and swirling strings, and gentle rasps of horn open the track, before the gentlest and subtlest of vocal enters. Here, the group demonstrate perfectly, how a delicate rendition of some lovely lyrics, works just as well, if not better, than a more forceful, vociferous delivery. The group’s rendition of Marvin Gaye, Gwen Gordy-Fuqua and Sandra Greene’s lyrics works beautifully, as the arrangement meanders magically behind their vocal. Still, the strings sweep and swirl, while guitars chime, horns rasp and drums add just a little drama. Later in the track, the vocal grows in strength, getting louder, stronger with the emotion and passion shining through. As the track ends, it seems that The Three Degrees with the help of Gamble and Huff, were able to deliver one beautiful ballad after another. If anything, Distant Lover is the equal of the gorgeous Lonelier Are Fools, which preceded it.

Seemingly on a roll, The Three Degrees decide to keep the tempo slow, with their third lovely ballad in a row Together. If it’s anywhere like its predecessors, that will be quite a feat. Percussion, drama laden drums, sweet strings and brief, braying horns open the track, veering between bursts of drama to dramatic pauses effectively. When the vocal enters, the interplay between the lead vocal and backing vocalists works perfectly, their sweet voices soaring, feeding off each other, encouraging the other to greater heights. Behind them, the arrangement is unfolding slowly, waves of music rising and falling subtly, like a boat on a calm sea. A mixture of sweeping strings, rasping horns and stirring, bursts of dramatic horns are accompanied by a bass, piano and percussion. Together, they produce an arrangement that’s beautiful, lush yet not without tinges of drama. This is perfect for The Three Degrees’ vocal, and they deliver this Gamble and Huff song about love and being in love, thoughtfully, yet with passion and emotion. By the end of the track, The Three Degrees have delivered their third quite bewitching and captivating track in a row, one that’s a worthy successor to its two predecessors.

Long Lost Lover is a track that has more in common with Take Good Care of Yourself than any of the other tracks on the album so far. It’s a more upbeat and uptempo track, with a faster arrangement and joyous arrangement, very much typical of Gamble and Huff and The Sound of Philadelphia. Chiming, shimmery guitars and sweeping, swirling strings combine beautifully, while the rhythm section provide the track’s heartbeat, before the vocal enters. It soars high and joyously, while subtle, understated backing vocals compliment it. Meanwhile, the tempo is quick, the arrangement sweeping melodically along, with hooks are plentiful, as the strings sweep gloriously, while guitars chime and the rhythm section plays an important roll in the track’s success. However, regardless of how good the arrangement is, it would be nothing without The Three Degrees. They demonstrate their versatility, proving that whether it’s slow, moving ballads or faster, more up beat tracks, they’re equally comfortable. One thing that puzzles me though, is just why the track wasn’t more successful as a single, reaching only number forty in the UK. Such a great sounding track deserved to do much better.

Straight away, when I hear the opening bars of Here I Am, I realize that this is a track steeped in drama. From the stirring, drama laden opening where drums, piano, short bursts of horns, until the equally dramatic vocal, a powerful, soulful track looks likely to unfold. The lead vocal, is accompanied by the rest of the group, uniting soulfully, their voices emotive, against a slow, moody backdrop of grand strings, hugely stirring, theatrical drums, rasping horns and an equally moody sounding bass. Together, they’re the equal of the dramatic, considered vocal, and this combination has a dynamic effect, keeping the listener awestruck, wondering just what will happen next. By the end of the track, the early promise of drama and soulfulness has been delivered. Although very different to the rest of the album, this dramatic diversion is welcome, again demonstrating the group’s talent and versatility. 

In 1973, The Three Degrees with M.F.S.B., Philadelphia International’s house band, who played on all the label’s singles and albums, released a single T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia. It reached number one in the US R&B and Billboard 100, and number twenty-two in the UK. The song was also used as the theme song for the US music show Soul Train. Here, The Three Degrees revisit one of their best known songs. It opens quickly, a hugely melodic, soulful vocal accompanied by swirling strings, rhythm sections and percussion before it’s punctuated by bursts of horns. Very quickly, this soulful sounding track is transformed into a beefy slice of funk, thanks to M.F.S.B., when a braying horn signals all change. This doesn’t worry The Three Degrees, they rise to this challenge, with their voices uniting sweetly and soulfully, while M.F.S.B. give a funk laden masterclass. It’s a combination of driving rhythm section, blazing horns, percussion and not forgetting some grand, yet lush strings. Here, the vocal plays second fiddle to the arrangement, with the vocal drifting in, and out of, the arrangement. Still they give everything they have, as M.F.S.B. seemingly having brought their A-game produce a brilliant arrangement, funky yet soulful, made all the better with the help of The Three Degrees’ soulful interjections. 

International closes with Loving Cup, another upbeat track, that has a funk drenched introduction where sweeping, swirling strings, braying, blazing horns and a fast, driving rhythm section combine with the vocal. It’s loud and strong, accompanied by tight, swooning backing vocals, which then unite with the lead vocal. Meanwhile, the arrangement is fast, a combination of soul and funk, with a fast, funky bass at the heart of the arrangement while stirring, strings sweep, horns rasp and drums continue to be responsible for injecting drama to the arrangement. Together, they combine to create an arrangement that’s a dramatic combination of two things that Philadelphia International did so well, funk and soul. When combined with a vocal that’s quick, sweet and joyful, this seems the perfect way to end the album. After all, what’s better than a joyous, catchy and hook laden track to close any album, never mind one from The Three Degrees, one of Philadelphia International’s many success stories.

Although The Three Degrees only released two albums on Philadelphia International, this was the most successful period of the group’s career. It brought them to the attention of people not only in the US and UK, but worldwide, where they found chart success. This includes a number one single Dirty Ol’ Man in Holland. SInce then, The Three Degrees continue to tour and are a hugely popular attraction. Over the years, there have been many changes in the group’s line-up, but regardless of this, people worldwide still want to hear some of the best soul music that emerged from Philadelphia during the seventies. International and their previous album Three Degrees include some of the best music the group ever recorded. On International, there was neither any filler, nor any poor tracks, just a mixture of some beautiful slow ballads, and quicker joyful tracks. After being formed in 1963, and changes in their line-up, moving to Philadelphia International Records and hooking up with Gamble and Huff, launched the long successful career of one of the best loved and best sounding female groups of the seventies.  Standout Tracks: Another Heartache, ake Good Care of Yourself, Lonelier Are Fools and Together.

THE THREE DEGREES-INTERNATIONAL.

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