The Three Degrees: Universal Stars
January 1976, in person interview, New York City
By David Nathan
In the realm of female groups today, you would be hard put to name any set of ladies who can emulate the current popularity and success of those lovely and loveable fillies from Philly known as The Three Degrees. Always assured, these days, of a place in the charts of over a dozen nations whenever they have a new release, The Three Degrees have, indeed, become internationally-known ambassadors to the point where they spend precious little time back home in the States. Back home for what seems like the longest period of time they've spent there in years ("we'll be here through till February"), we got the chance to talk with Sheila, Fayette and Valerie during a brief visit to New York.
They were all enthusiastic to talk about their latest album — which should be out in the very near future — which marks a strong departure from what the girls have done hitherto.
We should explain from the outset that the group are no longer with Philadelphia International — they actually signed with CBS in August and to say that the pacting was under-publicised would be a gross understatement! Commenting on their departure from Philly International, the girls simply explained "that there was a large financial discrepancy in regard to our royalties" and it seemed best to leave it at that. That was the past and the girls are naturally concerned far more with talking about the present and the future.
"Well, we just came back from Japan where we recorded our newest album. It was produced by our manager, Richard Barrett and it is definitely something new. We're calling it "Made In Japan" but it is in fact, intended for everyone. We feel strongly that it is an extension of what the group can do. We've got something for everyone in here — easy listening, torch material, and something of course for all the soul folk! We really feel like we're doing something original, in that we used all Japanese musicians and it's like we put Oriental music together with Western lyrics. Naturally, we're very excited about it and we all feel that this is a really excellent product."
Such confidence is easily explained when you realize that The Three Degrees are easily the most popular act in Japan at the present moment. "We did about 50% of all the business that CBS Records did last year" and when you realise that Japan is one of the largest record markets in the world, that must mean a lot of records sold! "That was our fourth trip to the country and it's almost like we can do no wrong! You know, we've been doing a full hour and 45- minute show there, a full production number, because people just wanted to see us and we do genuinely love to entertain. We've never been afraid of hard work and although that may seem like a really long show, it gives us each a chance to go out there and do what we want. Plus when you're really enjoying yourself, you don't notice how the time goes. And the Japanese are so gracious, so nice. They'll leave little presents at the edge of the stage for you — flowers, mirrors, all kinds of things as appreciation for you. And the reason we actually did the album in Japan was because they needed some new product really badly! We already had both the number one and number three slots with our albums and they were crying out for something more. So we hadn't planned it — it just happened that way!"
Following their globe-trotting tradition, the group had visited South Africa just prior to the Japanese trip and their visit was regarded as somewhat controversial. "Originally, we were offered really exhorbitant sums of money to play to audiences which were naturally segregated. This was one occasion when we really disagreed with Richard, our manager. Normally, we trust his sixth sense which has always guided us and took us in the right direction. This time we just refused. Then, we were asked to host the International tennis tournament for different celebrities with people like Ringo Starr, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lawson attending. We felt that it wouldn't do any harm so we went. It's amazing, you know, to find a country which is to all intents and purposes civilized and is yet 200 years behind. Yes, it was very depressing for us a lot of the time — we all cried a lot. But then we realized that the only way a situation like that can change is when people can see what is happening on the outside world — when we can go in and let the people know that they can have someone and something to look at which is an example of how it's possible to change the situation they're dealing with. And, of course, the one really important thing that came out of the visit was the letter that Richard got from the South African Prime Minister, Mr Vorster, asking us to come back in March and play to integrated audiences. Eventually, those changes have got to come and we're proud to know that we've made a big step which will be for the benefit of black people in South Africa." The girls are, needless to say, looking forward to their next South African jaunt with a good deal more eagerness than that first one.
Naturally, their future plans would not be complete with another European jaunt! "Well, after March in South Africa, we'll be touring Europe in April before going back to Japan in June!" That kind of itinerary might leave another group in desperation especially since the girls seem to have been working at a consistently heavy pace for the last two years. "After working so hard to get into this position, naturally we're not going to blow it! But we are now just beginning to pace ourselves more for the future. It's like this time now — our first time back home for any serious length of time. We felt it was very necessary for us to spend some time here because frankly, we're more popular outside the States than we are at home. And that has a lot to do with the fact that it was always harder to make it because of the classifications that are put on you. You've got to be either pop, or rock, or soul, or whatever! We've always aimed to satisfy everyone — we don't just stand and wiggle! And you know, we had reached that point before in the States where we had played all the places we could — it was beginning to be that we were going back over the same places again and again! Then, of course, we went to Europe and found that we had to stay there when the records really began to take off in a big way. The problem then was that when we did have big hits in the States with "TSOP" and "When Will I See You Again", we were always out of the country! But that's why we're here now. We want to concentrate on promoting The Three Degrees here! We're expecting to go down to Philadelphia in February to begin work on a brand new album and we're checking out material right now for that. We can't say who will be producing us — Richard may do it with us — we don't know as yet. But, no, we won't be working with Gamble & Huff."
Obviously, The Three Degrees have reached an enviable plateau in the entertainment world, so we wondered what there was left for them to achieve. "Well, we never set a goal — we want to go as far as we can. We want to maintain our reputation, we want to be able to perform regardless of hit records. And what we're doing right now is deescalating! Trying to allow ourselves time for personal lives too. It's funny, after working for all this time, we actually feel guilty when we have a lot of time off! But once everything levels off, we should have time to develop our own lives." On that positive note, we left three charming and lovely ladies who are at least reaping the rewards of several years of plain, hard work. May they continue to spread their exciting musical world to the four corners of the globe — people like The Three Degrees are just what is needed to bring the world and people closer together.