‘I do feel for the youth of today - they have so much to contend with’: Valerie Holiday of the Three Degrees

The Three Degree with Valerie Holiday (left)

The Three Degree with Valerie Holiday (left)

Bo Ningen

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When Valerie Holiday joined The Three Degrees in 1967, the girl-group had already been going for four years.

Now 48 years later they hold the world record for being the longest-running female vocal group.

And during that time Valerie (on the left in the main image) has helped steer the girls to worldwide success.

Up until that point the line-up had gone through several changes, and it was only with Valerie joining them that they solidified into a hit-making machine.

She recalls the circumstances of making it into the group as a young woman in Philadelphia: ‘I was a solo artist at the time and the young lady that was in the group had more or less come in as a replacement for someone else.

‘She hadn’t come in planning to stay, so they were in need of a third person.

‘At that particular time Fayette (Pinkney) was the mainstay and when Sheila (Ferguson) joined that kind of solidified that position, but it was the third spot that kept shifting around.’

And it was their svengali, the producer and songwriter Richard Barrett, who kept them focussed on success.

‘I remember being petrified of Richard Barrett first and foremost – not so much as a person, more as a taskmaster,’ explains Valerie.

‘You didn’t want to get anything wrong, you wanted to always be right, so when he came to review what you had been doing you wanted to get a good report.

‘It was exactly like school. You weren’t allowed to go out, there was no fraternising. It was just the three of us and that was it – fortunately we did all get along, and we were very close.’

In the early ’70s the hits started flowing after Barrett signed them to Philadelphia International Records under the soon-to-be creative powerhouse of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

As part of the emerging Philly Soul scene they scored chart success with the likes of TSOP (which was used as the theme song for the long-running music show, Soul Train), Dirty Ol’ Man, Year of Indecision and the song that remains their signature to this day: When Will I See You Again?

And Valerie acknowledges there was an element of being in the right place at the right time to catch this hot new sound that straddled soul and disco. The trio had perfected their close harmonies, now they just needed the right songs to come along.

‘That was fantastic in itself to be working with Gamble and Huff,’ she says, ‘they were fantastic writers. The timing for us was perfect.’

It was the release of When Will I See You Again? in 1974 that really propelled them into the stratosphere though. It became the first single by an all-female group to top the UK charts since The Supremes 10 years earlier, and it sold more than 2m copies in America.

‘We were performing in Japan on tour at the time When Will I See You Again? came out.

‘They called us to let us know that it had hit the number one slot, so we had the number one pick in Japan and we also had the number one pick in the US as well at the same time, which was very special.’

Japan is somewhere close to the ladies’ hearts too, although they weren’t so sure at first.

‘When we did our first performances over there, it was very quiet and we thought: “Oh my gosh they don’t like us”.

‘But then at the end of the song, the hall would just erupt so you knew they liked what you did.

‘We have found that over the years, we’re not doing the mega-theatres like we used to, it’s more in the clubs, so you get that contact with the audience, and we’ve got them to relax a heck of a lot more.

‘When we do Boogie Wonderland at the show you get all these Japanese people up and dancing and wiggling their butts, which is quite an achievement. We tell them that at a Three Degrees concert, nobody sits down – everybody moves.’

These days the trio is rounded out by Helen Scott and Freddie Pool, and while they haven’t released a full album since 2009, they won’t rule out recording again.

‘We did have a little something out two years ago, but finding new material has always been an issue.

‘What they’re talking about these days in songs, I’m not really interested in talking about. And that makes it kind of hard to find the right songs.’

And she’s not overly enamoured with what passes for chart music these days: ‘I feel very bad for the younger generation that’s listening to it – it’s subjecting them to things that we of course were not subjected to.

‘I feel for the youth of today, there’s so much they have to contend with that we didn’t, and that shaped us differently, shaped our thinking differently – there’s so much anger, and so much violence now, it doesn’t really leave a lot of room for someone to come through and say: “Can’t we just be nice and like each other?”

‘When your record gets taken off the air just because you’re talking about a dirty old man – they wouldn’t do that now.

‘We’re always looking though, we’ve tried to do a couple of things with producers here, it just hasn’t panned out.’

Whatever happens, they’ll keep playing live as long as possible: ‘We still draw a wide age range in our audience. There’s still very much an audience out there for us.

‘It just keeps going, like the Energizer bunny. It’s not broke, we’re not going to fix it.’

The Three Degrees perform at The Concorde Club in Eastleigh on Thursday, January 22 from 9pm. Tickets cost from £27 for members, £35 for non-members. Go to theconcordeclub.com or call 023 8061 3989.

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