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Archive for November 2nd, 2012

T.S.O.P., The Early Years: BBR Collects The Three Degrees on Roulette

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Big Break Records, an imprint of the U.K.’s Cherry Red Group, doesn’t have an office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  But it might as well.  Much of the remarkable music that emanated from ZIP Code 19107 has been revisited of late by BBR, and the latest title is one of the most fully loaded in the label’s catalogue.  The Three Degrees’ Maybe actually combines two early albums from that “When Will I See You Again” trio, both from the catalogue of Roulette Records: 1970’s Maybe and 1975’s So Much Love.  The original 20 tracks from these two albums of The Three Degrees’ pre-Philadelphia International recordings have been augmented by 23 more songs in a whopping deluxe edition.

The first iteration of The Three Degrees formed in Philadelphia in 1963, though only Fayette Pinkney was still in the group by the time of its signing to New York-based Roulette in 1970.  This line-up of the group, with Pinkney, Sheila Ferguson and Valerie Holiday, would prove the most enduring.  Behind the scenes throughout the group’s rise to fame in the 1960s was one Richard Barrett, a successful writer and songwriter behind hits for Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and another girl group, The Chantels.  Barrett was in charge of The Three Degrees’ debut single in 1965, and was still behind the controls for 1970’s Maybe, the first of the two albums included in BBR’s new package.

Barrett drew from a variety of songwriters for Maybe.  Not every group could pull off songs by Sly Stone, Joe Walsh and Hoagy Carmichael on one album, but The Three Degrees did…not to mention the tracks by Jimmy Webb, Tommy James and Joe South!  The girls alternated lead vocal duties, and their overall blend could convincingly be coquettish or sassy, making the off-the-wall song choices sound natural.   The arrangements from Steve Swanson and Sammy Lowe veered from supper-club showbiz to driving soul music.  And so there’s a funked-up version of South’s “Rose Garden” (popularized by country singer Lynn Anderson) and a big, bold, brassy reinvention of Webb’s “MacArthur Park” replete with rain effects.  Carmichael and Mitchell Parrish’s “Stardust” was hardly a typical selection for an R&B group in 1970, but The Three Degrees pulled off the standard (said to be one of the most recorded songs ever) with aplomb.  Best of all, though, was the epic transformation of a song first recorded by Barrett with The Chantels and then with the Degrees in 1966: his own “Maybe.”  Holiday wrote and recorded a lengthy spoken-word rap to introduce the song, and the group infused it with a gospel fervor only hinted at in the Chantels’ original version.  The Three Degrees brought similar spirit to the Motown stomp of “Lonely Town,” perhaps better-known in renditions by Barbara McNair, Tammi Terrell and Martha and the Vandellas.

“Maybe” is reprised in its mono version among the bonus material, one of ten mono single bonus tracks on Disc One of the new set.  Some of the singles would be included on follow-up album So Much Love.  One previously unreleased track, the long version of “Yours,” has been included.  (The edited track was the B-side to “There’s So Much Love All Around Me.”)  The A-side of “The Grass Will Sing for You,” “Melting Pot,” was the work of Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, previously recorded by Cook’s group Blue Mink.  Though well intentioned, it’s one of the more dated tracks here but a fascinating time capsule nonetheless: “What we need is a great big melting pot…and turn out coffee colored people by the score,” the song goes.

There’s more after the jump, including the full track listing and order link for this release! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

November 2, 2012 at 09:07