Philadelphia’s finest are back with a brand new album of covers paying tribute to their fellow Philly Soul artists.
When it’s announced that a legendary act is to release an album of cover songs there is usually a collective groan amongst soul fans. We’ve endured cover albums for years: The Temptations put two hit-and-miss covers albums out in the last decade, Diana Ross’ covers collection was seemingly put together on a shoe-string budget; Smokey and Lionel didn’t bother covering the songs of others instead choosing to cover their own with other famous voices; even Luther’s Songs was better, but still a tad underwhelming. So for The Three Degrees to come out and record a full album of covers, songs originally done by their contemporaries at Philadelphia International Records, was a bold move.
(The Three Degrees in 2016: Valerie Holiday, Freddie Pool, and Helen Scott)
The Three Degrees are the longest running girl group in history. As with many other groups of their era, there have been plenty of line-up changes: today the group consists of long-time members Helen Scott (who joined in 1963, left in 1966, then re-joined later on in 1976) and Valerie Holiday (who has been a member since 1967), and new recruit Freddie Pool (who joined in 2011). Together the trio have toured the UK, Europe, the States and Japan extensively over the past two decades of so, building up a reputation as solid, hard-working performers. As with many groups from Philadelphia (and Motown for that matter), they’ve concentrated on performing rather than recording, which makes this new release rather exciting.
In fact, slipping the preview disc into the old CD player, we’re delighted to say that we are pleasantly surprised from the ladies’ latest album. This is in large part because a true music fan produced the album; David Nathan of SoulMusic.com, a long-time promoter of everything soulful, took the group to a studio full of actual musicians, shelling out on a decent sound rather than the standard programme backing tracks that usually accompany such albums.
The album is in tribute to their fellow artists on the Philadelphia International Records, with covers of Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, The Trammps and more. The ladies are in fabulous voice, their harmonies perfect throughout the record. Valerie Holiday handles most of the leads well; it may have been the great Shelia Ferguson who handled most of the Degrees’ leads during their hey-day, but Holiday is a seriously talented vocalist. As a unit, the three voices blend effortlessly, continuing their reputation as some of the best harmonisers in the business.
(The group in 1978 performing a classic ballad)
Overall, the album is pleasant and playful. Take their cover of the McFadden & Whitehead classic ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’; it is already a part of the groups live set, Freddie Pool is handed the lead vocal and delivers the goods. They don’t stray from the original arrangement for the most part, but they do co-opt the Luther Vandross arrangement towards the end of the song, with the playful chant of ‘S-T-O-P-P-I-N-G’. Similarly, their version of ‘Disco Inferno’ follows in a similar suit.
Their tribute to the great Lou Rawls is nice as well; it’s difficult to cover such a classic song such as ‘You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine’ because the original was so good, and Rawls had such a brilliant voice. But the Degrees do well, and Holiday’s sultry and sexy delivery is a change from Rawls’ smooth crooning. The ladies and the band get really into it on their version of the Philly anthem ‘Love Train’; it’s a really playful, and rather enjoyable version. The keys solo is also a nice change from the original.
It is on the slower numbers that the group really excel. Their take on ‘Me and Mr Jones’ is a delight, particularly with Holiday’s spoken intro and outro; similarly, their version of ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’, a song covered hundreds and hundreds of times, is made all the sweeter by their fabulous harmonies.
Backed by the luscious arrangements, the group largely recreate that Philly Sound; and thanks to Nathan’s investment in hiring actual musicians, it separates this album of covers out from the rest. Perhaps if this album is successful, the ladies might even have a go at recording some new material. That we would really love to hear.
The Three Degrees’ new album Strategy: Our Tribute to Philadelphia is out on 4th March 2016 on SoulMusic Records. The ladies will be on a massive UK tour later from next month, you can check out dates and tickets below.