Gary James' Interview With Helen Scott Of
The Three Degrees
They are the longest running female vocal group in Pop music history. Their 1974 recording of "When Will I See You Again" went to number two on the U.S. charts and topped the U.K. singles chart. The Three Degrees are still touring the world, which is where we started this conversation with The Three Degrees member, Helen Scott.
Q - Helen, you're heading off to Europe and Japan very shortly. I take it you must have a lot of fans overseas.
A - We do.
Q - You've been to Japan several times?
A - We used to go three times a year, but one of the clubs we worked is no longer. The economy kind of hurt everybody a little bit. So, we go twice a year to Japan and Holland, Belgium and England. We kind of flip-flop there when things are a little bit better, a couple of times a month. So, we're due to go to England in March (2012). We just had a tour this past February (2011) and we were there again in September (2011), October, (2011). I'm sorry. We kind of flip-flop across the water quite a bit. I would say a good 98% of our work is done abroad.
Q - How about Australia? Have you been there?
A - It's funny. We've been trying to get back to Australia for several years now. We always get inquiries and somebody's always willing. We're thinking "Great! We're gonna go to Australia again" and it never happens. It never pans out for some reason. I don't know what it is.
Q - Why do you think people keep coming back to see The Three Degrees in concert?
A - Well, I would like to think, first and foremost, that they like us and two, that we kind of laid some ground roots there years ago. We were extremely popular in England and Japan in the early '70s. We won the Third Annual Tokyo Music Festival in Japan, which kind of gave us a little bit of clout, if you will. I can't think of a better word, and recognition in Japan particularly. And also "When Will I See You Again" is sung in Japanese as well as some other songs that we've done on an album. We also had a French song which was a number one song in Japan. So we kind of, in the early years, kind of opened that door, if you will. England was the first country to give us a Gold record for "Dirty Old Man" and "When Will I See You Again". Then we had the affiliation with The Royal Family. So that kind of helped a little bit as well.
Q - And, I'll ask about The Royal Family a little bit further into the interview. When you're in concert, are you singing new material? Do you have a record deal these days?
A - Well, not at the moment. We keep searching out. We did have a record out last year (2010) called "Holdin' Back" and it was with a small label. We just thought, "OK, let's see what happens." It made a little bit of noise, but didn't really do all of what it could have done. I don't know if that went down to us, down to the label itself. Sometimes if you don't get the proper push, promotion or whatever... so I'm not sure what that is attributed to. So we still keep searching for the kind of material we think is good for the group. We won't sing certain things anymore. We're not in the same category as a lot of the younger artists, so there are things nowadays that people say and do on records that we just don't think would be suitable for us. So, we have to be a little more picky or choosy with what we sing and until we find that right product, we'd just rather not do anything.
Q - Sounds like you're experiencing some difficulty, Helen.
A - It is difficult. We've had a couple of producers say "we're interested in doing some recordings with you." They go on what they think the group sounds like or used to sound like. We've not had things, to me, that are current or in the competitive market. Or different record companies around the world want to do re-makes of "When Will I See You Again" and "Take Good Care Of Yourself" or whatever. They want to do re-makes of the hits and not anything really current.
Q - That seems to be a problem for many artists, record companies wanting you to repeat the sound of your first recording and you cannot grow as an artist by doing that.
A - No, you can't.
Q - And it probably took you your whole professional career to get that first hit record.
A - Correct. And while I don't mind singing it in shows, "When Will I See You Again", it's one of the ones I really like. It has wonderful memories for us and the people who are our fans or our customers that come and see our show, they have so many different stories. "When Will I See You Again" was probably written more as a love song, but I would have to say the meaning stretches so wide. People have their own personal attachment or personal stories if you will for "When Will I See You Again". I don't mind singing it. If it's not broken, don't fix it. (laughs)
Q - What would make the difference in your career and in the careers of so many artists is, if commercial radio today still had that Top 40 / AM format. That's how you could break a record and reach the public.
A - And not only that, I think there are a couple of other facts that play an important part. First of all, because we were out of the country so much, particularly in this country (the U.S.), people thought we no longer were a group for many years. We started doing some little things in this country starting about ten years ago. People still don't believe we are The Three Degrees. The other factor that plays a part and to piggyback on the last statement I just made is there are, not only here in this country, but in many places around the world, there are tribute bands that are going around. I don't think there's one for us, but there are so many nowadays that people are beginning not to go out to shows as much because they're not sure who they're going to see. We spent a lot of time out of the country. It's going to take another product to grab a hold of the audience of today and that's the thing we need. I don't think it's that we couldn't sing something that competitive of today. I just think the powers that be with the record companies and the internet plays an important part. It's a totally different day than it was when we were coming up in the Philadelphia Sound and the Ariola / Arista sound.
Q - I think it was you who said, "We've opened a lot of doors for other entertainers." Now, who are you talking about there?
A - If somebody said I said it, then OK, fine. I don't think I meant it as in opening doors, but certainly we have a lot of firsts. If you made me call one off the top of my head, I probably couldn't. There are a lot of things that we've done and I'll give you a for-instance: the girl groups of today just in costumes if you go back and look at the costumes that we had, it's not much different, it's a little more revealing today than we were, but we were known for those kinds of different costumes, the glitz, the glamour. We're in The Guinness Book as the longest running female trio, so we had to have added something to help and there have been other artists who have given us credit and kudos for inspiring them. Beyonce was one of them. Michael Jackson was one of them. We were actually mentioned in his book. So, that's what I meant when I said that. There are things that we did that because of the time, the era, the kind of music, that made it just a little less complicated for the people who come along today.
Q - How was Michael Jackson inspired by The Three Degrees?
A - I think it had to do with the performance, the harmonies. The Three Degrees were known for harmonies and still are. That's kind of one of the things we pride ourselves on is the fact that we still maintain that three part harmony, as much as possible, not only in any recordings that we do, re-makes or whatever, but also on our 'live' performances. You have to consider the era that Michael came up in as well. A lot of times we were compared to The Supremes. The difference was, we had three people who sang lead vocals as opposed to one or two background singers. I didn't actually read it, I was told that there was admiration there on his part for The Three Degrees. He was definitely one of the best entertainers around. So, I take anything he said with regard to The Three Degrees as a compliment.
Q - Did you ever meet Michael Jackson?
A - I did not. I never, ever got the chance to meet Michael Jackson.
Q - You knew from a very early age that you wanted to be singer, didn't you?
A - I did not.
Q - You didn't?!
A - No. (laughs) Well, let's put it this way. I always, always, always liked singing. Always. From a little girl. My parents and sisters tell me stories of things I used to do. Some I remember. Some I don't. But I always liked to sing and I always liked to dance. Sheila Ferguson (past member of The Three Degrees) and I both belonged to the choir at high school. I was told by a high school teacher, Sheila and I were told there was a gentleman who was auditioning (singers). He wanted to put a group together. And so the two of us did audition. I became a Three Degree and she became a solo singer on the same label. I don't think any of us thought at that time where this would go. I was fifteen. All I knew was that I was singing and I was singing with a group. We were starting to just do touring on the weekends at the time 'cause we were all still in high school, and recording in the studios. That was all fun. Little did I know, (laughs) that it would snowball into what it is today. I never envisioned The Three Degrees as being The Three Degrees of today. I think that's just because when we were fifteen, it was fun. It's not like the kids of today who decide they're inspired by so many people, "this what I want to do." I was inspired by many different types of singers, but never did I think this would be my profession. I wanted to be a teacher for mentally challenged children.
Q - What a hard job that is.
A - Yeah. My mom said that to me.
Q - You have to have a lot of patience.
A - Yes.
Q - Of course, you have to have a lot of patience in the music business too.
A - Yeah, you do.
Q - Is it true you left the group before they signed with Roulette Records?
A - I did. I decided I wanted to get married and have a family and that's exactly what I did.
Q - Looking back on it, do you think that was the right decision or would you have done things differently?
A - I cannot say that I regret (it). I got two beautiful children from that marriage. So, to say I regretted it would mean I regretted having my children and that's probably one of the highlights of my life, having my children and I do have three. But I think I was too young to marry. I was eighteen going on nineteen when I married, thinking that was really what I wanted to do. I ended up staying married to that person for eleven years, and realizing when the marriage folded that's when the retrospect kind of came in. "God, why did I do this? (laughs) to myself?" And again, I don't regret because of the fact I have my children, but I do believe I was too young. I say this to young people now who say "I'm getting married. I'm nineteen, twenty-one, twenty-five." You shouldn't rush that. There's a part of your youth that you can't get back once you reach a certain point and once certain things start transforming you and your life. So, you can't get it back. You need to do all the things you may want to do. Get all of that out of your system, because after the marriage dissolved, I wanted a certain amount of freedom that I should have had, that eleven years prior. And you cannot go back. I learned that very quickly. You can't go back and grab what you think you missed. So, the best thing to do is just go ahead and if that person is meant for you, that person will be there when the time is right.
Q - Was your ex-husband in show business?
A - No. Not at all.
Q - That could've been the problem. He didn't understand the business you were in.
A - I was perfectly contented to be a mom, but the marriage went sour. So, when the girls called, it was the third time they had asked me to come back. At that particular point, to me, that was an open door. That was a God-wink, if you will, that I'm giving you this. I'm giving you this chance again. I was grateful, still, I didn't know if that was the way I should go because my daughter was ten and my son was six, so I kind of felt a little strange about leaving them. What would I do? And my parents stepped in and told me they would help me by caring for my children when I had to go to work. I had two great parents. When they stepped up to the plate that way, I felt pretty much that I could do this. And the rest is history. I was able to do it.