The Three Degrees were formed around 1963 in Philadelphia. They were discovered by producer and songwriter Richard Barrett, who produced the original line-up on their first song, "Gee Baby (I'm Sorry)", for Swan Records, in 1965. Turner and Porter both left the group, leaving Fayette Pinkney the only original member. They were replaced by Helen Scott and a variety of others before Janet Harmon joined in the mid-1960s. Barrett also became manager of Sheila Ferguson, who had been friends with Scott since high school. Barrett signed Ferguson to Swan Records in 1965. The Three Degrees released a number of singles, including "I'm Gonna Need You" and a cover version of "Maybe" in 1966.
When Scott left the group in 1966 to start a family, Ferguson filled in for her. She remained for 20 years and was lead singer on most of the group's best-selling tracks. The group reciprocated with backup vocals on her solo recordings. Harmon left by 1967 and was eventually replaced by Valerie Holiday. Barrett signed them to recording contracts over the next three years with Warner Bros., Metromedia, and Neptune record labels, the latter owned by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who would work with the group five years later. The group's close harmony singing made them a popular nightclub act, but a hit record still eluded them.
By 1970, they were signed to Roulette Records and they released their first album, Maybe. The title song, this time with Valerie Holiday taking the lead, took them to #4 on the US R&B charts. The singles, "I Do Take You" and "You're the Fool" followed, as did their second album, So Much Love. This success landed them a cameo appearance in the 1971 film The French Connection (filmed during one of their appearances at the Copacabana nightclub in New York, where they performed a cover of Jimmy Webb's "Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon"), as well as an engagement at the Riviera in Las Vegas along with Engelbert Humperdinck.
In 1973, when their contract with Roulette ended, Barrett signed them to Philadelphia International Records under Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, where they had their greatest successes. The first song they recorded for the label was with the studio band MFSB, titled "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)", which was the theme song for Soul Train. In October 1973, the group also made an appearance on the American television sitcom Sanford and Son (season 3, episode 4), singing their song "I Didn't Know".
Their first album for the Philadelphia International label, The Three Degrees, spawned three hits: "Dirty Ol' Man" (which went gold in the Netherlands and Belgium), "Year Of Decision" (which made it to #13 in the UK Singles Chart), but it was the third single, "When Will I See You Again", that propelled the trio into the mainstream. It topped the UK Chart for two weeks in August 1974 (the first time this had been achieved by an all-female group since The Supremes in 1964,) and became the fourth best-selling single of the year. It also reached #2 in the US, where it sold over two million copies and earned the trio a gold record in December 1974 (at that time, Platinum certifications has not been assigned to singles).
The Three Degrees also recorded two live albums: one in Leicester in the UK, and the other in Tokyo in Japan, and released both in 1975. The trio's second studio album for the Philadelphia label, The Three Degrees International, was marketed internationally under different titles and in various languages. In Continental Europe, it was called With Love, and it spawned the hit single "Take Good Care Of Yourself", which reached the UK Top 10. The UK release of the album was actually titled Take Good Care Of Yourself and peaked at #6 in the UK Album Chart, their highest ever chart placing for an album there. Two other songs from the album were big successes in Japan: "Midnight Train" and "
Nigai Namida ", the latter having been recorded in Japanese.
In 1976, the Three Degrees parted company with Gamble and Huff and moved to CBS Sony/Epic Records where they released the concept album, A Toast Of Love, purely for the Far East market, although a single of the title track was released internationally. In 1976, Fayette Pinkney was dating Lou Rawls, and when the groups manager found out he was not happy and gave Pinkney an ultimatum, "it's the group or him", Fayette chose Lou, so was fired from the group, and was replaced by former band member Helen Scott.
When her relationship fell apart and she split from Lou Rawls, Fayette decided to return to full-time education.
The ladies with Fayette had already started to record some tracks for their next Lp, Which was released in 1977, the album, Standing Up For Love, actually has 4 Degree voices on some of the tracks, (Fayette, Sheila, Valerie) and (Valerie, Sheila, Helen) although this would be their last release for CBS/Epic.
In 1978, The Three Degrees signed to Ariola Records in Europe and the US and began working with Giorgio Moroder, who had become famous as a disco producer following his work with Donna Summer. Further success was to follow, and they released two disco-styled albums on Ariola (New Dimensions in 1978, and 3D in 1979) which delivered four UK Top 20 hits between them: "Givin' Up Givin' In", "Woman In Love"(originally recorded by Twiggy in 1977), "The Runner" and "My Simple Heart". The group performed for Prince Charles at his 30th birthday party in 1978, and were guests at the pre-wedding party for his marriage to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. Their own television special, The Three Degrees at The Royal Albert Hall (aka An Evening with The Three Degrees), was recorded in October 1979 in which the trio were backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1980, the compilation album Gold was released and became a UK Top 10 hit. Featuring one side of their hits on the Ariola label between 1978–79, and one side of live recordings from their 1979 Royal Albert Hall television special, this would be the trio's second "best of" compilation to make the UK Top 10 in less than two years, after CBS released A Collection of their 20 Greatest Hits in early 1979 (which featured their pre-Ariola material, and peaked at #8 in the UK Album Chart).
Between 1982 and 1985, The Three Degrees released two albums on their own 3D label; Album of Love and Live in the UK. On that label they also released "Liar", a single written by Sheila Ferguson. A third BBC Television show was also recorded in 1982, titled Take 3 Degrees, which included performances of their greatest hits, and also songs that the group were performing in their latest show, such as "I Can't Turn You Loose" and "Celebration". They returned to the UK charts in 1985 with "The Heaven I Need" which was produced by Stock/Aitken/Waterman on Supreme Records, though the single narrowly missed the UK Top 40.
In 1986, Miquel Brown filled in for Scott while the latter was pregnant. That same year Ferguson decided to leave the group. Scott and Holiday replaced her with Vera Brown of The Ritchie Family in 1986, and then Rhea Harris in 1987. In 1989, Scott and Holiday, along with new recruit Victoria Wallace, recorded the album Three Degrees ... And Holding on Ichiban Records. A single, "A Tender Lie" was also released. Following the album, the group recorded a live CD at London's Dominion Theatre, with Billy Paul and Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes in 1989. The group followed this with another tour of the UK and Japan at the end of the year.
In December 1989, Cynthia Garrison replaced Wallace forming the longest running line-up of the group. In 1993, they were asked to record a new version of "When Will I See You Again" with Thomas Anders (of Modern Talking). He supplied three tracks for their album Out of the Past Into the Future, marking their return to Ariola Records and their most successful album for 15 years, Two further singles were released from the album, the re-recording of "Dirty Ol' Man" and new song "Hurry Hurry". In 1996 they released a new best of album, Best & New Hits: When Will I See You Again, which included four re-recorded hits and six new songs. A seasonal album, Christmas With The Three Degrees, was also recorded in 1998. This album included a cover of Wham's "Last Christmas", which was released as a remixed dance single which gave the group their 15th (and final) UK top 60 single, reaching #54.
Scott, Holiday and Garrison continued to tour. They made their first US TV appearance in over 20 years in 2003 on the PBS show, Rhythm, Love, and Soul with Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls and Mary Wilson. They were also part of the 'Best Disco In Town 2004 Tour' with The Pointer Sisters, Chic, The Emotions, and Evelyn "Champagne" King. They also took part in the 2007 'Best Disco In Town' tour of the United Kingdom in May 2007.
In 2008 the group released the album Helen, Valerie, Cynthia: The Greatest Hits, which included completely new recordings of the group's biggest hits and some fan favourites.
The group, together with founder member Fayette Pinkney, received various honours during 2007 and 2008, through BEMA (The Black Entertainment and Music Association) and the City of Philadelphia for their contribution to music over five decades, creating, for the first time, The Four Degrees.
Fayette Pinkney died on June 27, 2009, in Lansdale Hospital, Pennsylvania, after a short illness, at the age of 61.
In 2009 the group released their first studio album in over ten years, Undercover 2009. It contained a selection of eight cover versions of classic songs by ABBA, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Bee Gees. The following year they released a new single "Holding Back".
In January 2011, Freddie Pool replaced Cynthia Garrison, who was suffering from Piriformis syndrome, as the Degrees had touring commitments to fulfill.
In 2016 The Three degrees released their first full-length studio album with member Freddie Pool entitled Strategy: Our Tribute To Philadelphia, through Cherry Red Records.
The Holiday/Scott/Garrison version of The Three Degrees was the longest running formation of the group (1989–2010).