Nov 07

THE THREE DEGREES – “When Will I See You Again?”

FT + Popular36 comments • 7,591 views

#354, 12th August 1974

The danger of using orchestration to suggest luxury is that it can turn a record inert, putting up a discreet rope between the audience and the opulence: the effect is like a crowd barrier in a stately home, protecting the rooms from gawkers but also reminding you that they’re for admiring, not living in. The reason the Philly soul of Gamble and Huff is so gorgeous is that they never put that rope out: their productions are palaces, but ones you can play around in, fully inhabit. Or, like the Three Degrees, you can just wander through them, awestruck into rapturous ooohs and aaahs.

The Degrees reputedly didn’t want to sing such a simple song, though changed their mind on hearing what Gamble and Huff did with it. Their fears aren’t without foundation, mind you, as their voices are mostly just more (amazingly plush) furniture. But this makes the moments when the ache breaks through even more compelling: the song may sound like heaven but it’s about limbo, the uncertainty of newfound joy. As a listener this is the kind of waiting room you wouldn’t mind spending eternity in, but the coos and sighs here hide desperation behind their satisfaction – a perfect balance of bliss and yearning.



  1. 1
    Erithian on 12 Nov 2007 #

    Now this one I had a lot of time for. Beautiful voices, strings that were lush without being gloopy, and by God they sounded like they meant it. Love Sheila Ferguson’s interjections on the fadeout – “sweet sweet love o’ mine”… giving that extra urgency to the problem.

    This song was briefly an “Our Tune” for me and the girl to whom I lost my virginity – not at the age of 12, I hasten to add, but several years later. We met, got together, broke up and lost touch in the space of three months. Then she got in touch again a few years down the line, now with a baby (not mine I hasten to add, but my mum didn’t help when she phoned me and said “Barbara wants to see you again and she’s got a baby”). Anyway, we had a nice evening, since you ask, and it’s one of the relationships I look back on most fondly.

    The Three Degrees were a welcome feature in our charts for most of the 70s, giving us some of the best examples of their genre – a particular mention for “Take Good Care of Yourself” too. Very much an Anglophile act too, didn’t they do the variety club circuit for a while? And of course they had friends in high places – I’ll leave others to explore that particular theme.

  2. 2
    Mark G on 12 Nov 2007 #

    Soul became Disco, Disco being a sort of lowest common denominator version.

    It doesn’t mean that great music was not made, just that the ingredients became easier to replicate by less, um, talented chefs.

  3. 3

    if the ingredients of great music are easier to replicate by less talented chefs, then more great music will be made

    in fact a lot of pretty bad disco was made by people who had been GOOD at pre-disco soul: as often the case with interesting technological shifts, the skills just aren’t transferable — same as being a great jazzbo never meant you could “record a hit single any time i want to, i just er never wanted to” (and classical popsters are often v.lame and limp also)

  4. 4
    rosie on 12 Nov 2007 #

    Now this is something a bit special. Once again, being absent traipsing around New Brunswick for the summer meant that I had no recollection of it being number one, but I can’t remember a time since then when I haven’t felt I’d always known it.

    A simple song, beautifully sung, luxuriusly upholstered, sexy, and timelessly tingly.

    Borderline ten, perhaps, if this were a better day, but you know how strict I am so nine it is.

  5. 5
    jeff w on 12 Nov 2007 #

    I like this a lot and could probably nail the song at karaoke. I don’t really hear it as disco, more as smoothed out soul. If 9 seems generous to me, it’s mainly because I much prefer what The Stylistics did in this territory around the same time.

    Congrats for not mentioning a certain royal personage however – surely a Three Degrees review first! :)

  6. 6
    Marcello Carlin on 12 Nov 2007 #

    Herbie Hancock though (Mark S xpost)!

    Well I have something of a bias against this one since it actually did keep one of the greatest singles ever made off the top – “You Make Me Feel Brand New” by the aforementioned Stylistics – but not one which extends to active hatred. At thirty plus years’ distance it doesn’t seem so bad, even though it doesn’t really electrify me.

    Strictly speaking this wasn’t the only Philly Sound number one – the second will introduce an extremely significant figure into Popular – but it was the only one to top our charts at the time when Philly was at its commercial peak, if slightly past its critical peak.

    I think “When Will I See You Again” works because of the underlying feeling of warmth that the arrangement engenders in the record – noticeably Bobby Parker’s bubbling electric piano and the smooth but not yet bland carpet of strings. At this point the group veered just towards the right side of cabaret time, and although I would have preferred something rawer such as “Dirty Ol’ Man” to have been a smash hit, it’s hardly dislikeable even if, emotionally, its delivery is too distant to connect truly with me.

    This was not the case with some of their other work of this period; I urge everybody to seek out their eponymous album which includes not only this and “Year Of Decision” and “Dirty Ol’ Man” but some absolute jewels of extended avant-ballad experimentation – “A Woman Needs A Good Man” (yes, I know, but it was 1974) is an exemplary elision of emotion, and the epic “If And When” is the most heartbreaking thing you’ll hear this week; subsequently sampled by the Lo-Fidelity All Stars on the final track of How To Operate With A Blown Mind – one of the great British albums, worthy of inclusion in that seldom explored pantheon of out-there Gamble and Huff, together with side one of the O’Jays’ Ship Ahoy and “East” by Billy Paul.

  7. 7
    henry s on 12 Nov 2007 #

    Billy Paul’s “Going East” LP also has that great cover of “Magic Carpet Ride”, which always makes me think of Dexy’s Midnight Runners…

    “War Of The Gods” I think is even more over the top than “East” (though both are pretty much ignored in “symphonic soul” discussion, oddly enough)…

  8. 8
    doofuus2003 on 13 Nov 2007 #

    Soul, disco, never mind, it is a very good pop record, even if it never really captured my attention at the time. On the TSOP, maybe I’m wrong, but I always counted Chairmen of the Board in that grouping, and they had a number one, didn’t they?

  9. 9
    Waldo on 13 Nov 2007 #

    Precious moments??? Hmm…

    I remember The Three Degrees receiving official sanction from the Palace as “The Prince of Wales’ favourite group”. Whilst this was poppycock, of course, for once Brenda’s PR guys got it spot on, as that Sheila Ferguson (as distinctly opposed to that Sarah or that Sir Alec) was a perfect pin-up for the first in line. Being black (or was it “coloured” back then?) was clearly a consideration in this diplomacy. In the real world, Charles, who was already nearly 26 (on his tariff about 49), was no more a fan of the Philly sound as he was of cooking his own breakfast. That famous photo (probably by Patrick Lichfield, a great lad, now gone, alas) showing the girls flopping all over him certainly did T3D more good than it did Charles. One caption, I remember, read something on the lines of “Charles and his slave girls”, unbelievably offensive even in 1974.

    The Three Degrees themselves, meanwhile, were probably no more than a moderate trio of chanteuses but with WWISYA they landed a sure fire winner with a song aimed especially at the girls: “Are we in love or just friends? Is this the beginning or is it the end? When will I see you again?” The whole refrain from start to finish is just a series of questions fired from the hip at the poor beleaguered boyfriend, who under such an assault would probably just want to piss off to the drinker to avoid all this nagging.

    Loquacious women. Don’t you just love ‘em? Actually, yes. I’ve been with one for nearly twenty years and she’ll not change now, bless her.

  10. 10
    Marcello Carlin on 13 Nov 2007 #

    Nope – Chairman of the Board were a Detroit group (OK, General Johnson came from Norfolk, Virginia but they were certainly based in Detroit) and on Holland/Dozier/Holland’s Invictus label (i.e. as close to Motown without actually being on Motown) and their UK peak position was number three with “Give Me Just A Little More Time.”

    Two other prominent Philly acts (from the Thom Bell wing rather than the Gamble/Huff contingent) will turn up on Popular in the future but it is highly debatable whether they could still be considered Philly at the time of their respective number ones.

    And of course, another mention for the ladies’ sterling contribution to “TSOP” by MFSB, which as previously stated was number one in the States earlier on in ’74. Not to mention their seldom mentioned late seventies sojourn with Moroder which produced the amazing “Giving Up, Giving In” just before they settled for Batley’s and The Two Ronnies and um, yes, umm, the Three Degrees umm, whatever that means, erm, Camilla, ummm…

  11. 11
    Billy Smart on 13 Nov 2007 #

    Wow – ‘Giving Up, Giving In’ – Tremendous! And The Three Degrees add to the excitement in The French Connection, too…

    I find that it’s the vocalisation that makes this (and ‘Take Good Care of Yourself’) work. They’re both the sort of songs that I find myself registering, then not really listening to the second verse of, but the singing makes them sound genuinely lived experiences.

  12. 12
    Erithian on 13 Nov 2007 #

    Small but significant point – it’s “Giving Up Giving In” without the comma, which turns the title around into an altogether feistier statement of intent, borne out by the lyric. Also well-liked at the time was “The Runner”. Not quite so top-drawer was “My Simple Heart”, misheard for comic effect by Noel Edmonds as “My Simple Hut”.

  13. 13
    Marcello Carlin on 13 Nov 2007 #

    Damn I’ve just lost three Jimmy Savile’s Old Record Club points there!

  14. 14
    jeff w on 13 Nov 2007 #

    The title song from their 1970 Maybe LP is also tremendous.

  15. 15
    mike on 13 Nov 2007 #

    Indeed it is, Jeff – I was just listening to the full-length version on my lunch break, with its fabby three-and-a-half minute spoken intro.

    Like Erithian, I have strong sentimental connections with Sheil, Hel and Val (as they became from 1976 onwards, when founder member Helen rejoined, replacing Fayette). Several years on from this chart-topper, the first two young chaps to, erm, tickle my fancy were both big Three Degrees fans, the second being a paid-up fan club member and everything – and so I developed a sort of pathetic after-the-fact devotion to them (the girls, not the chaps), buying up most of their singles second-hand and seeing them live at the newly opened Barbican Centre.

    Sure, “When Will I See You Again” is supper-club Supremes, but you say that like it’s a bad thing? To my mind, it’s as deft an encapsulation of post-one-nighter bewildered excitement as you’ll find anywhere (and I know of what I speak; see previous paragraph), and it’s probably that direct simplicity, beautifully rendered, which sent it soaring to places which earlier singles (“Year of Decision”, what bliss!) failed to reach.

    There must already have been a strong and growing UK connection at work, as our old friend Clem “bob-a-job” Cattini turns up again on drumming duties, notching up his second of three 1974 Number Ones (the first being Alvin’s “Jealous Mind”). Subsequently, Sheila Ferguson settled in the UK, from where the group’s underwhelming mid-1980s Stock Aitken Waterman comeback was hatched.

    Great also to see a Philly Number One; 1974 was a peak year for the label, then pumping out classics for The Intruders, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, MFSB and others. As for other prime Three Degrees Philly material, before the advent of their 1979 Moroder-backed second wind (and which other major chart act of 1974 can we say that about, eh, eh?), I have to give the nod to the ludicrously unreconstructed “I Like Being A Woman” – a song which was surely written by a man – with its OMGWTFLOL spoken middle section (understandly if regrettably excised from my CD reissue version, but I have the vinyl and will transcribe when time allows).

  16. 16
    Marcello Carlin on 13 Nov 2007 #

    (and which other major chart act of 1974 can we say that about, eh, eh?)

    You sound in a bit of a rush to get the answer – maybe you’re trying to BEAT THE CLOCK?

    *tumbleweeds, I’ll get me coat, &c*

  17. 17
    mike on 13 Nov 2007 #

    Point of order: I have just checked my original Ariola 7″, and can reveal that there IS a comma in the middle of “Giving Up, Giving In” – on both the A side and the extended version on the B side, lest there be any lingering doubt.

    Also useful to find “If And When” (as recommended by MC upthread) lurking on the B side of “Take Good Care Of Yourself”.

  18. 18
    Marcello Carlin on 14 Nov 2007 #

    yay, Dignified Don’s just given me my three points back!

  19. 19
    Erithian on 14 Nov 2007 #

    Mike – is there really? Interesting, because as I was suggesting, “I’m giving up, giving in” is totally submissive whereas “I’m giving up giving in” is an assertive, “I Will Survive”, Girl Power, kick-that-waster-out type of statement, which indeed is the tone of the song. (Maybe the label didn’t get the message?) Punctuation in song titles – sometimes it IS relevant!

  20. 20
    Marcello Carlin on 14 Nov 2007 #

    Recently Keith Richards explained the comma in “Paint It, Black” – “A secretary in the Decca office made a typing error.”

    Given that “Giving Up Comma Giving In” was on Ariola Hansa a similar administrative error is not out of the question.

  21. 21
    Mark G on 14 Nov 2007 #

    .. and for years the comma was removed from “Paint it black”

    But every recent reissue where ALOldman’s been the creative director, it’s BACK!

  22. 22
    rosie on 16 Nov 2007 #

    I no longer have it in my possession, but I’m pretty damned sure that my 45 of Paint It Black (in an eventually torn and tattered orange-with-white-stripes Decca paper sleeve) didn’t have a comma, and I’ve often wondered where the comma came from in later citations, since it doesn’t really make sense.

  23. 23
    Marcello Carlin on 16 Nov 2007 #

    Jimmy Savile regularly used to give his listeners the full five points for the comma “as written on the la-BEL” though some commentators claimed that “Paint It, Black” was a racist title, like the White Album (am I talking 1985 NME? You bet!).

  24. 24
    mike on 16 Nov 2007 #

    That “I Like Being A Woman” rap in full:

    “You know, women’s liberation, it’s cool.
    I mean, it’s got its good points, and its bad points.
    But you know, sometimes, I just wanna be loved.
    And that’s when I become your slave.
    I don’t wanna be your equal!
    I just wanna be a part of you.
    All you’ve gotta do is treat me like you treat yourself.
    When I’m weak, I need you to make me strong.
    I want you to take care of me.
    I want you to love me, like I’m gonna love you.
    I want you to need me, like I need you.
    ‘Cos baby, I wanna respect you, and everything about you.
    ‘Cos I want you.”

  25. 25
    Marcello Carlin on 16 Nov 2007 #

    Oh Christ I remember this now. If only she’d delivered it through a megaphone a la Mike Love on “Student Demonstration Time.”

  26. 26
    Lena on 16 Nov 2007 #

    I thought she was going to refer to herself as his rib there. She practically does…

  27. 27
    Marcello Carlin on 16 Nov 2007 #

    Was this copied verbatim from Camilla’s secretly recorded ‘phone calls then?

  28. 28
    mike on 16 Nov 2007 #

    When I put my Three Degrees Greatest Hits CD into iTunes earlier in the week, “Take Good Care Of Yourself” came up with an album credit of “Charles & Camilla”. I don’t know what was going on there…

  29. 29

    […] in “Paint It, Black.” Keith Richards apparently feels the comma was mistakenly added by a secretary at Decca Records, while alternate theories consider the title to be racist. The comma has appeared intermittently on […]

  30. 30
    Ashley on 14 Feb 2008 #

    I’m glad their is still a love for The Three Degrees. Please visit their website at http://www.thethreedegrees.com The group now consists of still Helen Scott and Valerie Holiday along with Cynthia Garrison who replaced Sheila Ferguson.

  31. 31
    Billy Smart on 13 Feb 2009 #

    NMEWatch: 6 July 1974. Qualified enthusiasm from guest reviewer Elton John;

    “I’ve got to own up, this record is on my juke box, and even though they did play Batley Variety Club I still think they are wholesome girls. It’s the sort of music I quite like. I like the sexy way they breathe at the beginning of the record. Gamble and Huff can do no wrong. It’s on my juke box ’cause I can imagine myself sashaying round the house in my chiffon nightdress going ‘When will I see you again’. I quite like it but its not up to the usual standard of Three Degrees records. In fact it’s Three Degrees under.”

    No single of the week. Also reviewed;

    The Rubettes – Tonight
    Terry Jacks – If You Go Away
    Iron Virgin – Rebel Rule
    Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye – Stop Look Listen
    The New York Dolls – Stranded In The Jungle
    Roberta Flack – Feel Like Making Love

  32. 32
    lonepilgrim on 7 Jul 2009 #

    RIP Fayette Pinkney

  33. 33
    nick on 21 Apr 2010 #

    Viki Wallace formerly of The Three Degrees, released a new remake of When Will I See You, check it out!!


  34. 34
    hectorthebat on 2 Jul 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 22
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 617
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1970s (2001) 44
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  35. 35
    lonepilgrim on 28 Oct 2019 #

    always loved this from when I first heard it and never tire of it – listening to it again I’m struck how the initial opulent ambience subtly fades over the course of the song to foreground the human longing beneath the luxury

  36. 36
    Gareth Parker on 7 Jun 2021 #

    Perfectly pleasant stuff from the 3 Degrees imho. 7/10.

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