POP MUSIC / The Three Graces of soul: The Three Degrees, holding court amongst the waiters at the Cafe Royal, are undeniably middle-aged. They are also, as an unexpectedly sweaty Jim White discovered, still one of the most danceable groups around

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It was not what you expected at a place like the Green Room at the Cafe Royal. Low, unprepossessing, littered with dining tables: the most an artist stepping on to its micro stage might anticipate as an ovation is the tinkle of cutlery.

By the end of the Three Degrees show there on Monday night, men in business suits with Clive Anderson haircuts were dancing on tables. Couples who had long since bidden farewell to their thirties were swaying in each other's arms. And those of us who had arrived with cynical smiles left with sweat-soaked shirts.

'We kinda thought it doesn't always happen like that there,' said Valerie Holiday the next afternoon, over tea in the posh hotel where the trio are billeted during their three-week in-cabaret residency. 'But that's the way we are. The Three Degrees, they like dancing.'

And dance they did. Dressed in matching trouser suits and improbably high heels, the grand old ladies of soul whipped through 90 minutes of snap and syncopation. Moving from the shoulder now rather than the hip, they nonetheless showed a turn and dip performers with half their experience would envy.

'As we are being constantly reminded, we are advancing in years,' Helen Scott said. 'Guys can go on for ever. Girls? They want you to go home. But we ain't going.'

The Three Degrees have been encumbered, since the long-gone day when they were booked to perform at his 30th birthday party, with the soubriquet of 'Prince Charles's favourite group'. An albatross of un-coolness you would have thought they would be keen to unclip from their necks. But no, there it is looming large in their publicity. Odd, because it is a short-hand which all but disguises their pedigree.

Helen, Valerie and Sheila Ferguson (who, five years ago, was replaced on the lower end of the harmonies by Cynthia Garrison) first came together in the mid-Sixties.

'We were black, we were all girls,' said Valerie. 'And that's where the similarity with the Supremes ends. We have never had a lead singer. We share the singing around between us. Gives us a chance to take a breather.'

For five years they bashed the East Coast cabaret circuit, learning their craft, before they were picked up by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and became part of the Philly Sound. The precursor to Saturday Night Fever, this lush strings and horn confection from Philadelphia gave handbags a purpose in northern English towns in the mid-Seventies. Harold Melvin, Billy Paul, the O'Jays: an exciting stable to be involved with, you would imagine.

'Well, actually we never really met those guys until we did a Philly revival tour a couple of years back,' said Valerie Holiday. 'At the time, we were working too hard, going to this town, that recording studio, being told what to do - our opinions meant little. 'Shut up,' we used to be told. 'You're just the hummers.' '

In common with many, the Three Degrees suffered from the record industry management technique back then: the white folks got rich from the black folks' talent.

'Hey, I wouldn't say it was just the white folk,' said Helen. 'There were plenty of black folk getting in on it. A great deal of money passed through hands other than ours.'

Being told what to do and when wasn't always a drawback, however. Take the song 'When Will I See You Again', for instance.

'The song wasn't well-liked by the group at the time,' remembered Helen. 'We thought: no, not for us, too slow, too ballady. But Gamble and Huff insisted. They were right.'

So the song was released in 1974, went to No 2 in the States, No 1 in Britain and is currently playing in a lift near you.

'We are blessed with this song,' said Helen. 'Blessed. I hear it everywhere. I was sitting in my dentist's chair recently and I heard it.'

The 'ooh-ooh, aah-aah' introduction line is used by the dentist as an incentive to open wide, presumably.

'You only need one song,' Scott continued. 'And you can play for the rest of your life. Over time you learn to respect it, realise what it is. We used to mess with the arrangements, change the tempo, try and make it more fun for us to do. Then we realised, hey, these people, they've come to hear that song sung as it should be sung.'

At the Cafe Royal, the audience had indeed come to hear it. They listened, enthralled, to the group's version of Stevie Wonder's 'I Wish', shook their jewellery to the run-through of the Trammps' 'Disco Inferno', but were up and swaying when the opening bars of the Three Degrees pension song could be heard. 'Playing a room like that, you have to know your business,' said Helen. 'There's no hiding behind costumes or production. We love that challenge.'

'We can choose to do what we like these days because we know what is going on in business,' added Valerie. 'I think that's part of why we don't have a record deal. We say: 'We want it our way.' They think: 'What a bunch of bitches.' So they get young people in - it's easier to use someone when they're young. Now we perform. When you hit that stage, you do what you enjoy.'

And at the Cafe Royal you could see they were enjoying themselves: they let their hair down. Not that there is as much of it as in their heyday. Those towering Afros they used to wear then, they must have taken some time and topiary to get right.

'Oh, come on,' said Valerie. 'They were wigs. You think anyone would do that to their hair?'

(Photograph omitted)

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