In the 1970s, the Three Degrees embodied a certain style of classy, sophisticated, orchestrated soul, and were equally at home on Top Of The Pops, TV variety shows, in cabaret or in the presence of royalty. Indeed, the easy-on-the-ear, easy-on-the-eye girl trio from Philadelphia who topped the UK charts in 1974 with the soft, smooth, seductive "When Will I See You Again", became favourites of Prince Charles and were even tagged "Charlie's Angels" by the British tabloids.
Fayette Pinkney was a founder member and a mainstay of the vocal group between 1963 and 1976, and featured on an impressive run of memorable hit singles, including "Year Of Decision", "Get Your Love Back" and "Take Good Care Of Yourself". Alongside acts like Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, the O'Jays and Billy Paul, the Three Degrees played a major part in establishing Philadelphia International Records, the label launched by the songwriters and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
In 1974, the Three Degrees were also the featured vocalists on the infectious mostly instrumental track "TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)" recorded by the Philadelphia International house band MFSB – short for Mother Father Sister Brother. Chosen as the new theme tune to the long-running Soul Train by producer Don Cornelius when the US TV show went into national syndication in 1973, "TSOP" charted around the world just as the lush Philly sound became the dominant force in soul and dance music and ushered in the disco era. Pinkney left the group in 1976 and recorded a solo album entitled One Degree in 1979, but spent the last three decades as an education co-ordinator, counsellor and therapist in her native Philadelphia.
Born in 1948, Pinkney was the most dedicated member of the Three Degrees at the time of their inception, while she was still in high school. In the early days, the group's personnel seemed to be forever changing. "It's hard to grab a girl when she's 17, 18 and dying to go out with the fellas and go to parties, and strap her down to rehearsals and confine her to record hops on weekends instead," she said. They were put together in 1965 by Richard Barrett, the Valentines' singer, producer and songwriter, who had also been associated with the success of the Chantels, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers in the 1950s. He became their manager, produced their first single "Gee Baby (I'm Sorry)" – on which Fayette sang lead – and got the group a deal with Swan Records alongside Sheila Ferguson, whom they occasionally backed on record.
In 1966, Ferguson joined Pinkney, and the arrival of Valerie Holiday the following year cemented the classic line-up. Over the next three years they released a series of singles but only made an impact on the R&B charts with a remake of The Chantels' hit "Maybe" in 1970. By then, Barrett had drilled the group into a nonpareil night-club act and, appearing at the Copacabana in New York, they caught the eye of film director William Friedkin. He gave them a cameo in The French Connection, and they went on to open for Engelbert Humperdinck in Las Vegas.
In 1973, they renewed their association with Gamble and Huff and scored further R&B hits with "Dirty Ol' Man" and "I Didn't Know" before finding success in the UK and the rest of Europe. While Ferguson's distinctive lead vocals were the focus of the group, both Fayette and Holiday often sang in unison with her, creating a uniquely intoxicating blend, as appealing as their glitzy dresses, big bouffant hairs and beautifully choreographed dance routines. Between 1974 and 1976, the Three Degrees also made the Top 40 in Britain with "Get Your Love Back" and "Long Lost Lover", while their eponymous debut and the Take Good Care Of Yourself album both spent several months among the best-sellers. During Pinkney's tenure, they also recorded live albums at Bailey's in Leicester and in Japan, as well as a collection of songs in foreign languages fittingly called International.
Pinkney left after the With Love album in 1976, and was replaced by Helen Scott, who had been a member between 1963 and 1966. Pinkney went on to study psychology, earned a Master's Degree in human services and worked at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania and United Healthcare Services in Philadelphia. In 1994, she gave birth to a daughter who died within days due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Pinkney performed occasionally, as far afield as Japan and the UK, enjoyed singing gospel and tutored aspiring singers.
The Three Degrees still tour with Holiday, Scott and Cynthia Garrison, who joined in 1989. Paying tribute to Pinkney, who died of acute respiratory failure, Gamble and Huff said in a statement: "She had a very strong and soulful voice. She will truly be missed by all of us as a member of one of the world's greatest soulful female groups, our Philly sound version of Motown's Supremes, but bigger and stronger and melodic."
Fayette Pinkney, singer: born Philadelphia 10 January 1948; one daughter (deceased); died Lansdale, Pennsylvania 27 June 2009.