Valerie Holiday can’t explain why she has so rarely performed in California. “We’re trying to fix that now,” she laughs, referring to the Rrazz Room debut of The Three Degrees this week.
Holiday joined the relatively unknown Philadelphia-based group in 1967 four years after Fayette Pinkney, Shirley Porter and Linda Turner were discovered by producer and songwriter Richard Barrett.
It was a bit of maternal maneuvering that made the connection. “I was already performing on my own, but my mother wasn’t too comfortable with me traveling alone,” she said. “Neither was I, most of the time.”
Introductions were made and the opportunity for some sisterhood, Holiday’s natural affinity for the Philly Dog — the group’s signature dance move — plus a shared brand of cigarettes suggested a promising collaboration.
More than four decades later, when she’s feeling overly busy with travel and other career matters, Holiday has a secret coping mechanism. “I blame everything on my mother,” she laughs. “This was all your idea, I tell her!”
Following a handful of noncharting initial recordings, The Three Degrees signed with the Roulette label and released their first album.
Holiday re-recorded the lead vocals on “Maybe” from their 1966 single and the new LP title track version climbed to No. 4 on the U.S. R&B chart in 1970.
A move to Philadelphia International Records in 1973 generated an eponymous LP that included three hit singles, including the million-seller signature theme “When Will I See You Again?”
The Degrees made a huge splash in Europe and also logged cameos in films and television series, in addition to dozens of variety shows.
In total, there have been a dozen different Degrees. The current and longest-standing lineup features Holiday with Cynthia Garrison, who joined in 1989, and Helen Scott, who actually pre-dates Holiday’s tenure but took a decade-long family-making hiatus.
The group’s main competitors in the formative years were Detroit-based Motown artists such as the Supremes or Martha Reeves and the Vandellas who, ironically, follow them at the Rrazz this month.
Asked to describe the difference in sound between the two music centers, Holiday considers that “it’s a rhythmic thing. The voicing of the instruments was different. They were more horns and strings and our sound was more bass, more in tune with the percussion instruments.”
“We want the audience involved with us,” Holiday says about the group’s current show. “Don’t just sit there and look at us like some fruit on a table. Talk to us. Sing with us. Enjoy the atmosphere!”
IF YOU GO
The Three Degrees
Where: Rrazz Room, Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $40 to $42.50
Contact: (800) 380-3095, www.therrazzroom.com