Still So Excited

An Interview with Ruth Pointer

by Christian John Wikane

5 March 2009

Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo 

The First Album

Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

The executives at Blue Thumb would not repeat the mistake Atlantic made in modeling The Pointer Sisters after other cotemporary acts. Because of the array of artists they’d worked with, their adaptability to any music genre was finely tuned and their repertoire ranged a gamut of selections. With Rubinson helming production, all four sisters determined what songs were recorded for the album.

Jazz was a passion of Rubinson’s and the Pointer Sisters were all too willing to delve into the catalog of acts like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Ruth becomes animated when discussing the jazz orientations of their earlier work. “We had that old sort of jitterbug, Chicago-nightclub spirit just running through our veins,” she says. “We woke up and went to sleep with that music. We would just immerse ourselves in that music all day long. Even if we weren’t sitting down listening to it, it was just on in the house. That was really where our fever for that style came from.”

Remarkably, all four sisters possessed the same voracious appetite for the music of the 1930s and 1940s. When the sisters wrapped their voices around “Cloudburst” and “Naked Foot” on their debut album, the listener was transported uptown to The Cotton Club in Manhattan or the Famous Door on 52nd Street. Their harmonies were stacked very specifically: Ruth’s low register was the foundation, then the brassy tone of Bonnie’s voice, then Anita, then June’s swooping falsetto. To this day, Ruth is amazed by how naturally and how effortlessly their voices intertwined. “It’s not like one of us was lackin’,” she says. “We all could do it. We all were blessed with a distinctive range to be able to blend together, which is a miracle to me. God gave us that. If we heard the song, we used to always know what the other one was going to sing. We did that all the time in the house, in the car. We would just break out into these harmonies.” The ferocious “Pains and Tears” exemplifies their thrilling musicality.

Released in 1973, The Pointer Sisters was unlike any other album of its time.  From straight-ahead R&B (Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can”) and funk jams (“That’s How I Feel”) to blues-rock (“Wang Dang Doodle” by Willie Dixon) and their own self-penned jazz compositions (“Jada” and “Sugar”), the Pointer Sisters embraced as many styles as possible simply because they could sing the hell out of whatever was presented to them.

The Pointer Sisters dressed as unique as they sounded and Rubinson encouraged them to explore their very creative sense of style. They were loath to just stand onstage in matching gowns. Though their wardrobe and repertoire definitely had a symbiotic relationship, the retro sensibility of the clothes also had roots in the Pointers’ off-stage life as well. 1940s-styled jackets, dresses, and furs they wore were pulled off the hanger directly from their closets. Ruth explains, “We loved retro clothes. The fabrics were better, the styles were more unique and it seemed like those clothes had a story. We used to always raid thrift stores. Basically, it started out of necessity because our parents just couldn’t afford new things. I never even heard the words ‘designer clothes’ until I was singing.” Emancipated from the strictures of conventional R&B female vocal groups, The Pointers Sisters’ transformation from a Honey Cone carbon copy to four thrift-store outfitted singing sensations was complete.

The public responded very favorably. “Yes We Can Can” landed at #11 on the pop charts and “Wang Dang Doodle” charted a respectable #24 on the R&B charts. The Pointer Sisters were awarded a gold album and booked on television shows like The Helen Reddy Show and The Flip Wilson Show.

Touring, however, offered a flipside to the group’s newfound fame. In early 1974, the group embarked on their first tour in rented station wagons. They played all kinds of venues, sometimes doing two shows a night, often in less-than-ideal conditions. The first stop was The Cellar Door in Washington, DC followed by stops at Paul’s Mall in Boston (during a blizzard), Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago (where the group didn’t get paid and sued the venue), and Continental Baths in New York City (“the ceiling was very low,” Ruth recalls). “We played some shady places,” Ruth muses about that first tour. “We have paid some serious dues!”

Even when the Pointer Sisters weren’t performing, they dutifully maintained their image in the public eye. Management wanted them to dress in retro clothes “all the time,” Ruth says. “We had on these platform six-inch heels, jackets with shoulder pads, and hats and gloves, and furs while traveling. What a clothing bill. We had to hit every thrift store we could possibly find because those were tearing up as we wore them. We didn’t have these blends that keep things together these days. The clothes were real silk and real cotton and real chiffon and real linen.”

The thrift store look was about to get glitzy, though, as the Pointer Sisters returned to the studio to record their follow-up, That’s a Plenty. The album cover introduced the iconic Pointer Sisters logo, created by their publicity team (Gibson and Stromberg), which depicted four silhouetted figurines with a bended knee pointing one finger. Within months, those fingers pointed towards another gold album.

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