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Pointer Sisters Redux

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Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

The next phase of the Pointer Sisters’ career started with an audition. Ruth and Anita learned that Richard Perry (Carly Simon, Leo Sayer, Barbra Streisand, Harry Nilsson) was starting his own record company through the WEA (Warner/Elektra/Asylum) company so they sought a meeting with the superstar producer. Though the Pointer Sisters were established in the industry, the line-up had changed so drastically with Bonnie gone and June on hiatus that they had to prove themselves a legitimate act. “We were just trying to crawl back into the business at that time,” Ruth says. The two sisters met with Perry but the new act lacked spark, especially because Ruth and Anita were not particularly fond of the woman brought into replace June. Perry insisted that they persuade June to consider returning to the group. It took a fair amount of coaxing—and negotiating—for June to rejoin her sisters. As Ruth recalls, “Her response was [faux dramatic]: ‘I want a solo album, so if I can have a solo album I’ll come back.’” June’s solo album, Baby Sister (1983), wouldn’t be released for another few years. First, The Pointer Sisters had to be reintroduced all over again.

The stylistic cues that had defined The Pointer Sisters as a quartet needed an overhaul. With Perry steering the direction of the group, there was ample room to establish a new sound and style. “We wanted a whole new image so that people wouldn’t miss Bonnie,” Ruth explains, “and they didn’t. We made a conscious effort to restructure and redevelop ourselves into something other than what they had remembered us for.” Under Richard Perry’s guidance, they became a commercial pop-rock act with the cream of Los Angeles studio musicians at their disposal.

Released in the autumn of 1978 on Richard Perry’s Planet imprint, Energy marked the first album in a ten-year partnership between Perry and The Pointer Sisters. Photographed in their street clothes by Jim Shea, the sisters resembled very little of their former selves. There was not a hint of nostalgia anywhere to be found on the album. It was a bold move that paid off. The group landed their highest-charted pop hit with a simmering cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire.” The single went gold and was followed up by a funky version of Allen Toussaint’s “Happiness.” Elsewhere, the Pointer Sisters perused the catalogs of Steely Dan, Sly & the Family Stone, and the Doobie Brothers.

Their follow up, Priority (1979) didn’t fare as well, despite strong cuts like “Blind Faith” and “(She’s Got) The Fever,” both sung by Ruth. (Ruth was particularly partial to performing the latter: “I used to really get into this song. I’d drop to my knees and be all on the floor.”) The album also contained a harder, bluesier rock edge than was typical for black female artists at that time in the late-70s. Matching a group like The Pointer Sisters with rock music was something of an anomaly and ultimately proved difficult for DJ’s to program.

Commensurate with the album’s rock quotient, The Pointer Sisters were photographed in a moody, black and white tone and stripped of any glamour. Yet, Priority remains one of Ruth’s favorite album covers. Looking at the back cover photograph, Ruth remembers the spontaneity of the session:

“Richard used to love the way we dressed just on the ‘natch. This is one of those times that we were just at rehearsal. He walked in and he said, ‘I like the way ya’ll look right now. Let’s do the album cover right now’. I was like, Oh my God, I HAVE NO HAIR! He said, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care. I want this picture, right here. Just come over here and sit on this box’. June’s like, Oh, Lord and me thinking, Does this really have to be the album cover? Anita’s trying to pull it together, look at her!” Ruth chortles, mimicking Anita’s poised pose.

Richard Perry shifted gears yet again on the next album, Special Things (1980). Instead of rock songwriters, he turned to some of the top pop tunesmiths of the day to furnish the material, including Bill Champlin, Carole Bayer Sager & Burt Bacharach, Tom Snow & Cynthia Weil. The hit streak that started with “Fire” continued when “He’s So Shy” hit the Top Five on the pop charts. “Anita and June had a little fight about that when Richard Perry gave ‘He’s So Shy’ to June,” Ruth says. “Anita was pissed. She wanted that song badly.” Though Anita didn’t get “He’s So Shy,” her voice fronted an even bigger hit when “Slow Hand” landed at number two the following year from their 1981 Black and White album. In just three years, The Pointer Sisters scored the biggest hits of their career but even greater success awaited them as 1982 gave way to 1983.

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 

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16 Dec 2007
Special Things marked the Pointer Sisters' third album with producer Richard Perry, who re-vamped the act after sister Bonnie left to pursue a solo career at Motown in 1978.
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