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Break Out and Break Down

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Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Between 1983 and 1985, the likelihood that a Pointer Sisters song was playing on a radio station at any given moment was absolutely certain. In the age when an album could spawn up to five hit singles, The Pointer Sisters were a major force. It all changed with one album: Break Out (1983).

Synthesizers and keyboard programming became more prominent on the Pointer Sisters’ albums in the early-‘80s, most noticeably with So Excited! (1982). A track like “If You Wanna Get Back Your Lady” was ideal club for club play and provided DJ’s a deep album cut the way “Love in Them There Hills” serviced their turntables in the ‘70s. On Break Out, Richard Perry worked with a team of associate producers, programmers, and engineers to give the songs a sleek, urban and club-ready feel.

The methodology paid off in lucrative dividends. Break Out kept the Pointer Sisters on the pop singles chart for two years with “Automatic,” “I Need You,” “Jump (For My Love),” “Neutron Dance,” “Baby Come and Get It,” and a remixed version of their 1982 hit “I’m So Excited”. The album itself sold more than three million copies. The industry awarded the Pointer Sisters three American Music Awards and two Grammy Awards: Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or More Voices (“Automatic”) and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (“Jump (For My Love)”).

While the Pointer Sisters were hitting career peaks, its individual members were facing the reality of an industry known for its excesses. It’s been more than 20 years since Ruth Pointer last touched drugs and alcohol. In discussing that time of her life, Ruth is admirably candid about how her addictions took hold, particularly with cocaine:

“You’d go to a restaurant or a club and a bowl of cocaine would come around, just like they pass bread around as an appetizer. We just got totally wound up in it, never totally realizing that it was an addictive substance. Back then, people told you, ‘This is not addictive, you can’t get addicted to this. This is better than alcohol. Don’t drink, do this’. Plus, it was good for keeping the weight down, so that was my new diet. I felt like I could eat all I wanted and not worry about it. It was a crazy time.”

Not only did Ruth have to confront her own drug addiction but also the habits of her two eldest children. She explains, “I would come off the road and my kids would be in my condominium that I had at the time. The house would be a mess. They were a mess, laid all out around the house. My things would have been broken into. My jewelry stolen, pawned.  They were doing whatever they had to do to get these drugs.”

While the Pointer Sisters were on tour in 1984, Ruth faced a shattering realization about the damage the drugs had done to her immune system. To hear Ruth recount the story, it is a miracle that she lived:

“I was on the road in Atlantic City and I got sick. We had to cancel the show, which was really not ordinary for us. We’d have to be near death’s door for us to cancel ... and I was. I had viral meningitis and there was nothing they could do. They put me in the hospital in Chicago, which was the next place we went to, because I’m thinking, That’s our next engagement so maybe I’ll get better in a couple of days.  No! The doctors looked me right in my face and they said, ‘Whatever lifestyle you’re living right now needs to change because you’re not going to be here very long.’  They did all sorts of things, like spinals. I couldn’t open my eyes. The room had to stay dark and finally when I did open my eyes, my family was standing around the bed with sunglasses on because they’d been crying—my baby Issa, who was six years old at the time, my mother, my two brothers. They had me on morphine and demerol because the pain in my head was so bad. I was transferred to UC Medical Center in Los Angeles and I had to be there for another week. I remember them taking an ad out in Billboard wishing me a speedy recovery on a whole page. I thought, ‘They think I’m going to check out.’ I don’t know what happened but God and his mercy somehow turned things around in my body and gave me a desire to want to live. I recovered from that.”

The Contact (1985) album, which followed the blockbuster success of Break Out, gave a clue about the ordeal. In the liner notes, Ruth dedicated a third of her “thank you”‘s to hospitals, doctors, and medical staff.

Her near-death experience prompted a drastic change. “I started being as diligent about recovering and getting healthy as I had been about doing those drugs,” Ruth says. “I was like a preaching, crazy person in the dressing room and everywhere around me: ‘Get those cigarettes out of here. I don’t want to see no liquor!’” A friend of hers suggested she join Narconon while her children encouraged her to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. “‘Lo and behold,” Ruth remembers, “everybody I knew was in the room. All my friends were there and it became a social experience. Los Angeles has a huge recovery following when it comes to AA meetings.  I just started doing things that I thought my kids should be proud of and still do.”

With recovery underway, Ruth approached her career with a clearer mind. By the time The Pointer Sisters scored a hit with the June-led “Dare Me,” and the accompanying video that depicted them disguised as men in a male locker room, Richard Perry had engineered a new record deal with RCA Records. Contact earned The Pointer Sisters a platinum album but radio was less receptive to the singles. Hot Together (1986) and Serious Slammin’ (1988) were comparatively poorer sellers.

RCA did little to support its R&B roster and other acts like Diana Ross and Nona Hendryx were similarly shortchanged. Radio and TV were overcrowded with a younger generation of singers. Artists like Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson now occupied the territory previously held by the Pointer Sisters. Appearances on The Tonight Show held little sway anymore (they appeared three times to promote Hot Together) and record sales dwindled. RCA clearly had other priorities.

“We were getting angry again,” Ruth says about the label’s lack of promotional effort. “We’d be out there working our butts off, doing all these interviews and television shows, traveling all over Europe and Asia, come back home, and no product would be on the radio. We had asked one record company president—I won’t mention his name - point blank, ‘Why did you just drop the ball on our record?’ He said, ‘You know, I never liked you guys anyway’ right to our face. I said, ‘OK, we can leave now.’”

Without a long-term record deal in place, the Pointer Sisters recorded one-off albums for Motown (Right Rhythm, 1990) and the short-lived SBK label (Only Sisters Can Do That, 1993) while each sister worked on individual solo projects. 1993 and 1994 brought a spate of celebrations honoring the 20th anniversary of the Pointer Sisters’ career.  They were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and inducted into the Soul Train Hall of Fame. The following year, they returned to their jazz roots with a fully staged production of Ain’t Misbehavin’. The accompanying cast recording was the last full-length album Ruth and Anita recorded with June.

The Legacy Continues

Sadly, the early years of the new millennium ended an era. The untimely passing of Anita’s daughter, Jada, in 2003 was the first of two tragedies the family survived. Then in April 2006, June Pointer, the “baby sister” who sang some of the group’s biggest hits, passed away from cancer at the age of 52. To say that the loss of June was tough for the family is an understatement. “I never saw my brothers cry so hard,” Ruth says about June’s death.

“We knew it was coming. They called us on the road and said, ‘We think you got to get back home’. June was already in hospice. Anita and I had spent a lot of time with her at the UC Medical Center even before then. We would go up there everyday and we would bathe her. We were going over all her scans with the doctors. We were just basically taking care of her. She couldn’t talk anymore. We just played music in her room and made sure that she was surrounded by things that she loved. She loved incense and things that smelled good so we’d bathe her and lotion her down. Her body was still flawless. She would always mouth, ‘I love you’. She was such a sweetie.

“When the doctor came in and told us that he thought she only had a few minutes, I asked him if I could get in bed with her and so I did. I just climbed up in bed and just held onto her and sang ‘Fire’. She just seemed really, really relaxed at that point because I remember her just going ‘ahh’. Anita came over and got on the other side. That’s how June went. I will always forever be so grateful that I had the courage to do that. When I think about my baby sister, I think I did the right thing in sending her off the right way and with a lot of love. We put both June and Jada’s ashes together in the grave with my mom, ‘Okay mom, you get them back.’”

Since June’s passing, many listeners wonder if Bonnie Pointer will return to the group. Ruth says she often thinks about reuniting with Bonnie but a few obstacles hinder the reunion. “Bonnie is difficult because she’s still in the stages of chemical dependency,” Ruth says pensively. “I would love to do something with her but we don’t have a lot of tolerance for craziness or drama. We had enough problems with her when she was with us, to the point where sometimes it would almost come to blows onstage, because she would just want the whole stage for herself. Anita and I are very respectful of each other.” Until then, audience members will ask, as they invariably do, “Where’s Bonnie?”

Sitting on her couch, surrounded by photos of her family, Ruth is visibly content. Married to her husband, Michael, since 1990, Ruth is also the mother of 15 year-old twins, Conor and Ali. She’s enjoying the stability of a home life that always seemed to elude her in the past. Still, she relishes the experience of performing. “I love performing probably more today than I did back then,” she exclaims. “I’m having a good time, and the audience is loving it.”

Ruth and Anita continue to carry on the legacy of The Pointer Sisters with Ruth’s third eldest child, Issa, singing many of June’s parts. The three re-recorded many of their most popular songs on their self-released and distributed Favorites (2008).  Ruth maintains that she would love to record new material, either by herself or with Anita and Issa, if the terms were fair. “I would love to do a project,” she says, “but I just don’t quite know how to go about getting it done. The only way I think I would consider doing something like that was if I could just record a solo album on my own and put it out online. If a record company chose to pick it up and give me a reasonable deal, then fine. We are ready to rock! They just need to call us up!”

As our conversation closes, Ruth escorts me to her office where shelves of Grammy Awards, American Music Awards, MTV Awards, and numerous other trophies are displayed. The room holds a lifetime’s worth of achievements and at its center is Ruth, proud yet humble, and still so excited to entertain three generations of audiences after four decades in the business. “It’s been a great life,” she says smiling, “and still is.” Reflecting on the past 35 years, a long way from “Salt Peanuts” and thrift-store threads, Ruth Pointer finally knows what it is that she and her sisters had.

The Pointer Sisters - Cloudburst [TV Rehearsal]

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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