[5 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
”Girl, y’all just didn’t know what y’all had.”
Ruth Pointer is staring at the back cover image of That’s a Plenty (1974). The photograph depicts Ruth and her three sisters—Anita, June, and Bonnie Pointer—wearing vintage 1940s couture. Anita is seated on a Louis Vuitton trunk clutching a handkerchief, Bonnie flaunts a cigarette holder, and June unassumingly tucks her hand in her coat pocket. Ruth, the eldest of her sisters, stands in the middle of them all. She projects an effusiveness that remains vigorously alive decades after that photo session in San Francisco.
|Ruth Pointer on Ruth Pointer
“Going Down Slowly” (Steppin’, 1975) “We were just so pleased with Allen Toussaint’s style and since we had already established that as something we really liked and could relate to, we just thought we’d go with that for awhile. That’s how that song ended up on the album. We had met up with Allen Toussaint in New Orleans and thanked him for allowing us to record ‘Yes We Can, Can’. We just said, ‘Do you have another one?’ We really liked that mood”.
“Waiting on You” (Having a Party, 1977) “That’s one of the few songs that I kind of penned on my own. We were playing the Bottom Line in New York City and we were in the middle of a sound check. My sisters had left the stage and gone to the dressing room and I just remained onstage because the band was just jamming and the rhythm was so great. I remember coming up with lyrics because I was in a relationship where I was always waiting on the man. He’d say he was coming over and I was always waiting. Sometimes he’d show up and sometimes he wouldn’t!”
“Blind Faith” (Priority, 1979) “I love that shuffle. It’s just so funky. Lately the band has been working up that song so that we can do it live. I feel like the timing for it is so right. Now that we’ve gotten older, the lyrics are so relevant. My sister and I have grown so much as women. It’s like, glad I got through that period of my life because I’m a hell of a lot smarter now. I have a young daughter and I wish I could convince her that it is just blind faith. At that time, you don’t want to listen to anybody telling you that you’re going to be hurting”.
“I Feel For You” (So Excited, 1982) “Prince sent the song to us and we recorded it. I don’t know that we were always real happy with the way we recorded that song. We used to fight with Richard Perry a lot. He didn’t give us the freedom that we really wanted to have. Sometimes he turned us loose but a lot of times he held close reins on a song. He wanted to keep it close to the demo we heard. Even though it’s a good song, and a lot of people like it, that version is not one of my favorites…but I love Prince!”
“Automatic” (Break Out, 1983) “Ah, that is one of my favorite songs. We’d almost finished an album and were looking for another tune. We were sitting in a little tiny office on a break and, being the snoops that we are, decided to snoop around this person’s office because we knew that he was the one who was hording all the material. We heard this song and went, Whoa, this is a really cool song! When we told them that we wanted to do it, they said, ‘Well who’s going to do that low part?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’ll do the low part!’”
“Neutron Dance” (Break Out, 1983 and Beverly Hills Cop, 1984) “That’s still my rock-out song. When I first heard the song, I didn’t want to sing it. I liked the rhythm of the song but I wasn’t sure what Allee Willis, who is the songwriter, meant by ‘neutron’. To me it sounded like something violent. They said just trust us on this song and go ahead and do it. I decided to throw that gospel feel into it. I had no idea that the song would be as popular as it is. We were on the road with Lionel Richie when they used it in Beverly Hills Cop. We got to the last show in Hawaii and the movie hit. They said, ‘You got to put this song in, people are going crazy over it’. People started rushing the stage”.
“Don’t Walk Away” (Only Sisters Can Do That, 1993) “I was trying to get a solo project going. I just fell in love with the song and I recorded it by myself. That was during the time when my husband and I first met and started dating. He was in the studio with me while I was recording the solo project and he loved that song. He still has my original version that I recorded. The timing was not right for me to continue with the solo project. We were recording Only Sisters Can Do That and we needed another song. I felt pressure to give it up because I didn’t want it to be wasted. It was such a great song”.
That’s a Plenty is the second album in the deep discography of the Pointer Sisters. Released on Blue Thumb, it contained tunes by Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, a country ditty, and a sizzling Gamble & Huff number. Herbie Hancock and Bonnie Raitt were among the session players. In other words, this was not yet The Pointer Sisters of “Neutron Dance” and “I’m So Excited”. The Pointer Sisters were masters of vocalese ten years before their videos rotated regularly on MTV.
A twinkle appears inside Ruth Pointer’s eyes as she continues to examine that back cover photo captured by Herb Greene. So much has changed since then, perhaps everything except Ruth’s considerable talent and disarming demeanor. Seated on a plush couch in her spacious yet cozy home in Hopedale, MA, Ruth Pointer revisits the past and explains how The Pointer Sisters became the toast of the music industry and how, through both professional accolades and personal travails, the group has successfully endured since captivating the music industry 35 years ago with a sound, style, and attitude unlike any other group, before or since.
“When we were kids in Oakland…”
“...sitting on our daddy’s knees.” So begins the semi-autobiographical “Bangin’ on the Pipes”, the opening cut on That’s a Plenty. Reverends Elton and Sarah Pointer raised the four Pointer daughters in Oakland, California with two Pointer sons, Fritz and Aaron. On a Mike Douglas Show appearance from the mid-‘70s, Reverend Elton Pointer assured the show’s host that he never had any problems with his daughters.
For a group that became one of the most popular female outfits of all time, music did not figure too prominently in the their home life, save for their uncle who rehearsed male vocal groups at the Pointer house. The one radio the Pointers owned was played for news and, on Sundays before church, gospel music. Not until the family moved into a different part of Oakland did music provide the backdrop for the lives of Ruth, Anita, June, and Bonnie. Ruth recalls, “We moved into a predominantly white neighborhood. There was one other African American family that lived up the street from us. There were nine of them, seven of them were girls, and five of them sang together in their father’s church. They called themselves the Watson Sisters. We got very friendly with one another. I would run up to their house and they’d be rehearsing. I went back home and I told my sisters, ‘They calling theyselves the Watson Sisters. We could call ourselves the Pointer Sisters! We need to be singing too!’” However, it would take a few years of perseverance and some good ole right-place-at-the-right-time luck before Ruth and her three siblings actually became “The Pointer Sisters”.
The San Francisco Bay Area of the late-‘60s was home to one of the most fervent music scenes in the world by the time Bonnie and June Pointer frequented the most popular haunts and sang together using the moniker, “Pointers-A Pair”. While the two youngest sisters in the Pointer family gigged at small clubs in and around San Francisco, Ruth and Anita settled into domestic life, marrying and raising children shortly after graduating high school. Ruth brought in $400 a month working as a keypunch operator for the Folgers coffee company, Anita quit her job to join Bonnie and June, and—with that—the first incarnation of The Pointer Sisters was born.
Now a trio, The Pointer Sisters made an ill-fated trip to Houston in 1969. With no money and scant opportunities available, they contacted David Rubinson, an enterprising producer they’d heard about while gigging around San Francisco. Though they hadn’t actually met Rubinson, they asked if he would wire the money for return fare to California. Sensitive to their situation, Rubinson obliged. Upon their return, The Pointer Sisters met Rubinson, who was business partners with Fillmore West impresario Bill Graham. He signed them to a management contract and lined up session work with Bay-based artists like Sylvester, Taj Mahal, Boz Scaggs, Tower of Power, and Grace Slick.
Within a year, Jerry Wexler, then vice president at Atlantic, caught The Pointer Sisters backing Elvin Bishop at Whiskey A Go-Go. He signed the trio in 1971 and teamed them with Wardell Quezergue, who produced Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff”. The two singles released from the sessions fell short of Wexler’s commercial expectations and a full-length album never materialized. In truth, the sides didn’t really reflect the unique personality of The Pointer Sisters. One of the songs, “Don’t Try to Take the Fifth”, all too closely appropriated the sound of Honey Cone, another female group whose “Want Ads” was the hot flavor of the minute.
Shortly after their dismissal from Atlantic, The Pointer Sisters followed David Rubinson to his new production company, David Rubinson and Friends. They continued doing session work for west coast-based artists, including one woman whose impact would be loud and large before fading into obscurity. Years later, during a visit to Germany, Ruth Pointer found that artist’s debut album, the one sisters June and Anita sang on. “I passed by this record store,” she recalls, “and they had an album cover in the window—Betty Davis (1973). I said I cannot leave Germany without this record. I went and bought a phonograph at Restoration Hardware just so that I could play that album. I have it upstairs and every now and then I have to put it on and listen to it. I have thought, even lately, we should re-do ‘Steppin’ in Her I. Miller Shoes’. It’s such a hot song. Betty was ‘Sasha Fierce’ all the time!”
Lacking inhibition, The Pointer Sisters were also known to be pretty fierce themselves. “They would do things like just show up at people’s gigs,” Ruth explains. “My sister ended up on B.B. King’s lap one night onstage and I ended up onstage—and this is before I got with the group—with my sisters and Herbie Hancock and Elvin Bishop. We were just having fun. It was a good time.”
David Rubinson secured a legitimate record deal with The Pointers Sisters on Blue Thumb, a label founded by Bob Krasnow, Tommy LiPuma, and Don Graham. Ruth finally joined her sisters in 1973, shortly before recording dates commenced for their debut album. When asked what motivated her to join her sisters, Ruth is spiritedly blunt: “Money! Hey, I’m not going to lie.” There were more personal and pressing reasons that also influenced her decision. She was a single mom, for one. “I was working this keypunch job,” she explains. “I had two kids to support and no husband. I had one but he decided he didn’t want to be a husband anymore so he just left. I was really struggling, living in a housing project on welfare.”
Ruth was also familiar with her sisters’ set, since she stepped in for June on occasion. The youngest sister was battling her own personal issues. “June had a lot of problems with chemical dependency and depression,” Ruth says, her voice lowering.
“She was bi-polar. At that time, no one diagnosed those things. I know she had psychological issues from her past, things that she never talked about to anybody. She just sometimes didn’t want to deal, sometimes to the point where she would really be physically sick. My sisters would call me and say, ‘Could you come and fill in for June? She just can’t make it tonight.’ I would go and fill in for her. I would make $50 to $100 in one night. I started adding that up in my head and I said, Damn! If I could just make $100 in one night ... I was only bringing home $400 a month on this job, trying to take care of these two children I had. I thought, I love singing and it’s something that comes natural for me, so why not do what I love and get paid for it?”
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.
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Like its predecessor, That’s a Plenty immersed the Pointer Sisters in a variety of musical milieus, except pedal steel was now thrown in the mix of wah-wah guitar and upright bass. Inspired by James Taylor, Anita Pointer wrote and sang lead on “Fairytale,” a tearjerker of a song that packed an emotional punch as effectively as anything Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn recorded. David Rubinson spared no expense giving “Fairytale” the authentic country sound it merited. He arranged a recording session at Quadraphonic Studios in Nashville with musicians David Briggs (piano), Norbert Putnam (bass), Weldon Myrick (pedal steel guitar), Ken Buttrey (drums), Robert Thompson (acoustic guitar), and Norman Spicher (fiddle). With the soft twang of Anita’s voice capping off the production, “Fairytale” became a Top 40 country hit and was later covered by Elvis Presley. It also gave the Pointer Sisters another sizable pop hit (#13).
Country audiences took a shine to “Fairytale” and all four sisters were invited to perform the song at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. There was one caveat, however. “They didn’t know that we were black!,” Ruth exclaims. “Well, surprise, surprise! On the flight down, I think we were the only African Americans on the plane. When we got ready to get off the plane, there were cameras waiting for us. This woman turned around and said, ‘Who are y’all anyway?’ We told her who we were and she said, ‘Well if I’d-a known y’all was somebody I’d-a talked to ya!’”
The bewilderment of Nashville natives created a particularly demoralizing situation at a party thrown in honor of The Pointer Sisters and their hit single. Ruth remembers the night vividly:
“We show up in the car and as soon as we get out of the car, the people meeting us quickly take us around the back of the house. We go in through the kitchen and we’re waiting to make our big appearance in the front of the party. We can hear the party going on out there and we’re just in the back thinking, When are they going to come get us? All of a sudden our manager comes through the door and he says, ‘What are y’all doing back here?’ We said, ‘We’ve been waiting for somebody to come bring us into the party.’ He went and talked to some people and came back all red in the face, so mad. The next thing you know, they were escorting us out into the party. He told us afterwards, ‘They thought you were the help and that’s why they wanted you in the back.’”
Their Opry appearance was no less riddled with surprises. “When we actually did the performance at the Opry,” Ruth remembers, “people were actually yelling out loud, ‘I didn’t know them girls was black!’ from the audience. It was not done in a mean-spirited way. They would stand up and cheer in the middle of the song. That’s one thing I love about country people. They don’t wait for it to end!”
There was no second-guessing who won the award the Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group Grammy Awards at the Grammy Awards in 1975: The Pointer Sisters. With competitors like the Statler Brothers, Kris Kristofferson & Rita Coolidge, and Willie Nelson & Tracy Nelson, winning the Grammy for “Fairytale” was the ultimate validation of the Pointer Sisters’ masterful tackling of a genre not populated by many black artists.
The Pointer Sisters continued to storm across screens, stages, and airwaves throughout late-1974 and 1975. The double Live at the Opera House (1974) album remains the definitive document how they rendered their mesmerizing harmonies and scatting from the studio to concert halls. It remains an indispensable, awe-inspiring recording. They also continued to work with other artists, contributing background vocals to Bobby Womack’s Top Five R&B single, “Daylight.” They were ubiquitous on television as well, singing the “Pinball Count” song for the popular animated number sequence on Sesame Street (which now has, collectively, more than 3 million views on YouTube). “Anita and I brought our children to the session,” Ruth shares, “and they’re actually singing on that song. That song was very difficult to learn, the rhythm and the intonation of it. It’s not just a straightforward song. There are harmonies to it, you had modulations.”
Around that same time, The Pointer Sisters regularly appeared on Carol Burnett & Friends. They hammed it up with the show’s red-haired host, whether singing “Salt Peanuts” or playing Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters in a sketch entitled “Cinderella Gets It On.” They also learned an important lesson about wardrobe from one of the masters of sketch comedy. “We thought we were in a fashion show and couldn’t be seen in the same thing from show to show to show,” Ruth says about their concerts at that time. “We used to throw our jewelry out in the audience and after awhile we were like, This is really getting expensive. Not only that, people started asking us, ‘Can I have that bracelet?’ Carol was like, ‘You make a wardrobe set for the show and that’s what you wear. You have alternates but they’re always the same thing.’”
Viewers who caught The Pointer Sisters on Carol Burnett & Friends might have noticed that one sister was not present: June. The youngest Pointer continued to wrestle with private demons that hindered her consistent involvement with the group. Unlike the early days of the group, before Ruth joined, the Pointer Sisters now had national recognition, industry acclaim, and a reputation to uphold. On a dime, the group had to learn how to adjust the act without June. Ruth recalls one particular time when the group received an invitation to play Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas with Paul Anka, ultimately to the peril of the group’s relationship with critics. She says, “It was the first big engagement that we had ever been offered from a place like that. We showed up and June refused to come. We had to open without her. They slaughtered us in the review. It was a long time before we were ever invited back to Vegas. The day we were opening, we had to quickly change everything about our show.”
On record, however, the group could do no wrong. June participated in Steppin’ (1975), which featured a memorable cover in the shape of a Converse-style open-toed platform tap shoe, and sang a gorgeous rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Wanting Things.” The album gave the Pointer Sisters a chart-topping R&B single on their self-penned “How Long (Betcha’ Got a Chick on the Side)” (later covered by Queen Latifah in 2007), as well as a #20 R&B hit with another Allen Toussaint number, the eight-minute “Going Down Slowly”. Steppin’ further showcased a range of source material, including songs by Stevie Wonder (“Sleeping Alone”), Isaac Hayes (“Easy Days”), Taj Mahal (“Chainey Do”), and a medley in tribute to Duke Ellington.
The Pointer Sisters worked with producer Norman Whitfield the following year when they made their big-screen debut in Car Wash (1976). Written by Joel Schumacher, the film documented a day in the life of a LA car wash and featured an impressive cast, including George Carlin, Garrett Morris, Franklyn Ajaye, and Antonio Fargas. Vincent Canby of The New York Times hailed Car Wash as a “terrifically shrewd piece of movie-making.” The Pointer Sisters landed a part in the film through a friend of Ruth’s who was dating a guy that worked for Gibson & Stromberg. He had a hand in casting and producing Car Wash. With Ruth’s bold suggestion that they be written into the script, The Pointer Sisters appeared as The Wilson Sisters, four glamorous proselytizers who accompany the smooth-talking preacher “Daddy Rich,” played by Richard Pryor. They appear for a total of seven minutes in the movie, stepping out of a white stretch limousine at the car wash with Pryor to preach the gospel according to the Church of Divine Economic Spirituality.
“We had so much fun because everybody was just so free-spirited and so crazy,” Ruth says about the experience of working on the film. “The director, Michael Schulz, got technical when he had to but mostly we were just having a good time and Lord you know we had a good time in that limo! We had an urn with Rémy Martin and we were passing it around. When Richard came up through the sunroof, he said, ‘Now hold my legs ‘cause I might fall down when they make the curve.’”
The soundtrack to the movie was essentially a vehicle for Rose Royce save for The Pointer Sisters on the Whitfield-penned “You Gotta Believe,” which they performed during their scene in the movie. Though the song racked up another hit for the group, Ruth confesses that they really had their sights set on recording the theme song. She recalls, “We were in the studio doing ‘You Gotta Believe’ and Norman Whitfield introduced us to Rose Royce. They came in behind us doing the ‘Car Wash’ song. You know that’s supposed to be our song, the title track. I never will forget him yelling at the girl in the studio, ‘Why can’t you sing the song like The Pointer Sisters? Come on! Get some guts in the song!’” Ruth lets out a hearty howl at the memory.
Following the Car Wash album, The Pointer Sisters returned to the studio to record their fifth album for Blue Thumb, Having a Party (1977). Noticeably absent from the album was the nostalgic jazz sound that so defined their earlier work. Instead, David Rubinson had produced a contemporary R&B and funk album, injecting the material with the Pointer Sisters’ signature harmonies and boisterous energy. Blue Thumb, which had been purchased by ABC-Dunhill in late-1974, was practically non-existent by that point. Having a Party vanished without a life on the charts. Even though the album labored to find an audience, the music on Having a Party lived up to its title. The Pointer Sisters sound engaged with the material, including energetic leads by Anita on “I Need a Man” and “Baby Bring Your Sweet Stuff Home to Me” (co-written by Stevie Wonder) and Ruth on her self-penned “Waiting for You”.
When asked what the dynamic was like in the recording studio with her three sisters, Ruth takes a moment and exhales. Her voice breaks slightly when she answers, “It’s almost hard for me to talk about.” Tears well up in her eyes as she reflects on a moment in time that can never be recaptured. “It was fun,” she says simply. “We just had fun. We knew what the other one was going to sing. The only thing I guess we would fight about was who was going to sing lead,” Ruth says, letting out a full-throttled roar of laughter. “Everybody wanted to sing lead.”
The tension about lead parts was resolved, to a degree, and somewhat unexpectedly, when Bonnie Pointer announced that she was leaving the group to venture solo. “We were so pissed off,” Ruth says. Her departure left a void for many fans who appreciated the distinct personalities each sister brought to the group. “Bonnie’s always had a particular following. She was the spunkiest of us all, she was the shortest of us all. We would all be at the hotel asleep and Bonnie would be out in the street, partying with the fans. They loved them some Bonnie, honey!”
Bonnie Pointer signed with Motown in 1978 and released two self-titled albums. She scored a massive pop hit when she re-worked The Elgins’ “Heaven Must Have Sent You” into a dazzling disco showstopper. Her cheeky “Free Me From My Freedom/Tie Me to Tree (Handcuff Me)” also became an underground club favorite but her solo career fizzled as the commercial appeal of disco lost its luster with the record-buying public.
Suddenly, The Pointer Sisters had to forge ahead with a career minus one crucial member, a situation exacerbated by June’s hermetic involvement. They also started to realize how little they actually profited from their recording career ... and they got mad. “Back then everybody was getting ripped off one way or another,” Ruth says. “Older performers like The Temptations and Gladys Knight would talk to us and say you guys got to watch out for this, that and the other. All of a sudden, we just fired everybody! David Rubinson was so brokenhearted and upset with us but we were just so naïve and ignorant that we didn’t know anything else to do. We needed to stop and figure out what to do.” Their decision to start anew would make all the difference.
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.
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]