Still So Excited: An Interview with Ruth Pointer
From Continental Baths to Car Wash, from the Grand Ole Opry to the Grammys, the Pointer Sisters have blazed many trails in their 35-year career. In a candid interview, Ruth Pointer reveals the story behind one of the most successful female groups of all time.
"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?"