Fame, Faith, and a Meaningful Life: An Interview With Ruth Pointer
Why is Ruth Pointer so excited? Her new memoir celebrates three decades of sobriety and a lifetime of survival.
On 28 January 1985, the Pointer Sisters are nominated in two categories at the 12th Annual American Music Awards. They win both awards, "Favorite Black Group" and "Favorite Black Video-Group", conquering other contenders like the Jacksons, the Time, and Kool & the Gang. A month later, they'll win another pair of trophies at the Grammy Awards for "Automatic" and "Jump (For My Love)", two smashes off their blockbuster Break Out (1983) album. Amidst the group's career benchmarks, Ruth Pointer is celebrating something else: sobriety.
Only a year before, Pointer suffered a near-death bout of viral meningitis. Drug and alcohol abuse had compromised her immune system and she fell ill during a tour stop with her sisters in Atlantic City. She awoke in a hospital bed, surrounded by family members who wore dark sunglasses to mask an unending stream of tears. Watching her family grieve as she stood on the precipice of death prompted Pointer to foreswear substances and seek help through various 12-Step programs.
While 1985 marked the year Break Out was certified triple-platinum, it also marked the beginning of Ruth Pointer's successful path to recovery. The singer retraces her journey from drug addiction through 30 years of sobriety in Still So Excited!: My Life as a Pointer Sister (2016). She spares no details. Written in collaboration with Marshall Terrill, Pointer's autobiography is among the most candid accounts any artist or musician has penned about surviving the excesses of the record industry during the '70s and '80s
"Self-deception binds you to a spider web of excuses," Pointer writes in her introduction. "It chokes your humanity right out of your soul." Against many odds, Pointer untangled herself from that web. She married Michael Sayles in 1990, gave birth to twins in 1993, and has maintained an active touring itinerary as the Pointer Sisters continue to tour the globe more than 40 years after the release of their self-titled debut. Though Pointer's story has a happy ending, she's also lost loved ones along the way, including the death of "baby sister" June Pointer in 2006. As she explains in the book, her faith and spiritual practice have anchored her with a resilience to survive everything from personal travails to setbacks in the industry.
Parallel to Pointer's work on Still So Excited!, different outlets have spotlighted the musical legacy she created with her sisters Anita, June, and Bonnie, whether thrilling audiences with their scat singing on Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts", breaking ground as the first black vocal group to win a country Grammy Award ("Fairytale"), sharing the silver screen with Richard Pryor in Car Wash (1976), or staging a major comeback as a trio after their smoldering version of Bruce Springsteen's "Fire" reached number two on the Hot 100.
In March 2015, Billboard ranked the Pointer Sisters at number four on the magazine's "Top 10 Girl Groups of All Time" list, trailing just behind the Supremes, TLC, and Destiny's Child. Later that month, Pointer joined Nona Hendryx, Kathy Sledge, and Rochelle Fleming at the Apollo Theater for Apollo Education's Live Wire discussion series. They were interviewed for "Bold Soul Sisters", a panel that examined how female vocal groups like the Pointer Sisters, Labelle, Sister Sledge, and First Choice helped shape the musical landscape of the '70s. "There's more music in that one clip than a lot of people do in years," Hendryx remarked after the Apollo screened a vintage clip of the Pointer Sisters performing "Cloudburst" in 1974. Indeed, no other group has been able to duplicate or even imitate what the Pointer Sisters did behind a microphone.
Still So Excited! explores what Pointer endured off stage while she and her sisters made history. In honor of her book's release, the eldest Pointer Sister spoke with PopMatters about her recovery process, recently departed friends like Natalie Cole and Allen Toussaint, and lessons learned from her fascinating life in the footlights.
Still So Excited! is subtitled "My Life as a Pointer Sister", not "The Story of the Pointer Sisters", which is a very important distinction to make. You and your sisters all claim this legacy yet you each experienced it differently. What was the catalyst to tell your story versus the story of the group?
It was due to my recovery. The older I got, I just thought that the story should be told to give people hope. Since I've been free of substances for over 30 years now, the question about my recovery and addiction has been put to me in a few interviews. I'm very open about it. If my sisters and I were in an interview together, I could feel the tension of "Why do we have to talk about that?" There can still be a story of the group but that's not what I wanted to do.
Sometimes the strength of women in the music business is overlooked. There are probably more books about substance abuse and hardships about guys in bands than there are about females. I know Natalie Cole wrote a book about her addiction but nothing is really publicized a whole lot about women in the business and how we get exploited and manipulated.
Here we are single parents, many of us. We have children and we're in these relationships with men who control us. You're doing the best you can and you got to leave your babies with someone, either your parents or someone that you don't know. You get calls in the middle of the night that the baby's sick and you're on the road. Yet and still, we get up on that stage and try to make someone else have a good day. It's just kind of brushed off as "Well, that's just your life. We don't feel sorry for you. You're up there making millions of dollars and having everything done for you." It takes a lot to be up there.
Photo: Craig Bailey (Perspective Photo)
Your ghostwriter Marshall Terrill had previously interviewed you and several other artists for a book called Rock and a Heart Place (2015). How did you connect with Marshall, initially, and then decide to collaborate on your own book?
My husband brought the offer to me that Marshall was wondering if I would be interested in participating in Rock and a Heart Place. He said, "It's a Christian publication. They understand that you are a Christian and were wondering if you wanted to tell the story of your addiction and recovery and how you've evolved in your life." I said, "Sure. I'd love to tell it."
Marshall and I started talking for the short story in Rock and a Heart Place. He was telling me that there were so many similarities between my life and his life because he grew up in a Christian home in the midwest. His parents were very religious and strict. When I was talking to him about my childhood, he said all of the memories just came flooding back for him about his own childhood. We just hit it off like that. It built my trust in him.
Marshall said, "I know there's so much more to you than this little short story. I was wondering if you'd ever consider doing a book just on you." I had started one but it didn't go anywhere. He said, "If you would like to do a book, I could help you get it published." I said, "Well if you can get it done then let's do it!" He'd gone and done some research on my family. This man found out stuff about dad that we'd never heard! That impressed me, that he would go to that length to find out things about my ancestry.
What were some of those revelations?
The biggest thing for me was what I put in the book, that my dad had a relationship with this other woman before my mother. I'm not sure if they ever married because we never found a marriage certificate. My dad never talked about his life before my mom too much. This was new information. We were fascinated by it. My dad was 23 years older than my mom so we had to know that he was going to be in another relationship before my mother.
Photo: Craig Bailey (Perspective Photo)
Your parents were both ministers at Church of God in West Oakland, CA. What do you share in common with little Ruthie who used to sing in the choir with her younger sisters?
I share the mystery of my faith. It's a real deep-rooted mystery to me. I love studying it. I'm not a big person on organized religion, so to speak, but I love reading Bible stories and watching films and studies about ancient religious groups, what they did and how they suffered, stories about Jesus Christ as well as other prophets. I'm just soaking it all in and enjoying the evolution of how beliefs changed over centuries.
As a kid, my faith frightened me because I only had one story told to me over and over again: if you commit a sin you were going to burn in hell. That's what brought about my rebellion once I got into teenage years and early adulthood. I just started reaching and searching for other things to believe in.
I find it much more tolerable to believe in the mercy and the grace of trying to live a good and decent life. That means so much more to me than telling me, "If you dance, you're going to go to hell. If you wear lipstick, you're going to hell." I was so horrified by that for most of my childhood that I just didn't feel like I stood a chance on living any kind of decent life because I felt like I'm going to make mistakes.
Recently, I started to believe and know how much forgiveness there is in the universe and that I don't have to be perfect. That meant everything to me. It gave me a chance to lighten up on myself. I'm going to make mistakes, and it doesn't mean that I'm going to burn in hell just because I made an error or just because my thoughts aren't real pure today!
Photo: Craig Bailey (Perspective Photo)
In your introduction, you write something that’s very candid: “There are certain truths we must all face about ourselves, and sometimes you don't always like what you see when looking into the mirror. In my case, there were a lot of things I didn't like in that reflection. I would like to say that I saw a stranger, but what I saw was the true reflection of who I was. An alcoholic, a drug-addicted woman who thought more about getting high than her family.” It's one thing to think those words or say them in private to a friend but I'd imagine it takes some courage to actually write those thoughts down, knowing that the world will see them.
It was me reflecting on how I emotionally abandoned my children. I know people say all the time, "I have no regrets", but I do have regrets. Knowing what I know now, I would definitely have done it a different way. I would have loved to have known Faun and Malik, my two older children, more instead of just pushing them off to my mother and my first husband's family. I think they still suffer from that abandonment. My heart aches when I see them in pain, emotionally, wanting to know me more and we can't go back. Those were the things that made me look in the mirror and say, "You got to do something different, girl. You're just not owning up to your responsibility."
I realize now, having been in recovery for some time, that I was just overwhelmed and devastated by the events that had taken place in my life with that first marriage, being so young with children and I didn't know what to do with them. I really wanted to numb out and not have to think about what I was going to do and how I was going to parent. I wasn't ready. I didn't even realize at the time that I was numbing out. I was thinking I was doing the best I could, shoving them off to somebody who would take care of them. As long as I was paying the bills, why should anybody complain? It really didn't occur to me at the time that they were being deprived of being taught little things or getting to know me as a mother.
I really see it so much having raised my twins, Conor and Ali, in the house since I've been an older woman and a sober woman. Every single day that I live and breathe around them, they are watching me. That kind of thought never occurred to me back in 1965. I was just so young and naive. That's what brought on that comment in the introduction.
Right from the start of your book, it's immediately apparent that you're going to tell your story uncensored. In what ways did you prepare your youngest children for what they may not have known about your life?
I had never really talked to my twins about my previous relationships. I had never really extensively gotten into any conversations with them about substance abuse. It had been casually mentioned. My son, in particular, had asked me about certain drugs, and had I used anything, but I never went into detail about it. I think that my fear was that he would think, Well mom used cocaine and she's okay. I know that kids his age are trying things. I was so afraid that he'd have the feeling of, It's okay to try it and I won't be addicted, which a lot of people think. I just thought, When I get ready to write the book, then I'll sit them down and explain to them what they're getting ready to find out about me.
I sat them both down and said, "You're going to read some things that you probably have never heard about me before and I'm just going to tell you now before your friends start asking you about it. I hope it's not going to be embarrassing for you." They're reading the book now. As a matter of fact, my son just came in here a little while ago and he said, "Mom I'm still reading the book. I love the way it's written because I can hear you talking. I can hear you actually saying those words." That makes me glad because that's exactly the effect that I wanted the book to have.