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Photo: Craig Bailey (Perspective Photo)

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Meeting Sylvester

There’s a passage where you write about meeting Sylvester for the first time. You also talk about certain perceptions of homosexuality as it relates to Christianity. You write: “It especially nauseates me when I hear that tired old raggedy-ass line, ‘Love the sinner, but hate the sin.’ It’s hypocritical and an ugly part of organized religion I don’t like and can’t abide by at all.” Where do you think that point of view stems from?

I think people are really ignorant and fearful of anything that’s different from them. It’s just like our experience as African Americans and black people. We haven’t done anything to anybody and yet when others see us they feel like they have to walk on the other side of the street. They have to watch us and guard us in a store.

A person’s sexuality has never been an issue for me. When I met Sylvester, there was just a whole lot of fun going on! (laughs) I have always been a fun fan.

Earlier, you mentioned the feeling of being numb. At the height of your drug addiction, you and your sisters were having some of your biggest success. Were you numb to that success as well?

I might have been numb to a lot of the parts of the success … but then maybe not. Success back then was not the way it is today. There were a few things that improved. I was able to buy my first house. I could buy nicer clothes. Other than that, there was not this sort of onslaught of publicity and paparazzi following you around, and stories about you on television. We didn’t have all that stuff going on.

Nowadays, fame itself is an addiction. I hear my girl Oprah say so many times, “People just want to matter”, they just want to know that they’re loved. Everybody loves that feeling, when you walk in a room and someone goes, “Oh look who’s here!” I heard Oprah say this on her television show, from something that I think Toni Morrison said, “When your child walks into the room, does your face light up?” I started practicing that with my twins. Now it’s a natural thing that I do. When they walk into the room, I just get this big old smile! You see girlfriends do it to each other. Right away you feel good that someone cares that you’re there. Children want to feel that way too.

Did you feel that the Pointer Sisters didn’t matter as much to the industry, even though you were having all of these hits?

I don’t think I felt like we mattered as much. My brother Fritz and I were talking the other day. He said, “Ruthie, we grew up in a home at a time when we were so sheltered. When we were grown and out of the house, we really weren’t ready for all of the things that were going to come at us from the outside world.” We really didn’t know how to defend ourselves because we had had no experience in people lying to us and people treating us badly.

We trusted everything. When people told us something, we thought that’s what they were going to do. When we got into these relationships, we trusted that we were going to live happily ever after like mom and dad did. We didn’t know that they were going to run out and cheat on us and not come home at night, and hit us in the head if we didn’t do what they wanted us to do.

Being thrown into the music business, people just say to you, “Oh you’re wonderful. You’re great. All you gotta do is keep singing those songs and we’ll take care of everything else for you.” We believed them …

In some of the conversations you and I have had over the years, we’ve talked about two artists that are sadly no longer with us, Donna Summer and Whitney Houston. In what ways could you identify with their journeys?

They both grew up in religious homes. You get this sense that everything will turn out all right, just trust in the Lord. As a young person, you really don’t know what that means. As young people, we took that literally. We didn’t think we had to do anything to look out for ourselves financially and emotionally, because God was looking and He would take care of it all.

There were no doctors or lawyers in our families that could teach us things about handling our business. White kids had lawyers, accountants, and doctors in their families. They’d teach you things to say when you went in to get medical attention. We didn’t have those kinds of luxuries in our families.

Yet the public thought you had this fabulous life. We heard your songs on the radio and we saw you on television but we weren’t necessarily thinking about the challenges you were facing in the industry.

Right. “Oh look at them, they’re having such a good ole time!” And we are. I guess it’s that balance that keeps me alive. I’ve heard so many life coaches and spiritual leaders say that the best way to get yourself out of a funk is to do something wonderful for someone else. I guess we, as performers, were doing that all the time. I’ve gone on that stage with burdens hanging over my heart and I get up there and sing those songs and watch someone else rejoice because of the song that I’m singing. I’m a different person when I come off that stage.

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Photo: Craig Bailey (Perspective Photo)

You ushered in 2016 with a performance in Atlantic City on New Year’s Eve. For many people, it was an evening of celebration but for you it was not. Your dear friend Natalie Cole passed away. How did you process the news of her passing?

Our stylist on the road, Cecile Parker, was Natalie’s best friend. Working with Cecile gave us an in to what was going on before we even got to Atlantic City for New Year’s Eve. Cecile and myself, and even sometimes Anita, were on the phone on a daily basis weeks ahead of New Year’s, getting reports of Natalie’s condition. We knew that the end was coming unless a miracle had happened.

That night in the dressing room, Cecile was getting calls from the hospital, from family members, just before it was time for us to go on. She and I were both in the dressing room crying and trying to hold each other up to the point where we said, “We know what’s coming but we need to turn these phones off right now so we can get through the show.” Cecile even said to me, “Let’s do this show for Natalie. She would want us to go on and do a great show.” She always loved seeing us perform. She’d come to Vegas and bring her son and come backstage. We’d scream and laugh with each other. When I was onstage I just gave a little shout out to Natalie and my baby sister, just kind of acknowledged both of them. After the show, we got the phone call that she had passed.

Your friendship with Natalie traced 40 years. What bonded you together as friends?

During the time when we got into the business back in the ’70s, everybody knew everybody. When there was a big event, everybody was there. You saw them. You’d run into them on the road, you’d run into them in the studios. Natalie, myself and my sisters, and Chaka Khan all did the Tokyo Music Festival. We won the top honors: Natalie first, the Pointer Sisters second, and Chaka third.

We were all just enjoying being in the business and knowing a lot of the same guys. I was dating Dennis Edwards at the time and Natalie would make comments to me about him because she knew him well too. There were rumors that maybe she was dating him, maybe he was seeing Aretha … all these rumors going around! I’m telling you, we are so lucky that there was no paparazzi back then!

We just had fun acknowledging one another along the way. She and I were pregnant at the same time, she with Robbie and me with Issa. I remember one particular day she and I got together and pigged out down at a restaurant in LA that served soul food. She and I pretty much made ourselves sick eating! We were pregnant and we thought we had all the right to eat everything we wanted.

I think it’s wonderful when artists can pay respect to each other while they’re still here. I loved how Nona Hendryx, Kathy Sledge, and Rochelle Fleming all applauded you during the “Bold Soul Sisters” panel discussion at the Apollo Theater after watching a video clip of you and your sisters performing “Cloudburst”. What did seeing that clip of “Cloudburst” evoke for you, in terms of the impact you, Anita, Bonnie, and June made when you first came on the scene in the ’70s?

We were just crazy! (laughs) I think we just enjoyed having learned that song because it was tough. I learned it from a 78 rpm record by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. Vinyl was fun, child! I woke up every morning and put that song on. You know how on the old record players, you could put the record on any speed that you wanted? I would slow the record down to learn “Cloudburst”. I’m learning the words that way so, once I learned them, all I had to do was sing the song faster” (sings) “I was blue and I was always wearing a frown …”

Over the years, Anita, Bonnie, and June each released a solo album but you didn’t. Why was there never a Ruth Pointer solo album?

I started a project before our last album that we did as sisters, Only Sisters Can Do That (1993). The Pointer Sisters project came up right in the middle of me doing my solo project. I had recorded a few songs with a couple of different producers, some in Nashville and some in Los Angeles. The Pointer Sisters were due to put out an album and they needed material. I gave up the song from my project that I thought was the best one, “Don’t Walk Away”.

That was another reason why I was adamant about doing my own personal book. I felt like everyone else has had a solo project out but me. Still So Excited! is going to be my solo project. That’s what my book represents.

Now, I do have different producers wanting to put some music out with me since this book is coming out. I’m glad that I’ve waited because I think that it’s a whole different flavor. I would have done something completely different had it materialized back at that time, before the twins were born. Now it can actually be a little more directly solo rather than something that’s just going to sound like the Pointer Sisters.

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Photo: Craig Bailey (Perspective Photo)

Last year, we lost Allen Toussaint, who was very significant in the career of the Pointer Sisters. You recorded songs of his like “Yes We Can Can”, “Going Down Slowly”, and “Happiness”. What do you think distinguished him as a songwriter?

From the material that I’ve always heard of Allen’s, he had his own style. It was kind of country, kind of blues, kind of pop, kind of R&B, all wrapped up into one. Not a lot of people that I heard before could do that kind of thing. Allen had that quality to sort of pull all of those elements together and make something really colorful with his music. I see that same quality in people like Chuck Berry and Al Green, those kind of artists that really come from the south, as far as their flavor goes.

When you and your sisters sang his songs, they became something else because you sang them in four-part harmony or, in the case of “Happiness”, three-part harmony. They’re distinctly Pointer Sisters yet still have the flavor of Allen Toussaint.

Every time I open the show with “Happiness”, those lyrics just resonate through my soul. Those are beautiful words. Listen to them: “Happiness, you’re full of sweet surprises … you fill my heart desire more. More, more. And more. And over and over again. Keep that goodness comin’!” Ah! I love it.

“Yes We Can Can” was the Pointer Sisters’ first major hit in 1973. All of these years later, what does the song mean to you?

Those lyrics are just so meaningful for any time in our history. “Now’s the time for all good men to get together with one another.” Please! Today! “We’ve got to iron out our problems and iron out our quarrels …” Oh, come on! “Try to find peace within without stepping on one another. Do respect the women of the world, remember you all had mothers. Make this land a better land than the world in which we live.” It don’t get no better than that!

The Pointer Sisters have a tour set for Australia from May through June. What inspires you to travel all the way to the other side of the world and go onstage?

The audience. I’m in awe that they show up, that they know how long we’ve been doing this and they still want to see us. I respect them so much. I enjoy singing these songs more than I ever have. The other side of it is, if I don’t do this, what am I gonna do? I’m not ready to just sit down somewhere in a rocker. I don’t want to work like I’m 25, but I still do enjoy getting dressed up, walking on that stage, hearing that applause, feeling that love, and getting that recognition that, through everything I’ve been through, I matter in this life. I matter to these people. These songs matter to these people. They hopefully are having somewhat of a better day because we sang these songs.

In 2015, you celebrated 30 years of sobriety. Looking back, what would you tell yourself in 1985?

I’ve heard the expression that getting sober is like peeling an onion. I thought that over a short of period of time I would get to the core of the onion. I didn’t realize that it’s an ongoing journey, all the time. You don’t graduate. I love that because every day feels like something new is going on in my search for knowledge about life. I have new insight about things that I thought I knew. I never could have predicted that back in 1985. I just want to live a life that has some meaning.

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