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.
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.
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.
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.