pointer sisters black and white

1981’s ‘Black & White’ Shows the Pointer Sisters’ Lasting Influence

Forty years later, Black & White is still an indispensable Pointer Sisters album. Their versatility is their biggest triumph and the cherry on top of their quality repertoire.

Black & White
Pointer Sisters
Planet
12 June 1981

Family acts have often produced some of the most stable and successful artists in the music business, such as the Jackson 5 (USA), the Bee Gees (Australia), and Sandy e Junior (Brasil). Family was also the foundation for some of the first names in pop music, like the Hamilton Sisters and several other doo-wop acts.

Another name that must be highlighted is the Pointer Sisters. Not only are they one of the most long-standing groups in the American music scene, but they also immortalized themselves in the history of many music genres via songs such as “Fairy Tale” (1974), “Fire” (1978), “He’s So Shy” (1980), and “I’m So Excited” (1982). If that weren’t enough, the ensemble was a powerful underlying presence in important discussions that would, in many ways, shape the directions for Black artists and women in the music industry overall (from issues such as the categorization of Black artists into music genres to overarching female sexual agency). Even their lyrical approach was somewhat influential for consolidating pop music as a tool for message delivery.

When the Pointer Sisters (then consisting of Anita, June, and Ruth Pointer) released Black & White (1981), they had nothing to prove anymore since they already had seven studio albums, one live album, one Grammy Award, and several hits to their name. Black & White was received as a record on which the group embraced a more “pop” sound, so the key canonic signatures of genres like soul, rock’n’roll, and country (all of which had been explored on their previous collections) had a smaller presence. 

Be that as it may, Black & White still has a wide range in its sound, ranging from the Latin percussions of “Sweet Lover Man” (courtesy of Brazilian instrumentist Paulinho da Costa, the mastermind behind the percussions & naming of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita”, as well as a former player for Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and Aretha Franklin) and the rock of “Fall in Love Again”, to the funky grooves of “What a Surprise” and the doo-wop structure of “Should I Do It”. Black & White is also the record on which the Pointer Sisters deliver some of their best ballads and love songs: “Someday We’ll Be Together”, “Got to Find Love”, and, of course, “Slow Hand”, the group’s biggest hit since “Fire” (1978).

The sultry “Slow Hand” alone is reason enough for Black & White to be considered essential in the discography of the Pointer Sisters. They sing openly and elegantly about their desire for a (male) lover “who would spend some time / Not come and go in a heated rush”. Like Madonna’s “Crazy for You” (1985), the lyrics of “Slow Hand” were penned by awarded lyricist John Betti; written being a man, it benefited from being recorded and performed by women. When Anita Pointer sings, “I want somebody who will understand”, it’s no small deal; after all, it was rare (especially around this time) for a female artist to speak of sexual foreplay in such a direct, yet not necessarily explicit, way. It’s one of the most sensual pop songs of all time (regardless of gender), but it made a difference that women were singing it.

You can’t say that “Slow Hand” first being recorded by a female group is irrelevant. However, in the space of one year after its release, it was recorded by not one but two male singers: Del Reeve in 1981 and Conway Twitty in 1982 (the latter would even top the Hot Country Songs Billboard chart in the week of June 26th). Unsurprisingly, both country singers adjusted the lyrics so they could sing from a male point of view; it’s not that such covers stamped “male validation” on the song, but rather that the chronology of the releases makes it feel like is as if women expressed what they wanted from men and were heard. It may look like the bare minimum, but that hasn’t always been the standard— and unfortunately, to some degree, it’s still not.

As Reeves and Twitty’s covers proved, “Slow Hand” already carried a slight infusion of country music. The Pointer Sisters’ history with the genre dates back to their childhood in Arkansas, when their parents would listen to country radio stations and expose their daughters to artists like Willie Nelson and Hank Williams. 

But, less natural than how country music would imbue the sisters’ musicality was the reception they’d have for inserting their black voices in that scene. They were the first women of color to ever perform on the traditional Nashville show Grand Ole Opry (in 1974), but that didn’t come without shock from the show’s organizers and audience. “They didn’t know that we were black!”, Ruth Pointer told PopMatters in 2009. In Nashville, the sisters were even ignored by reporters and mistaken for servants in events. In the Nashville music scene, it seemed hard to believe that a group of Black girls could be country stars (or stars at all). Despite that, “Fairy Tale” (1974), their most country song thus far and maybe ever, got the Pointer Sisters a Grammy Award for Country and Western Vocal Performance Group or Duo that same year.

Almost 50 years later, the Pointer Sisters’ embracement of country music and acknowledgment by the country music community rings particularly special, as instances like the young Black rapper Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” (2019) being pulled from the Billboard country charts while kept at the R&B/Hip Hop charts are still in fresh in our minds. “Slow Hand” is more R&B than country. Still, you can feel the influence of country in the composition of the hook in the song’s introduction and in its storytelling format, which (according to Anita Pointer herself) is one of the genre traits that really resonated with her. 

Speaking of Black & White‘s lyrical content, we must acknowledge how “We’re Gonna Make It” fits into the landscape of the Pointer Sisters’ messagery from songs such as “Yes We Can Can”, the first track off of 1973’s self-titled debut album. “We’re Gonna Make It” was co-written by Anita and June Pointer, alongside David Foster and Mike Cotten. Production, composition, and lyric-wise, it’s not aged as well as some of the LP’s other tracks; yet, if lyrics like “Trust your heart / Hold on to your dreams and don’t let go” sound cliché and even childish 40 years later, it’s only because— from literature to film to marketing—such optimistic, heart over mind messages were quite acutely commandeered by corporations and media companies like Disney. That’s not to say that the opposite would be preferable, but the saturation of the theme doesn’t take away from the meaning of its presence in the Pointer Sisters’ body of work. 

Like musicologist Professor Tammy Kernodle writes in her stellar essay for NPR (2021), the Pointer Sisters were somewhat pioneers of “a new type of protest music—the message song”. Kernodle continues: “It is not surprising that the Pointer Sisters’ early albums would include message songs that aligned them with the liberation ideology and movement culture of the 1970s”. While “We’re Gonna Make It” is not as direct or ideology-infused as “Yes We Can Can” (whose lyrics included callouts such as: “do respect the women of the world / Remember you all have mothers”), it is just as positive. It’s a call to stay, or at least become, hopeful. 

Such joyful appeal is a big part of how the Pointer Sisters fit into the sociopolitical conversations and impacts of music genres and cultural movements led by minoritized groups like Black people (and Black women specifically). After all, black joy is a form of resistance. “The whole idea of oppression is to keep people down”, says African American studies professor Mei-Ling Malone, “so when people continue to shine and live fully, it is resistance in the context of our white supremacist world”. 

That joy resonates with other minoritized groups as well. A particularly interesting comment by user Charles Rossi in a Youtube upload of the Pointer Sisters’ 1985 concert in Paris says: “You know you’re a diva when you have a large gay following, just look at all the gay men”. The comment refers to the men (or people perceived as men) in the audience who were gleefully dancing and clapping to the upbeat songs and screaming with joy whenever the Sisters would hit high notes or other impressive vocal moments. Although the excitement from the men in the audience can not necessarily be linked with sexual orientation, there’s some truth to how the Pointer Sisters’ music and performance can provide some sort of liberation and carefreeness for anyone.

The versatility of the Pointer Sisters is perhaps their biggest triumph and the cherry on top of their quality repertoire. Rock, doo-wop, country, R&B, soul, blues, disco, and dance music: they’d done it all and done it all well. But, their legacy is also one of sociocultural and political significance, even through small details. Albums like Black & White remind us of all of that.

Of course, the future would have more in store for the Pointer Sisters. Pivotal moments of their history, like their first multi-platinum album (1983’s Break Out) and two more Grammy Awards in 1985—Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for “Jump” and Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or More Voices for “Automatic”)—were yet to come. Still, 40 years after its release, Black & White remains an indispensable Pointer Sisters album.


Works Cited

Billboard. HOT COUNTRY SONGS – The week of June 26, 1982.

Cruz, Felipe Branco. (2015, April 4). Paulinho da Costa, o Brasileiro que Tocou com Michael Jackson e Madonna. UOL.

Discogs. Pointer Sisters – Black & White.

Kernodle, Tammy. (2021, February 10). The Hidden Legacy Of The Pointer Sisters, Genre-Busting Pioneers Of Message Music. NPR.

Laver, Mark. (2019, June 20). Lil Nas X and the Continued Segregation of Country Music. The Washington Post.

Pham, Kim. (2021, February 1).  Celebrating Black Joy as an Alternative Form of Resistance and Reclaiming of Humanity. Voice of OC.

Wikane, Christian John. (2009, March 5). Still So Excited: An Interview with Ruth Pointer. PopMatters.

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