Wednesday, 4 March 2020. It’s Motown night at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar, New York City. The club has a surprise for Ruth Pointer, whose birthday is two weeks away. Valerie Simpson has ordered a special cake for Pointer to get the celebration started early. The evening’s co-hosts call Pointer to the stage while the band plays Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday”. Camera phones illuminate the singer from all angles as she blows out the birthday candles. Her smile casts an incandescent glow.
There’s some extra star power in the house. Cyndi Lauper crosses the room and greets Pointer at her table. “It’s so good to see you!” she exclaims — 35 years earlier, almost to the exact night, both Lauper and Pointer triumphed at the GRAMMY Awards. Their warm embrace is one of sisterhood and a mutual, unspoken understanding shared by those who’ve survived decades in the music industry with their talent and integrity intact.
Lauper is among several artists who wish Pointer well as the evening continues. Singer-songwriter Jessie J, original Ikette Joshie Jo Armstead, and former Late Show with David Letterman guitarist Felicia Collins all greet Pointer with hugs. The gathering spans generations of musicians who are unified in their respect for Pointer and the legacy she shares with her sisters Anita, June, and Bonnie. One of the Sugar Bar’s featured singers even weaves a little “You Gotta Believe” into the evening’s repertoire, paying homage to the Pointer Sisters’ performance in Michael Schultz‘s 1976 film, Car Wash.
Months later, New York looks quite different from Pointer’s visit in March, when she could dine in the opulence of Chez Josephine or meet James Harkness [Paul Williams], Saint Aubyn [Dennis Edwards], and other cast members from the Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations backstage without the threat of COVID-19. Pointer has since endured personal tragedy, as well. Her sister Bonnie Pointer passed away on 8 June, just a few weeks before her 70th birthday.
“It was a surprise when it happened,” Pointer says. “I feel sad about it. As Anita has said so many times, there probably would have never been a Pointer Sisters had it not been for Bonnie. I can agree with that. She just jumped out there and ran with it. She was gracious enough to let me climb onboard and I’ll be forever grateful to her. I honor Bonnie’s contribution to the music world.”
Though Bonnie, June, and Anita had released a couple of singles as the Pointer Sisters on Atlantic Records in the early-’70s, it’s the classic quartet configuration with Ruth that introduced the group’s astounding four-part harmonies to the world in 1973 on their self-titled debut for Blue Thumb Records. “My voice and Bonnie’s voice were the lowest range,” says Pointer. “Bonnie’s voice was just a little above mine. It was always very unique how the blend would come in — June being on top, then Anita, then Bonnie, then me. I don’t even remember how we figured out the harmonies but someone had to double the other.”
The Pointer Sisters climbed the charts with “Yes We Can Can” and broke barriers as the first Black female group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and the first Black group to win a country GRAMMY for a song that Anita and Bonnie wrote called “Fairytale”, subsequently covered by Elvis Presley. Their recordings of “Salt Peanuts”,”Cloudburst”, and “Little Pony” evidenced a mastery of jazz that was completely innate and distinguished them from their peers.
The group’s remarkable vocal interplay, ’40s-themed attire, and vivacious personalities made them staples of network variety shows in the ’70s, including programs by Cher, Flip Wilson, and the Queen of them all — Carol Burnett. “I always loved having the Pointer Sisters on my show, not only because they were brilliant musically, but they could be equally great in sketches,” says Burnett. “What fun we had when they played the evil step-sisters in our original musical version of ‘Cinderella’ called ‘Cinderella Gets it On’. There were several other musical sketches they were in, and they always delivered the goods! I also had the pleasure of working with them along with Tim Conway, one summer at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe. Wonderful memories!”
The Pointer Sisters nearly disbanded for good after Bonnie left in 1976 to pursue a solo career, but Ruth and Anita’s perseverance led them to producer Richard Perry, who signed them to his new label, Planet Records. They convinced June to return and relaunched the Pointer Sisters as a trio. Energy (1978), their first album produced by Perry, also yielded their first gold-selling single “Fire” and sparked a ten-year run of hits.
Whether covering Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work”, the Rolling Stones’ “Happy”, or Prince’s “I Feel for You”, they excelled in their versatility, but it was their sixth Planet album Break Out (1983) that powered them to multi-platinum levels of commercial success. The album’s stylish blend of pop, R&B, and dance dominated the charts for two consecutive years, winning GRAMMY Awards for “Jump (For My Love)” and “Automatic”. Its impact was far-reaching. To this day, London-based dance artist Le Flex credits Break Out for his career in music. “I knew from listening to that album what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he says. “It was that important. I thought, I need to learn how to do that and that’s what I’m gong to do.”
Photo: © Sekou Luke Studio
Featuring Ruth Pointer’s distinctive lead vocal, “Automatic” still sounds fresh and has continued to find new fans, especially after Jennifer Lewis’ character on Black-ish declared it the “greatest song ever made”. “I actually called her up after that,” says Pointer. “I ran into Jennifer at a Starbucks down in the Valley one time and she was telling me what a fan she was. She’s such a wonderful character.” In recent years, Pointer’s daughter Issa and granddaughter Sadako have joined her on the road, introducing all the Pointer Sisters’ classic hits to a new generation of listeners.
Music legends who’ve worked with the Pointer Sisters readily attest to the singularity of the group’s talent. “The ladies have always been favorites of mine as they have always displayed the kind of unique talent that is missing today,” says Dionne Warwick. “I remember the first time I saw them perform in Florida and had the pleasure of singing with them on Solid Gold! A pure treat for me. Friendships will always be a constant with me and I thank them for allowing me to say they are my Friends. My sincere condolences for their great loss [Bonnie]. Hoping health and staying safe is surrounding the family!”
Few artists bring joy, wisdom, and effervescence to every conversation but Ruth Pointer is exceptional. In her new interview with PopMatters, she reflects on moments from the Pointer Sisters’ multi-faceted career, celebrates some of the icons who’ve worked with the group, and shares some of the more personal challenges she’s overcome in committing to more than three decades of sobriety.
Ruth, let’s start with fashion. It just so happens that we’re both wearing Norma Kamali today.
Yes! Thank you Norma!
There’s an exhibit about Studio 54 slated to open at the Brooklyn Museum later this summer that spotlights some of Norma Kamali’s fashions, which really defined that era. How did you become introduced to Norma’s style?
I don’t recall how I was introduced to her style. I just know that every time we would come to New York, we would end up at that store. She would lock the door and it would just be Pointer Sisters and Norma in there shopping. Each one of us would come out with a rack full of clothes.
Her things are forever lasting. Her fabrics are wonderful. They don’t wrinkle. They have just enough stretch in them. They’re timeless. Every now and then she’ll throw in a little modern day something or other but basically she’s very traditional in her styling, in a way that fits today. I don’t know anybody who does that like she does. Norma’s my girl.
Let’s look at the Break Out (1983) cover. It was constantly on display in record shops because of all the hits off that album. Describe the style of clothing that you, Anita, and June are wearing on the cover.
Kind of avant garde, a little chic, and a little hippie-ish. It’s a combination of a whole lot of stuff. It’s so interesting. Nobody was doing that back then at the time. When we saw this style, we thought, Oh yeah! We’re all over that!
Then you’re wearing these square-shaped pink earrings, which really pop!
Child, I never noticed those earrings. Isn’t that crazy? Wow. I was always all about the shoes. The shoes were what I loved. Have you seen the shoes we were wearing on this? I love those shoes … that kind of netting. I don’t remember where the store was in LA but we always had a lot of fun shopping and dressing with [producer] Richard Perry because he loved fashion too. He would take us to these boutiques and things that we didn’t even know about and this was one of them.
The cover of your book Still So Excited (2016) features an outtake from that photo session. In your book, you wrote at length about your marriage to Dennis Edwards, who passed away in 2018. When did you first meet Dennis?
We were doing a Flip Wilson show in Burbank. My sisters and I, all four of us, were rehearsing in a rehearsal hall. All of a sudden, we hear this Temptations song coming from somewhere else and we were like, “Wait a minute. Are the Temptations here?” They said, “Yeah, they’re in the other rehearsal hall over there.”
We just lost our minds and we asked if we could go and meet them. We went over to the other rehearsal hall to meet the Temps and we were all excited and bubbly, like groupies. I asked Dennis for his autograph. It was the first autograph I ever got in my life.
Shortly thereafter they booked us to open for the Temps. We opened for them at the Amphitheater in Los Angeles and we did a couple of other dates with them. I remember one in Kansas City and a couple of other places where we opened for the Temps … and Dennis and I struck up a little relationship! [laughs]
I think he came to my sisters and my dressing room one night, and kissed me just randomly. He asked me to wait for him after the show. And of course I said, “OK!” and waited for him after the show. We spent the night together and that was that famous night where I asked him if he would mind if I took my wig off and get comfortable and he said, “Not if you don’t mind if I take mine off!” [laughs]
We just kind of continued our relationship. I was still living in the San Francisco area and he was living in Los Angeles. I was still married to my second husband! I was bad. I would come down to see him and he would come up in the Bay Area, actually working. They were performing at the Circle Star. I was going, hanging out with him. It just kind of continued on from there.
I know one of your favorite Temptations songs that features Dennis on lead is “Mary Ann”. How did that song represent his talent as a vocalist?
Just his vocal range because he went from singing that roughness that he had in his voice all the way to an almost Eddie Kendricks falsetto in that song. Have you ever heard that song? That song can take you to a whole ‘nother place. It’s so beautiful. Dennis was always, to me, a little different from all the rest of them with his moves and his facial expressions. He was just so charismatic onstage.
What elements of the Temptations’ story in Ain’t Too Proud reminded you of things you experienced in the business and the way the industry treats artists?
Well, particularly the conversations between Otis [Williams] and Berry [Gordy], and Smokey [Robinson] and Berry, and Norman Whitfield and Berry. Some of those conversations were reminiscent of what we were told as young, innocent, naïve, ignorant artists that didn’t know any better — “You just worry about performing because the people want to see you. You have to appeal to the white audience. You guys just have to do the show and we’ll take care of everything else.”
When Otis went to Berry wanting to be a part of the writing, and how Berry discouraged him from that, that really stuck out to me. We were never really encouraged a whole lot to participate, even though my sisters, particularly Anita and Bonnie, were already writing a lot on their own but it was just never something that people encouraged us to do more of. We were mostly encouraged to just perform and be on the road. That’s where your money was going to come from, not your royalties.
On the Pointer Sisters’ 1987 television special Up All Nite (1987), Whoopi Goldberg performed the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You” with you. The year before that, you sang lead on a Pointer Sisters song called “Set Me Free” that opened Whoopi’s first comedy feature Jumping Jack Flash (1986). Describe the experience of working with Whoopi.
We were Whoopi fans before we even met her. We were on the road with Lionel [Richie] actually and I was reading [Alice Walker’s] The Color Purple. My sisters used to love when I would read to them because I liked to read out loud or even give a verbal book report of what I’d read the night before.
I think we had the same manager at the time, Sandy Gallin. We were somewhere in New York performing and they asked us if we wanted to meet Whoopi because she had been considered for the role for The Color Purple film ( Steven Spielberg, 1985). Immediately I thought, Oh God she’s perfect for Celie and so when we met her I was telling her, “Girl you got to do it! You got to do it. It’s so you!”
When we were getting ready to do the special for NBC, our managers kind of arranged for us to put that together because we were looking for other things to go along with what we already had for the special. It was just fun. She’s just a fun person and so funny. I love her. I still watch her today on The View. I’m always checking out her shoes! [laughs]
Years before Up All Nite, the Pointer Sisters appeared on nearly every TV variety show back in the ’70s. Which program did you look forward to the most?
The Carol Burnett Show! Carol Burnett was fun. Actually, Carol Burnett and Cher. We did Cher a couple of times and that was like doing a show with a girlfriend, but Carol Burnett was generous and so professional. We learned so much from her.
Before we did the Carol Burnett shows, my sisters and I felt like every show we did was a runway. We had to wear something different for every single show. We couldn’t wear what we had on the other night and we couldn’t wear what we had on last week.
The clothes were going real quick and beginning to be a little more expensive than they were when we first started, especially the vintage things and the vintage things weren’t holding up. That was real fabric. Under those stage lights, sometimes we’d come off stage and just peel dresses off of our bodies because they would just disintegrate.
When we started working with Carol Burnett, we were able to go on the road with her. We did Lake Tahoe and Vegas with Carol and her entire cast, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman. Oh, it was so much fun! That’s when we learned you have a set for that particular show and this is what you wear for that show. Carol had two sets for the show, just in case something happened to one of the sets there was always an alternate. I remember us asking her, “So you wear the same things every night?” She said, “Every night. This is what the show is and this is what we’re wearing.”
From then on, we picked clothes that we were going to wear for a particular show. That’s probably the best lesson we ever learned from her, aside from just being a generous person. She’s just so sweet and kind and nice. Funny as hell, but just a wonderful, wonderful human being.
Last year, Motown celebrated its 60th anniversary. The Pointer Sisters released Right Rhythm (1990) on Motown. What did it mean for you to be signed to Motown at that point in your career?
We’ve always been excited about Motown. I have, anyway. Just because of the history of it.
My first love of music were some of their first artists — the Supremes, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, the Four Tops, the Isley Brothers, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and all those wonderful people, so to hear that Motown was interested in us was like Okay! Yeah! The only thing that was kind of a drawback for me was that it was not in the same spirit that I had loved all those years. Berry had left and the whole staff was different, so I was a little bit curious about how it was going to turn out.
The one thing I was excited about was the fact that I knew how well they polished their artists and they polished us up a little bit! I remember we did a photo session and it probably today is still one of the favorite pictures that I have of us sitting on the floor with these white cashmere sweaters on. I felt good about that.
But the music just didn’t turn out the way I guess I had dreamed that I wanted it to. We did some things with Prince, which was fun, but the spirit of the company had been gone by that time. A lot of people think we were there all those years, but we weren’t there that long.
A couple of years before the group signed with Motown, you recorded a solo track, “Streets of Gold”, for George Scribner’s film Oliver & Company (1988). How did that come together?
I was called by Tom Snow to come and sing that song for Oliver & Company. It was a little studio up in Los Angeles in a house. I don’t think it was his house but they had a very nice studio. I just went and sang the song, simple as that.
Shortly thereafter, they were opening the film in London. Disney flew me over there and put me up in a hotel. I had to do a whole video. I don’t even think I ever saw the video but they were real good to me over there. It was a nice trip.
I know you enjoyed seeing Tina: The Musical on Broadway last year. At what point in your life did you first become aware of Tina Turner?
Ooh, child! Lord, I was in Oakland. I think I had just graduated from high school. Can’t remember if I had my babies yet or married, but Ike & Tina Turner were performing at the Sportsman Club in Oakland. It was like a little hot juke joint where we all loved to go. I remember wondering if I even had enough money to get in the club. I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t that big on going out at that time and I wasn’t sure if there was a cover charge at the door. I didn’t have a lot of money. I was working on my little keypunch job.
I remember a girlfriend and me going to the liquor store before we even went to the club to buy some liquor so we could get drunk before we got to the club, hoping we wouldn’t have to buy drinks when we got in there! [laughs] But we did go and Ike & Tina Turner were performing. I was blown away! I think another group was performing too, the Ballads, and we knew a young lady that lived up the street from our house who was dating one of them.
It was just all fascinating to me, to see these groups that would come through Oakland. I remember seeing flyers on telephone polls of James Brown and Ray Charles coming to town, just different people that I had watched during my high school years coming through town that I had sort of fantasized about, wanting to see those shows.
I did get a chance to see Ray Charles once in Oakland at the Oakland Auditorium, but never even in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be a part of that circle of people in any capacity — opening for them, meeting them, or anything.
One of my favorite Chanel bags that I carry around once in awhile is a gift from Ray Charles and I love that bag so much just because it came from him, but yeah Ike & Tina Turner were performing at the Sportsman Club in Oakland. That was the first time I saw them.
At what point did you meet Tina one-on-one?
Meeting Tina one-on-one was after we got with Richard Perry. He took a lot of pride in knowing a lot of artists like Diana Ross, Tina, Ringo, Barbra Streisand, Diane Warren, different people that were acquaintances that he would invite to the studio when we would be recording our albums. He invited Tina to the studio when we were recording. I don’t know which album it was but she came and we met her. We were just doing our work.
Sometime after that, we were performing at a little club outside of Detroit in Dearborn. It was at a Hyatt Regency. We were doing a lot of rock ‘n roll stuff at that time because Richard was still kind of testing us and trying to get a feel for where we were really going to sink our teeth into a certain type of music. The Priority (1979) album was sort of what was going on at the time.
We were performing in that little club one night and someone came onstage and said [whispers] “You know, Tina’s in town.” We were like, Okay. “She’s here actually at your show!” We had a rock ‘n roll band and we looked off to the side of the stage and Tina was standing there watching us in the wings. She came off stage with us into our dressing room and said, “Y’all are like three Tina’s up there!” I thought, Oh my God! Are you serious? It was just probably one of the greatest compliments that I’ve ever received because I loved her so much.
Then when she came out with the Private Dancer (1984) album, we were all invited to see her at a theater in Beverly Hills where she was opening that particular album up to the world and we saw her do that there. I’ve just been a fan ever since, ever since all of that.
I just loved her so much because she’s just so different. She didn’t have that high-pitched voice that was considered to be so feminine. I never had it so I always admired people like Tina and Gladys, even though I liked the others too, but I could relate to the ones that had a voice somewhere similar to the range that I had. She was one of those girls. A little rough, you know!
You mentioned the Priority album, which features a great lead vocal by you on “Blind Faith”. All these years later, you still have affection for that song.
Well, one reason why is because the way it starts off “Do you remember back in ’64?” I’m like yeah, I do! [laughs] I do remember ’64, so that right there is something I can relate to. I need to be able to relate to a lyric. The tone of the song is very rock ‘n roll-ish. I can hear Chuck Berry singing that song. I grew up in that time of Elvis and James Brown, Wilson Pickett. They were just awesome people that just sang from the gut. I don’t hear that kind of singing today. I miss it so much!
A few years later, Richard Perry had you sing background on the title track to Barbra Streisand’s “Emotion” (1984) album. At the time, did it feel like a prestigious opportunity to sing on a Streisand record?
Hell yeah! Oh my God. Are you kidding? Yeah, it was always an honor. I can’t remember if we met her when we were doing the background vocals but we did meet her a couple of times because, like I said, she was an acquaintance of Richard Perry’s and she would come by the studio when we would be recording.
She may have been there when we were doing the part because it was all during that period when Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager would come in. We did some of their songs too. We always found it very special to be on most anybody’s record. I did a backup session for Kenny Loggins with Siedah Garrett and Sheryl Crow (“If You Believe”).
I was actually going to ask you about Kenny Loggins because there’s a photo in the inner sleeve of his album Vox Humana (1985) that shows you, Anita, and June in the studio singing background on “I’m Gonna Do It Right”. What was Kenny’s approach like in the studio?
Kenny was very meticulous. I remember when me and Anita and June — now it’s coming back to me a little bit — were doing backup for that song with him, which was a separate recording from the one I did with him by myself. June complained about how meticulous he was! [laughs] “What the hell does he want us to do? We already did that part?” [laughs] He wanted it perfect. “Let’s do it again!” “Oh my God, Kenny. Really?”
The Pointer Sisters brought the house down at the American Music Awards in 1985, performing a medley of Top Ten hits, and then winning two awards as well. How did it feel to be Ruth Pointer that night?
Was that the night we did “We Are the World”?
It was the same night.
That’s a blur for me because we were just coming off of the Lionel Richie tour. I think like the day before! All of a sudden we’re doing the American Music Awards. I remember us needing pantyhose and Dick Clark announced it to the whole audience: “The Pointer Sisters need pantyhose!” Oh Lord have mercy! Really?
My memory of it was spending a lot of money to go to this event. You got to get dressed, you got to have stuff done to your face and your hair, and you got to get your car and all that. It’s a job.
The awards are always fun if you are participating in the event. People sometimes ask me today when those awards come up like the GRAMMYs and the American Music Awards, “Aren’t you going to the awards? I wish I could go. I’d love to go.” I say, “Well you know what? It’s really not that much fun unless you’re participating in the ceremony. If you’re a presenter, or if you’re receiving an award, or if you’re nominated, then it can be fun.”
If you’re not a participant in the actual procedure of the event, they just kind of shove you to the side. [laughs] They don’t care who you are. “Get out of the way. We need to get to so-and-so. If you ain’t in the show, get out of the way.” [laughs] So I really don’t go that much. I enjoyed it when we were participants. It was always fun, getting dressed up. It was wonderful to just be acknowledged to the point where people want you to talk or present or anything.
You, Anita, and June opened your American Music Awards performance with “I’m So Excited”. Of course, that song had become such a phenomenon that Richard Perry re-released it on Break Out two years after it was originally released on So Excited! (1982). Tell me about your ad lib that almost didn’t happen on that song.
Oh my God! We went back to listen to the mix with Richard Perry and he had cut my “Oh yeah!” out of “I’m So Excited”. I thought, Are you serious? What is wrong with you? I had to go back in and dub that part in and I just thought, What is wrong with this man? Does he have any kind of soul in him at all? [laughs] Does he know that that was a spiritual “Oh yeah!” that was so spontaneous because I was really feeling it! I had to go back in there and do it because I wanted it in there!
That same year, the Pointer Sisters won two GRAMMY Awards, “Jump (For My Love)” and “Automatic”. Of course, you sang lead on “Automatic”, which won “Best Vocal Arrangement”. How did you develop the personality for your vocal?
I always knew I had a low voice. When I was a teenager, I would mimic Nina Simone singing [George Gershwin’s] Porgy and Bess. I would mimic most female singers that I heard that had a range like my own — Gladys [Knight], Mahalia Jackson.
My sisters and I were sitting in a room at Studio 55 where Richard always recorded. I think we were on a break from recording. We were just in this little room, looking through some tapes or playing some tapes. They said, “If you find anything you guys like, we’ll consider recording it.”
We heard this little song “Automatic”. We went, “Oh that’s a cute little song. Why haven’t they told us about this song?” These were songs that they had listened to, but they thought were rejects, so we took that song to them and said “Why aren’t we doing this song?” They said, “Well who’s going to sing that low part?” Anita and June both said, “Ruthie will sing it!” I said, “Yeah, I’ll sing it.”
That’s kind of how that song came up. We liked it. We knew we could do it, so we did it … and everybody thought it was Stevie Wonder! [laughs]
Thirty-five years ago, “Neutron Dance” made the Top Ten and was one of the key songs in [Martin Brest’s] Beverly Hills Cop (1984). Why do you think that song worked so well in that film?
Beverly Hills Cop was kind of a milestone, as far as Black films go, with Eddie Murphy. I think just the spirit of the gospel in that track made that song and it just worked for that crazy truck chase scene in the movie. It was quite a surprise for me too.
I didn’t even want to sing the song in the beginning because I didn’t know what “neutron” meant. Allee [Willis], God rest her beautiful soul, was in the studio. She came to the studio that day and said “Just sing the damn song, girl! I wrote the song with your voice in mind. Just sing it like you used to sing in church.” She grew up admiring Black music in Detroit. When she just gave me her blessing to sing it like I wanted to, I just went for it!
Allee passed away recently. For people who never got a chance to know Allee Willis, how would you describe her?
Allee was just fun in every way. She had these art shows every year. She was having one in downtown Los Angeles. I forget who it was that wanted to take me to the show. Allee had entertainment for her shows. I don’t know if you know about these triplets — the Del Rubio Triplets — these white ladies that play ukuleles and sing popular songs. They were on the stage singing “Neutron Dance” when I walked in this place.
Somehow I found Allee and I said, “Oh my God, Allee would you please mind if I go up there and sing it with them?” She said, “Oh would you? Would you really?” I said, “Hell yes I will!” Somehow we got up there on that stage and I ended up singing “Neutron Dance” with these three little old white ladies with their ukuleles. It was one of the most fun times I ever had singing that song.
1985 was a major year for the Pointer Sisters, in terms of commercial success with all of the hits from Break Out constantly on the radio. Personally, what was that year like for you?
I’m not sure exactly because I was so heavy into my addiction during those times. There was just a lot going on. Like you said, it was the height of our career and so much of it now I’ve forgotten or even just don’t remember. We were kind of being dragged along with the success of that album. I knew it was something different than what we had felt before — I knew that much — but I don’t have a lot of details.
I was probably a little overwhelmed by it because I wasn’t expecting all of that. It’s not like today’s artists that are grooming themselves to be stars. They’ve been studying this since they were little kids. That wasn’t who I was. I was just trying to have a job and support my kids. I could sing a little bit so I went for it and this happened to me, so I was trying to balance it out and wasn’t sure how to do it.
I just wanted to fit in. During the ’60s and the early ’70s, everybody was doing cocaine and drinking and smoking. Being a preacher’s daughter, and told not to do stuff all my life, I thought, I want to be like them. They seem like they’re having a good time. I want to have a good time too.
In your book, you were very forthright about your drug addiction and your recovery. What was the catalyst to become sober?
One of the catalysts was that I was going to get thrown out of the group if I didn’t get my shit together. I was nodding out in sessions and my sisters were having to come by the apartment where I was living with Dennis and a girlfriend of mine to throw me in the car and get me to the airport. We were on our way to Australia one time and I had no idea where I was, so I felt like I was going to lose my job. My sisters were literally talking about replacing me.
Watching Ain’t Too Proud last night brought so much of that back to me, watching Paul, Eddie, Dennis, and David, and what Otis went through with these guys, because I had touches of that myself. I had three children by this time, and I thought I can’t really abandon what I’m trying to do as far as keeping them going. I was their only source of support at the time. That’s probably the strongest motivation that I had for getting sober — thinking about my children.
Plus, by that time, my two older children were starting to go down the same road that I was on. That was breaking my heart. My son Malik was already starting to get involved in AA and my daughter Faun was sort of skating around the idea. They introduced me to a 12-Step program. I wasn’t really that receptive about it at the beginning. I went in another direction, into Dianetics. I learned a lot of things from them but it was very expensive. I thought, I have already spent too much money on drugs, I really don’t want to spend the rest of my money on this program, so AA started looking really good to me because it was free! I threw myself into a program.
After being clean and sober for over 35 years, I had a bump in the road when marijuana got legal. The devil got in my head and made me think I can dip and dab a little bit. I started smoking and having a glass of wine here and there and all of a sudden I felt myself rewinding. That was two or three years ago.
Like that line in Ain’t Too Proud said, “Don’t nothing rewind but a song”.
That’s right. That was a very poignant line and I don’t intend to try to rewind that part of my life at all because basically I have a good life. I love my life. I love my family. I’ve been blessed to be able to still do what I do with my daughter and my granddaughter.
My thinking is so much clearer than it ever was before. Thinking back on times, people say “I wouldn’t change anything”. Well, I damn sure would change some things! I don’t know why not, if I could.
How do you stay committed to sobriety?
It’s very hard. The hardest part is staying sober. It’s easy to get clean. You have your 30 days and you feel like a million bucks, but staying sober? Even now sometimes, especially if I’m stressed or depressed about something or anxious about something, that little ugliness taps on my shoulder and goes, “Damn, sure would be nice to have a shot of cognac right now”, but don’t do it girl!
Your parents were very strong forces in your life. What parts of your mother and father live within you?
I think a lot of both of them, probably more of my dad than my mom. My mother was very na ï ve. She never really lived in the world of excess. She never drank, she never smoked, she never danced, she never wore makeup. We were the ones who introduced her to all that stuff. [laughs] She had never done it before she was married and had children.
My dad on the other hand was a whole ‘nother story. My father at 19 left Arkansas and went to Chicago. He was into some stuff. My brothers always mentioned that dad might have been a gambler. I remember us asking him questions about juke joints. He talked about being in Chicago and we asked him if he had ever seen Louis Armstrong and different black artists that came long before the rock ‘n rollers, so my dad was a different kind of person. I’m probably more like my dad than my mother. [laughs]
I remember you telling me how your father would welcome strangers into your home if they needed a place to stay.
He and my mom had an open door policy both in our home and on the phone. My dad always had our phone number listed in the phone book. Remember those big old phone books? Oh my God! Our phone number was always in the book because my dad said in case someone needed prayer or needed comforting in some kind of way, he wanted to be there for them.
Basically, the people that would come and stay with us were people in the denomination of our church from out of town. We had a couch that led out to a bed. And vice versa. When we traveled on the road with my parents back to Chicago and Arkansas and different places, they would do the same for us. We stayed at their homes and slept on pull-out couches and things like that.
Ruth Pointer with Christian John Wikane. Photo: © Sekou Luke Studio
I know you and your family are still mourning the loss of Bonnie. What would you like people to know about her that maybe they didn’t know?
There wasn’t a whole lot that people didn’t know because she was a very flamboyant, outspoken, and lovable bundle of joy. She wasn’t an introvert or anything like that. It was a short-lived professional career with the Pointer Sisters, unfortunately. She left in 1976, but she was the favorite, from what I always recall. She was the shortest of the four of us. People always gravitated toward her. Of course, they always thought me and June were men because we were tall! [laughs] She was bubbly and fun and cute.
I had always wished that at some point we could have done something together — me, her and Anita, especially after we lost June. The only thing I can say is that we’re at that age, all of us, that I notice people around us are leaving the planet. I don’t know if that brings some comfort to me — that she wasn’t 25 or 30. There was some life that happened. She did not leave this planet unknown. She definitely left her mark. That is something I can be grateful for.
I’m still getting condolence letters and cards and flowers from people. I’m sad that she’s gone, but I know that she’s going to be put in a grave with my mother and my father and June, and Anita’s daughter, Jada. That gives me comfort. She won’t be alone. She won’t be forgotten.
You’re currently offering personalized copies of your book on the Pointer Sisters website. Having written your memoirs, are there other things you’d still like to say? Would you write another book?
I’m not sure about that. People have said, “Girl you got another book in you.” I wasn’t even looking for the first book. It came to me through a project that I did with Marshall Terrill, who wrote a book called Rock and a Heart Place (2015) where he had a collection of ten different artists that had experienced addiction and redemption in different ways that belong to popular bands. He wanted me to be one of those stories.
In the middle of telling my story to him, he said, “You got a book in you on your own.” I actually had started writing a book with the guy who did Barry White’s story, but it just didn’t go anywhere, so I just dismissed the whole idea. When Marshall mentioned it, he said, “I would love to do the book. I’d get it done for you and I would do it the way you want to do it.” I said okay.
We still talk, he and I. He’s doing so many wonderful wonderful projects. I liked working with him because he was very thorough in his research about my family, things that I found out about my father that I never heard before. It was fascinating to me.
Who knows what the future has in store for me. I’ve been surprised over and over again in my life!