The Pointer Sisters
Ruth, Anita, June (and in the beginning Bonnie) Pointer built a solid career out of irony. The girls’ path was steeped in The Word for they grew up with the deep-rooted religious beliefs held by their father, Reverend Elton Pointer and mother, Sarah. Thus, “no” was a predominant word in their world—no jewelry, no makeup, no dancing, no movies, and certainly no rock music. The irony can be found in the first word of the title of a song that started their career as musicians rolling— “Yes We Can Can.”
A pivotal player in their development was David Rubinson, a partner with Bill Graham’s record labels. He arranged for the sisters to be backup singers on studio sessions with Taj Majal, Grace Slick, Boz Scaggs and others. When Rubinson started his own company, he promised to release the Pointer Sisters debut album on his new Blue Thumb label.
As the Pointers began preparing to record their debut album, they made one pivotal decision—record executives be damned, they’d sing the kind of music they wanted to sing, and that meant eschewing the sounds on Top 40 radio and recording an album comprised of jazz, scat and be-bop.
They had the music, but they didn’t have “the look.” They needed performance clothes, but with no extra cash in sight they hit the thrift stores. Following the fads of the 1940s, the girls stocked their closets with floral dresses, wide-brimmed hats, feathered boas, knotted pearls and platform shoes—and the original Pointer Sisters’ style was born.
Finally, they got a chance to debut the new act in May of 1973. When an act canceled its scheduled performance at the famous Troubadour club in Los Angeles, Rubinson swiftly got the Pointers onto the bill.
“We didn’t even know how to give a show, but it was Judgment Day,” Ruth told Newsweek magazine in 1973. “We just shook everything we could shake.”
And shake it they did through a scorching set of jazz, scat, rock, gospel and be-bop. By the time the Pointers left the stage, the Troubadour audience was stamping, cheering and whistling. Several encores ensued and the sisters were all the talk.
Within weeks, the group released their self-titled album. The album’s first single, “Yes We Can Can,” reached No. 11 on Billboard magazine’s pop singles chart.
The following year, the sisters released their sophomore effort, That’s A Plenty. The album contained the Pointers now-famous array of musical styles—but this time, there was a bona-fide country-western tune—the Anita and Bonnie-penned “Fairytale.” When the single hit it big on the country charts (and pop, for that matter), Nashville came ‘a calling, and before long, the sisters became the first black females to ever perform at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. In 1975, “Fairytale” won the sisters their first Grammy award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group.
In 1976, the sisters hit the big screen, joining Richard Pryor in the film Car Wash. “You Gotta Believe,” featured on the film’s soundtrack, climbed up the R&B charts as well.
The sisters changed their style when they signed with Planet Records and recorded their first rock album. Their debut single, Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire,” went all the way to No. 2 on the pop charts and struck gold. Subsequent mega-hits included “He’s So Shy,” “Slow Hand, and their signature hits, “I’m So Excited,” and “Automatic.”
Once again Hollywood came calling, knocking on Planet Records’ door, seeking permission to include “Neutron Dance” from the sisters album Break Out, in the upcoming Eddie Murphy film, Beverly Hills Cop. The success of the Break Out album earned the sisters two Grammy Awards (Best Vocal by a Duo or Group for “Jump” and Best Vocal Arrangement for “Automatic”) and two American Music Awards. Eventually, Break Out was certified triple-platinum, making it the biggest selling album of the Pointer Sisters’ career.
The make-up of the Pointer Sisters has changed. June Pointer passed away in 2006. Ruth’s daughter Issa Pointer, stepped in to perform with the group. Anita stopped touring several years ago and now Ruth is also joined by her granddaughter Sadako Johnson to keep the legacy moving forward after more than 40 years.
We talked with Ruth Pointer via a phone interview last week. Here’s her take on…
The early TV variety shows….
Pointer: We were on every variety show known to man, except the “Ed Sullivan Show.” That’s the one we never did actually.
And “Oprah.” We never have been on her show. We had a couple of invites but it was during a very, very tumultuous time. I was very willing and my sister Anita was very willing, but my sister June was going through some personal issues of her own and she didn’t want to take the extra time to leave home.
How did you guys come up with “I’m So Excited?”
Pointer: We were writing with a partner, Trevor Lawrence, and we wanted a song for an album we were getting ready to record, so we sat down with him. He was asking questions about what type of song we might want to write. It was right at the height of disco and a lot of dance clubs were everywhere. It was a very exciting time and we were caught up in all of that.
He asked, “If there is a new fellow that you were dating, what would you be saying in preparation of going out with him?” We all agreed that we would say, “I’m so excited. I’m going out. I’m excited.” “Okay,” he said, “that’s what we should write about.”
We all kind of agreed we wanted a catch phrase that would always remind people of our song and that would be it—”I’m so excited.”
People associate the Pointer Sisters with the film Car Wash, but you and your sisters didn’t record the title song. Clear up the confusion.
Pointer: We didn’t do “Car Wash” that was Rolls Royce, because Norman Whitfield was the producer and wrote that song, He did incorporate us to do another song for the movie which was “You’ve Gotta Believe,” and that is what we recorded. We wish we got the song “Car Wash” but that was his group and so he had to play favorites to his own group as opposed to us.
Were there songs you passed on and regretted?
Pointer: One particular song comes to mind—”It’s Raining Men.” People came up to us and said after the fact that, “you guys should have had that song.” I’ve heard rumors, I don’t know how true they were, but the song had been sent to our producer Richard Perry and he didn’t think it was a good song for us, or appropriate for us, so he passed on it—and we never knew this.
I’m sure, there were probably several songs that may have gone by the way like that. Even the song “Automatic,” was one that was discarded. We just happened to be sitting in an office at the studio one day, taking a break. We started playing some tapes that were in front of us and we heard “Automatic.” We were like, “Wait a minute, what about this song? Who’s song is this?” They said, “Oh, that was something we didn’t think you guys would want.” I was like, “You guys have got to stop. We need to hear everything because this is truly a great song and we want to record it.” They were like “Okay, we didn’t think you would be interested.” I was like, “Oh, my God, you think you know us, but you really don’t obviously.”
Pointer: We have a five-piece band who is really wonderful and have been with us a long time, over 20 years, even though they play with other people when we’re not working. There are two keyboards, lead guitar, bass guitar and drums.
Maya Angelou one said people won’t remember what you said and they won’t remember what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel. How do you want people to feel about the Pointer Sisters and your music?
Pointer: I love that saying. At this point in my life, and at my age, still being up there—and now performing with my daughter and my granddaughter—I am so grateful that I’m still able to do it. I’m so grateful that the audience responds to me in spite of my age and the things that I’ve been through. They still come out to see us and they accept my daughter Issa and my granddaughter Sadako… and they love those songs and they sing along. I’m just grateful—I think they still go away feeling like “Wow, those are such wonderful songs and they bring back such great fun memories.”
You’ve still got it—you still fit in those little dresses with the fringe and you’re still grooving right along—that’s not easy to do.
Pointer: It really isn’t. But I do it very consciously. I’m very aware of what I eat, and try to get my rest. I try to keep as much stress at bay as I can.
The fact that you’re still out there and still doing it speaks volumes.
Pointer: It really does, especially lately. We’ve lost so many greats this year, including today—Carrie Fisher—and George Michael—and earlier, Prince. It’s just overwhelming and I look at myself in the mirror and I go, “Girl, you’re a blessing from God right now.”
I wrote a book a year ago (Still So Excited! My life in the Pointer Sisters) and it’s the story of my life and my own struggles with drugs and alcohol and just being grateful. I was able to endure and recover and still be in recovery, and I have the mind to still want to do better and keep my life on some kind of routine so that I can still perform. I love music. I couldn’t live without it. It’s such a magical gift.
THE POINTER SISTERS
Edgewater, The E Center
Saturday, January 7. 8 p.m. (See Showtimes for tickets)