"The blood that Jesus shed for me way back on Calvary The blood that gives me strength from day to day it will never lose His power"
It was some four decades ago when those words were sung in the Church of God in West Oakland, California. There, the Reverend Elton Pointer and his wife Sarah both ministered over a small congregation while raising their six children: two boys, Fritz and Aaron, and the four girls who gave voice to "The Blood"--Ruth, Anita, Bonnie and June--the same girls who would go on to achieve worldwide fame and secure a place in pop music history.
The Pointer Sisters' stunning success certainly belies such humble beginnings, but those who know the true story of their upbringing only marvel at their achievements all the more. Because, despite the fact that the sisters first hit it big with a song called "Yes We Can-Can," the deep-rooted religious beliefs held by Elton and Sarah made "no" a predominant word in the Pointer household. "No jewelry, no makeup, no dancing, no movies, and certainly no rock music," Ruth told Essence magazine when recalling her childhood in 1981. "Daddy wanted to protect us from what he called 'the devil's work,' and he worked hard to make sure he did." And with six children to raise, Elton and his wife worked hard just to make ends meet--but more often than not, they found that difficult. Anita, in fact, once said she received a new dress only twice a year: once on Easter, and once at Christmas. "We thought we were the poorest people in the world," Ruth told an interviewer in 1980. "Most of our clothes came from the Salvation Army, Father Divine's thrift store and church rummage sales." "Times were pretty tough," June agrees. "All we really had to make us happy was our voices."
Sure enough, the Pointers' knack for singing had already become apparent. In fact, June says, the sisters had been singing before they could even walk--a joy that only grew as the girls did. Sometimes, they'd mimic the songs they had heard on television--occasionally, they were allowed to watch a harmless Western. Other times, they'd sing the gospel numbers they'd heard in their parents' church. But most often, when they were safely away from the prying ears of Sarah and Elton, they'd sing a different type of music--the kind they'd heard on the radio in friends' and neighbors' homes. And to accompany it, they'd use the only "instruments" they could find. "Our folks would leave the house, and we'd get in the back room and beat pie pans with spoons, making that rhythm and jamming together," June told an interviewer in 1981. "When they'd come home, Grandpa would say, 'Better whip their butts--they were in there popping their fingers and shaking their behinds, singing the blues! Terrible! Terrible!' And we'd get a whipping, too--you'd better believe it."
As the sisters grew, they brought their voices to the place that gave them their first formal training--and their first audience: their parents' church. There, they sang together in the church's choir--"The Blood" was one of their favorite songs to perform. Eventually, young Ruth began directing the junior choir, but before long, the sisters' interest in music expanded and proved too strong for their parents to corral. One day, Ruth brought home her first record purchase, Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up," and, surprisingly, the sisters were actually allowed to play it. "I think the reason it even got into the house was because 'Crying in the Chapel' was on the other side, and Mother liked that song," Anita told an interviewer in 1993. "That was one of the first non-gospel songs that we were allowed to play."
Fresh out of high school, Ruth and Anita married and began raising children, but Bonnie had other plans. As Sarah told Ebony magazine in 1974, "(Bonnie) had always told me, 'Mother, I want something for myself; I want to be somebody in this world.' " Convinced that music was her calling, she enlisted June to join her in a singing duo called Pointers--A Pair, and the two began performing in clubs around the Bay area. Before long, Anita quit her job at a legal office to join the fold, and the Pointer Sisters were officially born.
But the road to fame proved to be a rocky one: as Sarah recalled in a 1993 interview, her daughters went off to Texas in 1969 to "find their fortune," but the trip turned into a disaster. When the girls were stranded in Houston, "they called and wanted a way home," Sarah recalls. "I said, I can't send for all of you, but I'll send for June--that's my baby!' " In retelling the fiasco years later, Anita laughed, "That's when we called David Rubinson." But there was one catch: the sisters had never even met Rubinson, one of the partners in Bill Graham's record labels--Bonnie had merely heard of him. Undaunted, she picked up the phone and got a hold of him. "I called him and said, 'You don't know us, and you've never heard us sing, but please trust us and help!"'
Fortunately, Rubinson agreed to lend a hand and sent the sisters fare back to California, where he got them work singing backup on studio sessions by Taj Mahal, Grace Slick, Boz Scaggs and others. Eventually, Graham signed them to a management contract, and in 1971, Atlantic Records vice-president Jerry Wexler heard the group backing Elvin Bishop at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Los Angeles and offered them a record deal.
Before entering the studio, the sisters decided to make their recording debut by singing a cappella, but according to Anita, Atlantic balked at the notion. "They said, You can't sing stuff like that," she recalls. Instead, nervous executives decided to play it safe, and had the group record two songs with a generic Honeycomb sound, one being "Don¹t Try To Take The Fifth" with June on lead vocal. But when that record was released, it was met with a lukewarm reception, and "the only place it was heard was in our living rooms," Anita says.
In August 1971, Rubinson left Bill Graham's fold and started his own production company, David Rubinson and Friends. The following year, when the Pointers' management and Atlantic deals were up, they signed with Rubinson, who promised to release their debut album on his new Blue Thumb label. On occaision, Ruth had filled in for June and had been watching her younger sisters from the sidelines: "I saw them coming home--tripping, honey, they were having so much fun," she told Ebony magazine. "I said, look here, this is for me. That's when I knew what I had to do." So in December of 1972, Ruth quit her job as a keypunch operator and finally joined the group, and the sisters became a quartet.
As the Pointers began preparing to record their debut album, they made one firm 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. Moving full-steam ahead, they began writing jazz material for the album, but there was still one problem: the group needed performance clothes, but with no extra cash in sight, designer costumes were out of the question. Looking for ideas, the Pointers recalled how their parents had managed to clothe six children on such a tight budget--and in the process, they came up with an ingenious idea: once again, they'd hit the thrift stores, and sing their new songs in old threads. 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.
"It was the perfect way for us to dress, because it fit the type of music we were singing, and above all, it was cheap," June says. With all the pieces coming together, the Pointers began rehearsing their new numbers. Sometimes, they practiced up to five hours a day, working to perfect their style and sense of timing--and trying to become, as Ruth put it, "finger lickin' good." 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, David 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--decked out in their '40s thrift shop apparel, the Pointers took the stage one by one, hanging umbrellas, feather boas and furs on an old-fashioned coat rack and immediately tearing into Lambert, Hendrick and Ross' "Cloudburst." They began scatting at a supersonic pace, and for the next glorious two hours, the sisters sang, sweat, shouted and testified through a scorching set of jazz, scat, rock, gospel and be-bop. By the time the Pointers left the stage, hysteria had taken over the Troubador audience, and amid stamping, cheering and whistling, the sisters were called back for several encores.
The performance set Los Angeles abuzz, and within weeks, the group made its first television appearance on The Helen Reddy Show. When the Pointer Sisters' self-titled album was released, the buzz became almost deafening--critics raved about its versatility and range and called the Pointers "the most exciting thing to hit show business in years."
Eventually, "Yes We Can, Can," the record's first single, reached #11 on Billboard magazine's pop singles chart; a second single, "'Wang Dang Doodle," written by Willie Dixon, also charted. By the time the album was certified gold, the group had become the most talked-about new act of the year. Even their sense of style became infectious--before long, concert attendees began showing up in their own thrift-shop attire. By summer's end, the Pointer Sisters had become, as Bonnie quipped, "the biggest thing to come out of Oakland since the Black Panthers."
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 one difference: nestled between the finger-snapping jazz of "Little Pony" and the moody scat of "Black Coffee" 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, Tennessee. But despite the group's increasing fame, it was still an era long before MTV, and many Nashvillers still hadn't actually seen the group. As the sisters have recalled in countless interviews, the Opry show didn't go off without at least one hitch: "We got onstage to sing the song, and a guy from the audience stood up and said, 'Well, hot damn, them gals is black!' " Anita laughs. And despite being the toast of the town, that lack of visibility caused other problems in Opryland as well--ones not surprising to four young black women exploring unchartered terrain. "When we first performed at the Grand Ole Opry, the audiences loved us," Anita recalls. "But at the hotel where there was a party for us, the staff assumed we were the hired help and directed us toward the back door."
Undeterred, the Pointers kept charging on--in late '74, they became the first pop act to perform at the San Francisco Opera House; tape recorders were running during the legendary performance, and Live at the Opera House was released that fall. In 1975, "Fairytale" won the sisters their first Grammy award, for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group (Anita and Bonnie were also nominated for songwriters of the year); later, The King himself, Elvis Presley, covered the tune. That year, the Pointers released their fourth album for Blue Thumb. Entitled Steppin', the record included "How Long (Betcha Got A Chick On The Side)"; co-written by Anita and Bonnie, it went Top 20 on the pop charts and sailed all the way to #1 on R&B. "Going Down Slowly" also scored well on the R&B charts. But soon, it became clear that mere vinyl wasn't enough to contain the Pointer Sisters, and in 1976, the group hit the big screen, joining Richard Pryor in the film, Car Wash. "You Gotta Believe," which was featured on the film's soundtrack, rose up the R&B charts. During this time the Pointers made appearances on the popular children's television show, Sesame Street. Their performances of "Hush Little Baby", "The Alphabet Song" and especially "Pinball Number Count" were replayed often. "Pinball Number Count" became extremely popular and is a fond childhood memory for a generation of viewers.
But despite such upward movement, trouble was brewing in the Pointer household. By 1976, June had dropped out of several performances due to reported health problems, and Bonnie was contemplating a solo career. In 1977, the Pointers released Having A Party, their last album for Blue Thumb. That year, much to her sisters' dismay, Bonnie left the group and signed with Motown Records. "We were devastated," Anita recalled in a 1990 interview. "We did a show the night she left, but after that, we just stopped. We thought it wasn't going to work without Bonnie." Reeling from their sister's departure, the Pointers cut back their touring schedule and contemplated the future. Both Anita and June mulled solo albums (Anita actually recorded one for ABC Records, but it never saw the light of day), while Ruth gave birth to her third child. But eventually, the stage called again, and the Pointer Sisters regrouped as a threesome.
Starting virtually from scratch, the Pointers faced an imposing question: what now? One answer was obvious: they'd throw away their nostalgia image, because, despite their achievements, the sisters had begun to feel stifled by their earlier success as a jazz act--and the image that they say David Rubinson pushed to continue. "The nostalgia thing got to be artistically frustrating after awhile," Anita told Rolling Stone magazine in April 1979. "In the beginning, thrift-store clothes were all we could afford, but then the clothes began dictating the style of music. David saw it as a gimmick we should use, but a lot of time, I felt really weird. It's hard to be sincere with a pile of fruit on your head."
In an effort to change their style, the sisters signed with Planet Records and teamed up with Richard Perry, a well-known producer who had previously worked with such artists as Barbara Streisand and Carly Simon. Together, they decided to obliterate the past and record a rock 'n roll album. "When Bonnie left the group, we decided we wanted a new direction so people wouldn't miss her, so we got new clothes, a new look, new music, new record producer, new everything," Anita told a reporter in 1986. The change worked: the group's debut single, Bruce Springsteen's "Fire," went all the way to #2 on the pop charts and went gold. Surprisingly, the Sisters say that it's their one hit song that they thought would never make it to the top. "We didn't even know who Bruce Springsteen was at the time," Ruth recalled in a 1997 interview. And Anita was especially hesitant about releasing "Fire" as a single. "I didn't even expect to sing lead on it," she said years later. "It sounded like a low, Ruth-type song to me. We certainly didn't expect it to become a hit." But happily, the sisters were wrong. Boosted by "Fire," the Energy album was certified gold and went on to spawn another top single with "Happiness."
A year later, the Pointers released Priority, which consisted entirely of cover songs by high-profile rock acts. It didn't garner as much attention as its predecessor, but it again proved that the Pointer Sisters could master any musical style--and harmonize like no one else, as evidenced by standouts such as "Dreaming As One." In 1980, the group released their third Planet album, the gold-certified Special Things; it featured the song "Where Did The Time Go," dedicated to their father, Elton, who had passed away in 1979. Anita wrote the title cut and also co-penned "Could I Be Dreaming," which made it to the pop charts, but it was "He's So Shy" that became the album's biggest hit by climbing to #3 and mining gold. In 1981, the group hit it big again with Black & White, which included one of the biggest hits of the year, the Anita-led "Slow Hand." The single topped out at #2 on the Billboard charts, and its instructional lyrics geared toward men who "come and go in a heated rush" became an anthem for women across the country. Next up, "Should I Do It" climbed to #13, and the Black & White album was certified gold. In 1982, the group released So Excited; its first single, "American Music," hit #16, while the follow-up, "I'm So Excited," reached #30.
Early in 1983, June made a move on her own: she released her first solo album, entitled Baby Sister, on Planet Records. The record's first single, "Ready for Some Action," garnered some play on R&B radio, but more importantly, the record's funkier tracks perhaps laid ground for the sisters' next album as a group. Alas, the title of that record summed up exactly what the trio was about to do: Break Out. Upon its release, Stereo Review called the new album "the Pointer Sisters at their sassiest, brassiest, uptempo best." Its first single was "I Need You," a smooth R&B ballad that boasted the tender harmonies of all three sisters--but when Ruth took the lead for "Automatic," her deeper-than-deep vocals practically leapt off the vinyl, and helped the single go all the way to #5.
By now, the video music era had arrived, and with the clip for Break Out's third single, "Jump (for my Love)," the Pointer Sisters landed all over MTV, becoming one of the first black acts to be played in heavy rotation. Boosted by June's energetic vocal, "Jump" raced to #3 on the pop charts. When it came time to release a fourth single, record company executives, who were never happy with "I'm So Excited's" chart performance, decided to resurrect the track and give it another shot at the top. In its resuscitated life, the single finally hit the Top 10 and became a Pointer classic; it was added to the Break Out album over a year into its shelf life. Soon, Paramount Pictures came knocking on the doors of Planet Records, asking for permission to include Break Out's "Neutron Dance" in their upcoming film, Beverly Hills Cop, starring Eddie Murphy. Planet and the Pointer Sisters agreed, and "Neutron Dance," featuring Ruth's gospel-spiked shouts, rose to #6 on the pop charts as its video dominated MTV. Finally, Break Out spawned a sixth single, "Baby Come And Get It," powered by June's sexually charged, raucous vocal. The success of the 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.
While Anita, Ruth and June toured heavily and made countless television appearances,the group made a move to RCA Records, which released the Contact album in 1985. The set's first single, "Dare Me," hit #11 and was accompanied by another stylish video that established the Pointers as trendsetters for a whole new generation. Within three weeks of its release, Contact was certified platinum, and the group went on to win another American Music Award for Best Video Group.
In late 1986, the Pointers released their second album on RCA, Hot Together, which spawned a top 40 hit with "Goldmine." The Pointers helped promote the album in January '87 by hitting prime time with their first television network special, "Up All Night," featured Ruth, Anita and June touring Los Angeles night spots with guest stars Whoopi Goldberg, Bruce Willis and The McGuire Sisters. Later that year, the Pointers went back to Beverly Hills with Eddie Murphy; this time, they contributed "Be There" to the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop II. The single hit the upper half of Billboard's pop chart and helped the soundtrack album attain multi-platinum status.
In 1987, Anita became the second sister to release a solo album: Love For What It Is was preceded by the single "Overnight Success," which hit the upper half of the R&B charts. A year later, she and her sisters veered away from the glossier pop of their recent releases and debuted a harder street edge with Serious Slammin', their final album for RCA Records. Immediately, fans and critics hailed it as the strongest of the sisters' four releases for RCA. People magazine, for one, proclaimed the album a "delight" and called the Pointers "the best R&B female group of the '80s."
But despite such praise, the Pointer Sisters felt it was time for a change. They'd spent the last 10 years working with Richard Perry, their contract with RCA had run its course, and a new decade was on the horizon. Starting fresh yet again, the sisters parted ways with Perry and signed with Motown Records. As a solo artist, June signed with Columbia Records, which released her second solo album, simply titled June Pointer, in the summer of 1989.
In 1990, the Pointers released their debut on Motown, Right Rhythm, which featured a mixture of hip-hop, street sounds and their trademark harmonies. It was the first time the sisters served as executive producers; they also contributed to the writing, something they hadn't done in several years. The album's percolating first single, "Friends Advice (Don't Take It)," hit the top 40 on the R&B charts. A second release, the ballad "After You," didn't make much impact on the charts, but a remix of "Insanity" by Steve "Silk" Hurley, took the club world by storm and peaked at #11 on Billboard's dance charts.
Nineteen ninety-three marked the Pointer Sisters 20th year in the recording industry, and they helped celebrate the anniversary with a new album, entitled Only Sisters Can Do That, on SBK Records. All three sisters wrote material for the album, including the title track, which the Pointers penned together. Other stand-outs on the album included "It Ain't a Man's World," which incorporated the poetry of Maya Angelou, and "I Want Fireworks," a gospel-tinged ballad that was propelled by Anita's soulful lead vocal. Once again, fans and critics alike sang the record's praises--Entertainment Weekly, for one, called Only Sisters "catchier than En Vogue or Janet Jackson" and proclaimed it "the catchiest Sisters set since 1984's hit-packed Break Out."
Over the next few years, Ruth, Anita and June continued to charge on. In 1994, they teamed up with Clint Black to record a cover of "Chain of Fools" for MCA's Rhythm, Country & Blues, which was certified platinum. That same year, a massive crowd swarmed to Hollywood Boulevard to see the Pointers finally receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an event that inspired town officials to proclaim it "Pointer Sisters Day" in Hollywood. That same day, it was announced that the group would once again don feather boas and platform heels and begin a world-wide tour of the Fats Waller musical "Ain't Misbehavin'. " They toured with the show for 46 weeks and recorded a cast album that was hailed by critics. The sisters went on to be honored on the Soul of American Music Awards and were also inducted into the Soul Train Hall of Fame. In 1996, they were one of the legendary acts that performed at the closing ceremony of the Olympics in Atlanta, and the group was saluted with Fire--The Very Best of the Pointer Sisters, a 36-song anthology that chronicled the sisters' career, from "Don't Try to Take the Fifth" all the way to the RCA years.
Today, Ruth Pointer, along with her daughter and granddaughter maintain a busy touring schedule and perform all over the world. Best of all, Ruth and Anita can look back on a career that has been filled with endless applause, countless awards and legendary performances. And though that career has now spanned over 40 years, the excitement continues on! "We all like showing off too much to stop," June told a reporter in 1997. "Honestly, all I've ever done in my life is entertain . . . I feel like God has given us a gift, and it's our job to share it with the world."