Ruth, Anita, Bonnie and June Pointer — The Pointer Sisters — were brought up in West Oakland, Calif., singing gospel music at the encouragement of their mother and reverend father. The foursome (later, a trio) went on to sing professionally, garnering 16 Top 40 hits on the Billboard charts, including “Slow Hand,” “Fire,” “He’s So Shy” “I’m So Excited” and “Jump (For My Love).” Today, The Pointer Sisters are widely recognized as one of the most successful and beloved vocal groups in history.
In this conversation, Ruth Pointer, the group’s last remaining active sister and its most high profile member, discusses her beginnings with the group, what necessitated her and her sisters’ celebrated sense of style, her favorite Pointer Sisters songs, what she thinks about when she hears her music in public, and whether being related by blood actually helps people sing better together. She’ll bring the current version of the group to Atlantic City on Oct. 18, for a show with The Isley Brothers.
Q: Looking back at The Pointer Sisters’ beginnings, you were the last sister to sign on, out of the four. Forty-seven years later, I think you’ve shed the “new girl” status by now.
A: [laughs] I think I have. Actually, the real, real history is that I was probably the first one to even initiate singing as a group when I was a teenager.
Q: It’s interesting that you say the “real, real” history because there are varying accounts of the group’s early days. One of them reads: “Eventually the temptation to join her sisters overwhelmed Ruth, and she finally decided to come aboard.” That sounds a bit too simplistic.
A: That doesn’t even make any sense to me.
Q: It didn’t make sense to me, either. [both laugh]
A: I grew up singing with my sisters — we had been singing together all of our lives in my dad’s church, you know? But I had two children at the time, June was still in high school, Bonnie was just out of high school, and Anita was married and had a child herself. We just went in different directions with our lives. Bonnie and June were still at home with my parents, so when they started singing as a duo, it wasn’t any big deal. Singing was something we just did in our family. But when they decided that they were going to be professional and were offered a genuine record deal, they asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. I knew that would be the time to get in. I didn’t have anything to lose. I was working on a job that I was frustrated with, trying to support two children by myself.
Q: What was the job?
A: I was a key punch operator in San Francisco, around the time of the beginning of computers. Not like the computers we have today. We’re talking a machine as big as a TV console. But music had always been a passion for me, and when I realized I could make a living and support myself and my children by doing it, I thought, “Oh, this is a no-brainer.”
Q: If you have the gift, honor it.
A: That’s exactly right. And I had no kind of preconceptions of becoming famous or anything like that. I just knew that if I could make a living singing, that’s what I would do.
Q: The dynamic between you and your sisters is interesting to people for many reasons, but I believe it’s primarily because you did something together that is so emotionally connective. I read a quote from Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes to Ann and Nancy Wilson (of Heart), where he claims that harmonizing with his brother is different than singing with anyone else — that there’s an unexplainable ingredient present when family harmonizes with family. The Wilsons both enthusiastically agreed. What say you?
A: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely! The tones of your voices are similar, but also the things that you do with your voices are a lot alike. It just comes easy when we’re together. I know where my sisters are going to go (vocally) as they do me, and it’s something that comes together instantly. For instance, Anita and Bonnie and I haven’t sang together in years. But last week we were all in Los Angeles at an event that Anita had organized: an exhibition at the Hollywood Museum of Pointer Sisters costumes, dating back to the beginning. So me and Anita and Bonnie, reunited after all this time, just started singing “I’m So Excited” impromptu and it fell right into place. It felt great but I wasn’t surprised. We’ve always been able to do that.
Q: In regard to the exhibition of your clothes, you and your sisters were known very much for your style, and the clothing and costume choices you made in the ’70s are still iconic. Did you put a lot of thought into it?
A: We did, but it was something that we were doing anyway. For most of our teenage and young adult lives, we grew up not really having the money to buy retail. My mom would always take us to secondhand stores, and we were given things from my dad’s church and from church members. So it wasn’t anything new for us to look that way. And then, of course, when the ’60s came along with hippies and rock ‘n’ roll exploding all over the Bay Area where we lived, many of the young people started shopping at thrift stores and vintage stores. We loved wearing that old stuff anyway, but we just took it a little further because we didn’t have any money and we didn’t really didn’t have a whole lot of choice. We loved putting that old stuff together. You know, we couldn’t go running up to Chanel and Louis Vuitton and grabbing every new thing. But every now and then we might run across something from those designers that was vintage and it was like, “Oh, yeah!”
Q: The Pointer Sisters’ career is somewhat unique because you sang jazz, R&B, soul, gospel and even had success with country early on —and of course a long string of pop hits would follow in the ’80s. Let’s see where your heart is at, Ruth. What are your three absolute favorite Pointer Sister songs?
A: Wow. Okay, let’s see. My favorite songs. I have to say “Little Pony’ from our … I think it was our second album (It was: 1974’s That’s a Plenty). It’s a jazz song that has always been one of my favorites. When I listen to that song, and hear the things that we did. vocally, I’m still awestruck. Then “I’m So Excited,” of course.
Q: Of course?
A: Oh God, yeah! I still love that song.
Q: I’ve finally met an artist who loves their greatest hit!
A: [laughs] Yes! I do. So many people love when we do it and you can’t help but end up loving it, too. I have to have a connection like that with an audience, to be able to deliver it the way I want to. And then, of course, “Neutron Dance” is definitely one of my favorites because it has a gospel tone and gospel is actually my first love in music.
Q: And because you sang lead on it.
A: That’s right. [laughs]
Q: “Neutron Dance” appeared on an album called Breakout that included three other huge hits (“I’m So Excited,” “Jump” and “Automatic”) and saw you and Anita and June sell millions of records and win multiple awards. You all had been relatively famous previous to that, but this brought you to another level. Your personal struggles from that time are well documented, but did things also get weird with how you all dealt with each other?
A: Yeah, things were rocky, mainly because it wasn’t in any of our control. Back in the day, we were at the mercy of these record companies and managers and agents. We were just kind of lost and floating around. Sometimes we didn’t even know what record company we were with, or even when we were going to record. Or what we going to record. And then we’d be arguing, asking, “Why did you make that deal, and why wasn’t I involved in it?”
Q: Did people try to pit you and your sisters against each other, business-wise?
A: I don’t know if they did or not, but what I do know is that we were very naive to the business and the way the record business was played. And it definitely was played. So many people had only their best interests at heart. And we didn’t have business friends, like other people had. We didn’t have lawyers in our family to protect us. We were at the mercy of trusting people we didn’t know. I don’t know whether they tried to pit us against each other or not, but I know that we struggled when we were caught in the middle of it. Nothing prepares you for something like that.
Q: All of your sisters have a distinctive voice, but your voice is especially unique as it is uncharacteristically deep for a female in pop music. There have been countless artists whose race surprised listeners, but you’re the only artist I’ve spoken with who surprised some listeners in regard to your gender.
A: [laughs loudly]
Q: Particularly with the hit song “Automatic,” on which you sang lead. Did you know when you recorded it that someone who heard it could confuse your identity?
A: Oh, sure. I had already been kind of used to that, anyway, because my voice has been low ever since I was a teenager. My mother’s voice was kind of low, and I remember as a teenager I would mimic Nina Simone. She would sing that song from “Porgy and Bess” in her low voice and I would imitate her.
Q: “I Loves You, Porgy.” I can definitely recognize the similarities.
A: Yes! I loved other artists as well, like Aretha, Gladys Knight, Tina Turner and Diana Ross. They are all my idols. But Nina had that voice, you know? Having that low voice as well, I thought, “Make the best of it, girl.”
Q: “Neutron Dance” and “Automatic” were both big hits. If everything else was equal, do you enjoy being out front more? Or do you like harmonizing background more?
A: I enjoy both. I really do. But I love singing harmony. My sisters and I have never restricted each other when we were singing background. Even in the studio our background stuff can be pretty spirited, and one of us will break out and throw an ad lib in and it’s never an issue for the person who’s singing lead.
Q: So despite the dust-ups you may have had as a group or as a family, the music was something you didn’t argue over very much?
A: No, not so much. I mean, there were a few times when we squabbled about a song in our younger years. I remember us having an argument … I forget what song it was … but I do remember us arguing over who was going to sing lead on it because we thought the person chosen to sing lead was not the proper person to deliver the message of the song.
Q: Don Henley of the Eagles said that every adult has certain people in their life who they were close with at some point, but who they’ve either outgrown or don’t really want to see much anymore. He said the problem with his life is that the public demands that he goes on the road with these people for months at a time.
A: [laughs loudly]
Q: Have you ever felt trapped? Not by being Anita, Bonnie and June’s sister, necessarily — but by being a Pointer Sister?
A: Wow, trapped …
Q: Maybe not a great choice of words.
A: No, no. I understand what you’re saying. [takes a moment to think] I’d say no, I don’t think I have ever felt trapped. But it does come with complications. Because you have had a close relationship with a person for so many years … and when it’s your family, now your heart is involved. And when you part ways, it’s not that you can just forget that person — you think about them when they’re gone.
So when you think about coming back together and what that entails, you naturally think about some of the issues they had before, and wonder if they still remain. You know that this person used to do this and that, and now you wonder: “Are they still doing those things? Because I don’t want to deal with that anymore.” [laughs]
Q: You have a show coming up at the Hard Rock in Atlantic City on Oct. 18, where you’ll be sharing a bill with The Isley Brothers. It’s a family affair all around.
A: All around!
Q: Would I be presumptuous in saying that the two groups probably have a history together or have known each before now?
A: Believe it or not, we don’t know each other that well. We’ve played with them in the past and seen them in airports and places like that, and I’ve always been a fan. I love The Isley Brothers’ music and their beginnings, with their mother and family singing in the church back when they started. I have a lot of respect for their history.
Q: As usual, we’re going to see The Pointers on stage, but you have many talented people in your family who you can shuffle in and out of the lineup. You’re the mainstay, but who will be performing with you at the Hard Rock? Will it be your daughter and granddaughter?
A: Yes, my daughter Issa and my granddaughter, Sadako. Issa has been with us going on 20 years now.
Q: Do you feel a similar singing connection with Issa and Sadako, as the one you enjoy with your sisters?
A: The harmony that I share with my sisters is very, very, special and it’s not just biological. We grew up singing together, which is a big part of it. I had to literally teach my daughter and my granddaughter the notes to sing in some of our songs, to mimic June and Anita and occasionally Bonnie, because they didn’t know. They didn’t grow up singing in the choir like we did where you had to learn your place and what notes to sing and how to sing them.
Q: They skipped a couple of steps.
A: They did, and it was difficult for them. What my sisters and I have is not an easy thing to live up to.
Q: You wrote a very well received autobiography not long ago, chronicling your life’s ups and downs with striking honesty. There have been so many high points for you, but the downs tend to interest people more. They were so long ago — was it difficult for you to dredge up your dark periods, allowing people to judge you?
A: It was. I would say that most people really don’t want to relive the dark spots, and I’m no exception. But I started thinking about the redemption of those dark times that I’ve been graced with, to be able to survive it and to thrive in spite of it. So as I was writing the book, I was hoping that my experience would help someone who is going through their dark times believe in themselves.
Q: You live in a quiet Massachusetts suburb. I’d imagine that when you are in a mall or a grocery store you often hear your music playing overhead?
A: My God, all the time.
Q: So what is your reaction when you suddenly and unexpectedly hear you and your family singing? Do you pay it any mind, or do you tune it out?
A: I have different reactions to it. Sometimes it’s fun, but other times it brings tears to my eyes, especially when I hear June’s voice (June Pointer died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 52 ). Like on “He’s So Shy.” Her voice is so great on that song, and I remember hearing it one time shortly after she had passed and I had to leave the store. I knew I had to get out of there because I was about to fall out on the floor.
Q: When you listen to a Pointer Sisters song more casually, are you able to pick out all of your sisters’ voices in the mix, including yours?
A: Oh yeah. But you know, sometimes, because our voices are so intertwined and our tones are so similar, I do mistake one of my sister’s voices for my own. I sometimes do. What you asked me about earlier, singing with family? Well when I hear those songs it’s like we were all playing the same instrument, only different notes.
The Pointer Sisters will perform with The Isley Brothers at Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m. Visit Ticketmaster.com.
Buy Ruth Pointer’s book here: Still So Excited! My Life As a Pointer Sister
Follow The Pointer Sisters on Twitter: @PointerOfficial
Visit The Pointer Sisters’ website: thepointersisters.com
Buy Pointer Sisters music here: The Pointer Sisters
Robert Ferraro is a former producer of radio talk shows and Major League Baseball broadcasts who interviews pop culture figures.
This article first appeared on Ferraro’s web site, ofpersonalinterest.com.
Follow Ferraro on Twitter at: @PopCultRob
Follow Ferraro on Facebook at: @ofpersonalinterest
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence, though, depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $10, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJ Arts Daily to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.