She's So Happy, She's Just Burning: An Interview with Ruth Pointer
By Christian John Wikane
"That's my President," Ruth Pointer shouts. We're discussing the victory of President-Elect Barack Obama
There's an interesting synchronicity to the occasion. "Yes We Can Can," the hit that catapulted The Pointer Sisters to worldwide renown in 1973, was played frequently throughout Obama's campaign, underscoring his slogan, "Yes We Can." 2008 also marks the 35th anniversary of The Pointer Sisters' eponymous debut, one of the most stylistically adventurous albums to ever hit the pop or R&B charts. Such a convergence of events must not go unnoticed.
After four decades of recording with her sisters - Anita, June, and Bonnie - Ruth Pointer has experienced all facets of the music business that become a legend. Grammy Awards, a wall of gold and platinum singles and albums, chart-topping hits, high-profile TV and film appearances, and sold-out concert performances are woven into the legacy of The Pointer Sisters. So is heartache: Bonnie Pointer ventured solo in 1977, leaving her sisters in an uncertain and tenuous position. June Pointer passed away in 2006 after losing a battle with cancer. (Ruth's daughter Issa now sings June's parts.)
Ruth Pointer's inspiring resilience - and infectious humor - is palpable on a recent fall afternoon when she sat down with me to discuss all things Pointer. Hers is a life lived to the fullest and she emphasizes that she is having more fun than ever before. (Producers take note: The Pointer Sisters also sound pretty damn good.) Ladies and gentleman, the inimitable Ruth Pointer....
You grew up in Oakland, CA. Take me back to Oakland.
Oh Lord! Take you back to Oakland. Wow. You would not have heard a lot of music because my parents were both ministers and there was only one radio in our house that belonged to my father. He only wanted to listen to the news. The only time we listened to music was Sunday morning and that was gospel. We'd be getting ready to go to Sunday school and we'd listen to gospel music. Other than that, the only music I remember...I had an uncle that was a really talented person, musically, and he sang. He was always putting together these male groups like The Five Blind Boys, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, those types of groups. They would come to our house to rehearse. They would be singing in our living room and I would be peeking through the door to hear them sing, because they'd shut us out. They could sing. Really, that's the only music we had in our house for quite awhile.
Before pursuing a singing career with your sisters, you worked as a keypunch operator.
Yes, child. It was like at the beginning of computers. They were like the dinosaur computers, almost as big as this couch. It was the computer of the time. You had this stack of cards and you would plop them in this slot in this huge machine. You would sit down at this machine and punch these keys that put holes in these cards. The cards were usually things like billing, payroll, stuff like that. My first job was for Folgers coffee company in San Francisco. I was only 17 years-old.
Your sisters had already released a couple of singles on Atlantic by the time you joined in 1973 to record The Pointer Sisters on Blue Thumb. Those first few albums were very eclectic. The scat-singing on songs like "Cloudburst" and "Salt Peanuts" just astounds me. Was that innate or was that learned?
It really wasn't anything we learned, it was just something we loved about (jazz trio) Lambert Hendricks and Ross, particularly, and we just kind of did what we felt. I couldn't tell you even what we did! It's so funny because the first television shows that we did were Helen Reddy and Flip Wilson. The musical directors were always trying to pin down the notes we were singing, the words, and where it was going. They'd say, "OK, what are you singing right here? What word is that?" We were looking at this man like, "Are you crazy? We don't know what that is? Put the music on and we'll just sing it." People just didn't understand that.
We did a lot of back-up singing for people back then too and even when we'd do back up, they'd come in with the sheet music, put it up on the music stand, and start doing this technical music talk: "Okay, the bar of such and such a thing." We were like, "What are you talking about?" "Don't you guys read music?" We'd say, "No" and they'd say, "Oh my God! Well how are we going to do..." I said, "Play the song. We will hear and you will tell us what part you want us to sing." They were like, "You mean you just memorize it?" We said, "Yeah. What's the big deal? You play it, we sing it. It's just that simple." I was floored because, coming into it sort of innocently with what we did just out of love, we thought all singers did that. When they told us different, we were like "Wow, they work hard. We're just having fun!" (Ruth lets out a hearty chuckle.)
Herbie Hancock and Bonnie Raitt were among the musicians who played on That's A Plenty (1974). What were the recording sessions like?
Back then, the musicians and the artists were woven together most of the time. We would all come in together and lay down the track because they wanted the energy and we wanted the energy from them. I miss that. It would be a wild time. We would come out of the vocal booth and the musicians would come out of the big room where they'd been playing, almost sweating and exhausted. It would be screaming and excitement and stuff like that. Then the musicians with their particular parts would go back in and overdub. Sometimes the spirit would get so high when you were laying down a track, the musicians would play something completely out of context that was awesome. We would be so inspired that we would sing something totally not planned. I loved it. It wasn't mechanical at all. New things would pop out just because of the inspiration but it was fun. I loved sessions back then. We would have musicians coming in from New York and Chicago. The best of the best.
Did you realize how unique a group you were at the time?
We didn't know. I have to admit it's only been up until lately that I only really realize how special that was. Someone sent us some footage of our very first live performance at the Troubadour, the four of us, onstage. There's no sound. It's just us. Honest to God, we look like four jet-propelled...I don't know what that was. We are moving so much and just going. You can tell that we're singing, but there's so much movement. I just remember being there and people going crazy. We were opening for Ronnie Dyson. As a matter of fact we weren't even opening for Ronnie Dyson. Ronnie Dyson cancelled and we took his place. We were opening for Herbie Hancock. That's what it was. They had us come back and open for Bill Withers. People were coming backstage like Diana Ross and Helen Reddy. All these people. We were like Sally Field: "Oh my God! These people really like us!" We really didn't know how special what we did was until people started telling us what they went through to get just a background part in the studio. We'd go in and just knock out background parts so quickly. People were amazed at how fast we'd do it, how easily we'd do it, and how right on it is. We thought we were going to be there all night and we'd be done in an hour.
Where did the Pointer Sisters logo originate?
Actually, Gibson and Stromberg, our publicists at the time, created this logo. Later, Anita and I bought it and adopted it so it belongs to me and Anita. We still do hankies. We have hankies that we throw out into the audience with this logo on them. Every now and then we might do T-shirts and hoodies. Anita has a friend that does all that printing. We have little Pointer Sisters medallions. My mother had the greatest one. Hers was in solid gold with a little diamond on the finger.
There's a clip on YouTube of you on The Mike Douglas Show in the mid-â€˜70s. Your parents were also guests. Mike Douglas asks your father how he felt about the music you and your sisters were performing. As ministers, how did your parents reconcile the popular music that you were singing with their spiritual beliefs?
There was not a lot of conflict. They started coming to our concerts even before I got with the group. I remember my dad at the Fillmore West in the audience with me watching my sisters. I think once we started singing and they got more into the music that we were doing, they realized it really wasn't that harmful. They were also a bit naÃ¯ve as to what was going on "behind the scenes" â€˜cause there as a lot going on! Oh, Lord!
Like any family that has struggled for a long time and not been very well off, when we started purchasing things, like new houses and big color TVs and Mercedes, they were like, "Oh, this is pretty good! It's not so bad." We took care of our parents. We took care of my mother and each other's children. Anita and I were the only ones who had children. My mother stopped working to raise our kids while we were working. We took care of her. We did the best we could.
When you started working with Richard Perry in 1978, was there a conscious decision to step away from the kind of material that you did on Blue Thumb?
Richard had a definite direction he wanted to go: pop/rock. He didn't want to do any of the old stuff. At that point in our career, there had been so much that had happened with my sister June (who left briefly in the mid-â€˜70s) and my sister Bonnie, we just wanted to get back out there. We had obligations and responsibilities - my children and my mom - and that was the number one issue on our minds: being able to maintain the people that we were responsible for. We said, "We can sing anything so whatever they want, let's give it to them." He had these songs that he wanted us to do like "Fire" and "Happiness." We were just sort of willing at that point and we didn't know what was going to happen but we just wanted to be pliable and thought, "Get us back out there! Once we get back out there, maybe we'll take some chances later."
What was it like working with Richard in the studio?
He was as crazy as we were! I don't know whether we saw each other more in the studio or at his house because we became very, very dear friends, almost like family, and still are to do this day. His mother basically adopted us because she had three sons - Richard, Fred, and Andrew - and we were her "daughters." She was at every show we ever had in Atlantic City or anywhere near New York or Philadelphia. She treated us like a mom. She lives in Washington State now and when she comes to Los Angeles, at least once a year, they sort of do a family reunion thing. They call us: "You got to come, the family's getting together. Y'all got to be there." Me and Anita are like, "Richard's mom is calling. We gotta go. We gotta go to dinner with the family. Everybody's coming from New York and everywhere." The Pointer Sisters and Richard go deep. We still see him once in awhile. Anita sees him more often because she lives out there (in Los Angeles).
It goes without saying that June is missed.
June is missed a lot. I'm telling you. I guess more than ever when I hear my daughter Issa not singing the right note! (Ruth laughs.) It doesn't happen so much anymore. We've gotten used to her style and we've encouraged her to do what fits her and we've accepted that. We had to come to a sort of a place of accepting she's not June, she ain't gonna be June, she ain't gonna sound like June, but then every now and then, she does and it freaks me and Anita out. We'll come offstage and we'll be on fire and we'll go, "Girl you were singin' tonight. I'm telling you, you must have reached in there and grabbed the spirit of your Auntie June. You were really on tonight."
I miss June more on a personal level because June and I had a special older sister-baby sister thing where she would call me now and then and we would just talk and laugh on the phone. We would go to the movies together, just me and her. Sometimes, I just think about her and just miss her spirit in that way because she was so funny and so much fun. Every now and then I'll hear something on television or see something and think, "Ooh, June would have loved that. Oh my God, she would have died laughing at that." It makes me laugh just thinking about how it would affect her. She's missed.
When June passed away, so many people were so loving in sending their regrets and condolences. The biggest bouquet of flowers I have ever seen in my sister's house came from Aretha Franklin. I just started crying when I saw it because she was my idol before I even knew I was going to sing professionally. We did a show with her and Ray Charles. We opened, then Ray came on, then Aretha. We were always trying to hurry up and get our clothes back on so we could run out there and watch them
How do you respond when people say, "Where's Bonnie?"
Sometimes we know where she is because she's still working and if we don't know, we just say, "We don't know where Bonnie is! She's somewhere in LA...or not!" Even like last weekend, I had to do a performance for the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in Ohio and Anita was committed to a breast cancer research fundraiser in Tampa that she was doing by herself, and Bonnie was doing some kind of engagement on a cruise ship or something, so we're all just kind of spread out. Just recently the last couple of days, thinking about where we all were just this past weekend, I thought, "Wow, it'd be nice if we could come together."
How do you feel about recording now?
We would love to do something but we're not sure how to go about doing it so it's done properly. We feel like we should put it out on the Internet but I'm not sure how you do that and people are really not ready to just show you how to do it unless they're going to get a piece of it. I just don't feel like getting in the race. One thing we did do is we cloned all of our hits, from Break Out (1983), mostly. We re-recorded them.
Labelle just recently reunited. Did you ever spend much time with Nona, Sarah, and Patti?
Not with Nona and Sarah. I just saw them recently on Ellen. I thought, "Okay, y'all go ahead on then." Patti, a lot, because we played Atlantic City so much and Patti, living in the Philadelphia area, would always come and see us and of course we would always drag her up with us. One night it was us, Patti LaBelle, and Andy Gibb onstage together with Arsenio Hall, who was opening for us, singing "Jump." Me and my sisters always say this, but we have been one of the most successful groups that have launched people. I swear. It seems like everybody who has opened for us went onto great success. I can't even tell you. Aresnio Hall, Ellen DeGeneres, Roseanne Barr, Byron Allen. A lot of people.
Who are some of the current artists you enjoy listening to?
There are a few out there that I really have a lot of respect for and admire. One is Ne-Yo. I love Ne-You. His melodies are so beautiful and his lyrics are so simple and romantic. BeyoncÃ© is very creative. I really really admire her work ethic. That girl works. She works and it pays off. I give her a lot of credit for being so creative. She really lets her emotion just take her and I love that about an artist. I'm looking forward to seeing her as Etta James in Cadillac Records. I do like Ludarcis and Jay-Z and Kanye West. I love "Love Lockdown." I said to myself, "I could have sung that song!" It's so funky and bluesy and mysterious. The intro coming in...you know it's going to be something hot.
What's your favorite song to perform onstage now?
"Neutron Dance." I've gotten to the point where I love watching my sister perform. Sometimes when my daughter is really having an "on" night, I love watching her but she's still a little insecure. Whenever I look at her, usually she's got that scared look on her face because she thinks she did something wrong. I'm like, "I'm looking at you because I want to connect and get that energy going between us." I love the way Anita sings "He's So Shy" and I tell her right onstage in the middle of her song. That's just something she and I love to share. She'll be singing and I'll say, "Sing that song girl!" Issa said, "Oh! â€˜Could I be Dreamin'! I love that song!' Me and Anita have to look at each because I remember putting that song in the set years ago and it's such a hard song to sing live. Anita said, "Oh Lord, I should be screamin!" I have fond memories of that song because she wrote it when I was pregnant with Issa. I remember her and I both being so broke in my mother's house up in northern California.
There's so much music and you have such an incredible legacy.
The last time that I really was able to appreciate it, and really think about it, was when we were all together at Anita's house when June passed. That whole weekend we were playing everything in the house. We were all listening and crying together and laughing together and had June's picture all over the place, just listening to her voice on all the songs. All those memories come back when you hear those songs, where we were, what we were doing, how much fun we had and how lucky we are. There's a lot of stuff going on in those songs. When we lost June, we played all that stuff and the memories were just in our face. We knew that those were memories that we would have to hold here (Ruth points to her heart).