I was deeply saddened in June to learn of the death of Bonnie Pointer, member of one of my youthful idols, The Pointer Sisters. I admit that I wasn’t very happy when they went into only performing soul music, from about the fall of 1976 onward, but from 1973 to 1976 I couldn’t get enough of them. Every time they were on television, I made it my business to be sitting in front of a set, my eyes and ears glued to the screen.
Those early Pointer Sisters performances and recordings were from the time when there were four of them: Bonnie, Anita, June and Ruth. And as much as I loved the other three, I always felt it was sister Ruth who was the glue that held the other three’s voices together. Ruth had a deep, dark contralto that almost sounded like a foghorn, but she was hip and she could scat as well as the other three.
Those were the days, when the Pointers came on TV dressed in thrift store hand-me-downs from the 1930s and ‘40s, wearing junk jewelry and high chunky heeled shoes and looking like a million dollars—and sounding just as good. They could, and did, sing anything and everything in those days: a few soul numbers but so much more. Broadway show tunes like Steam Heat, older jazz pieces like That’s A-Plenty and Save the Bones for Henry Jones and a medley of Duke Ellington songs, then scat on bop numbers like Little Pony, Salt Peanuts and Cloudburst, then turn around and sing an old torch song like Black Coffee and even a C&W tune that they wrote themselves called Fairytale. And everything they did was superb.
Back in the 1990s, when I was a guest on Oscar Treadwell’s jazz radio show, I brought two albums that I just wanted to play at least one track each from: the John Kirby Sextet and the Pointer Sisters, who by that time had become completely identified with soul music. I played Salt Peanuts and Treadwell’s eyes just lit up…he, who had been around as a jazz disc jockey in New York DURING the late swing and early bebop era, was absolutely thrilled by them, but some music critic from the Cincinnati Enquirer began laying into them, complaining that their voices never really blended properly. I couldn’t believe that this insignificant insect was trashing my idols, particularly after a jazz icon like Oscar had given them his seal of approval. So their blend wasn’t “perfect.” So what? They could still blend, and in a song like Salt Peanuts where the goal was to just sing the theme and then scat like crazy, who cared? Years later, I felt vindicated when I discovered an old TV clip from around 1974 on which Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters told host George Burns that there was a singing group around that was better than she and her sisters. The Pointers came out, and Patty joined them in a short version of the Andrews’ first big hit, Bei Mir Bist du Schoen. They sounded terrific together…and in listening to it, I realized what the Pointers had that the Andrews didn’t, and that was a black sense of rhythm. When they sang the word “mir,” they slurred the note upwards, giving it a soul feeling, and it sounded terrific.
But what happened to the Pointer Sisters was typical of the show business mentality of that time. Despite the fact that they had proven that they could succeed in being eclectic in their material, they were eventually forced to conform. They were a black group, so ergo they had to just sing black pop music.
Anita, with Bonnie sitting next to her and occasionally chiming in, talked about their background and early years in a 2015 interview now available on YouTube:
Anita: “I remember singing…God, I must have been five years old, we were little soldiers at the church…Daddy and sister, we all had piano lessons, but I really hated it so I didn’t really learn it, I wish to God I had. But when I was in Arkansas, and Bonnie was a majorette…”
Bonnie: “I was? No wonder I blocked that out!”
Anita: “…and I was a saxophone player, and I really couldn’t play the saxophone that well, I mean I could get the songs out but I wasn’t really reading the music, just memorize the fingerings of the songs…and so I would in the parades and everything. Oh, it was so much fun! Bein’ in the band was just so much fun, we’d go to football games, be on the bus, and we’d have a party on the bus on the way to the games…
Bonnie: “I was on the bus, too?”
Anita: “Yeah…But I knew we had to do something different, different unique. Our first record, they wanted us to be like the female Jackson Five, and it was during the time when the Jackson Five were really, really hot in the early ‘70s, and The Honeycombs—that was already the female version of it. We loved them both, but WE DIDN’T WANT TO BE AN IMITATION OF THEM! You know? And we knew that we had to do something unique and different for us, and luckily we had a manager and producer, David Rubinson, who was so wonderful, omigod he really was. He saw, he had insight, he could see that they were trying to put us in this little box and keep us there, and he said, “NO! You guys are different, you have different gifts, you have so many ideas for music,” I mean, from Henry Jones to Bet You’ve Got a Chick on the Side? You know, and our albums were so eclectic, they would, they didn’t relate to anybody…But really, we did not want to be pigeonholed and do ONE kind of music, so we had jazz, we had country, got a Grammy for our country music, got the Billie Holiday Jazz Award for our jazz music. I mean, we did a LOT of great things that, you know, we should have been able to do but…they’re afraid to let people stretch out, they want to go with what sells, the only thing that’s been proven to have sold, that’s the only way the industry will go. They won’t take chances! And it’s a shame!” (Bold print mine, obviously.)
Bonnie: “No…they’re takin’ a lot more now, but they…you know, when we were comin’ up…”
Anita: “Yeah, they wouldn’t take any chances…they’re kinda forced to do it now because these young kids are starting their own labels, they’re promoting and distributing their own records, you know? We didn’t have that back then, you know? It was a whole different industry, and I’m so glad for these kids now that they’re so smart and so brilliant.”
If you’d like to explore the Pointer Sisters when they were “really” the Pointer Sisters, here are a few links:
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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