The Pointer Sisters – 10 of the best

The California group’s hybrid soul and funk took a while to form but it was finessed to perfection on hits including Chainey Do, I’m So Excited and Slow Hand

1. Yes We Can Can

The Pointer Sisters’ parents – both preachers – banned rock’n’roll from the family home (along with nail polish, trousers and boys), intending to raise gospel singers. But by the late 1960s, youngest sisters June and Bonnie had been bitten by the pop bug and were performing at nightclubs, adding older sister Anita to the lineup and signing with Atlantic Records in the early 70s for a couple of underwhelming singles. After Atlantic dropped the trio, they recruited eldest sister Ruth, returned to the clubs and started getting work as session singers – most notably, they cut the vocals for Sesame Street’s funkadelic Pinball Number Count segment – before crossing the path of David Rubinson, a record producer whose credits included early Herbie Hancock fusion masterpieces Mwandishi and Sextant. Teamed with an ace group of funk and soul musicians, the Sisters cut a career-making demo, reworking an old civil-rights anthem penned by New Orleans R&B figurehead Allen Toussaint. There wasn’t much to Yes We Can Can – a rock-solid rhythm, lean shivers of funk guitar, the sisters’ hypnotic criss-crossing harmonies and Anita’s fearless lead vocal – but its six minutes of righteousness (calling listeners to “Respect the women of the world / Remember you all have mothers”) made for an electrifying secular-gospel stormer, a paean to positivity the Pointers took as their anthem. “When we started out, that was our theme,” Anita later said. “You know: ‘Yes, we can!’” Reaching No 11 on the Billboard pop charts, their debut singled proved that the Pointer Sisters’ confidence was well placed.

2. Fairytale

Their eccentric new label Blue Thumb Records (which also released Captain Beefheart, Love and Sun Ra) was a fine home for an eclectic group like the Pointer Sisters, who dressed like glammed-up 1940s housewives (Ruth described scavenging “from our mom’s friends, the garages, the attic, the thrift stores”) as they barrelled through a riotous and unlikely jumble of ragtime jazz, earthy blues and hard-edged funk. This hit from their second LP, 1974’s That’s a Plenty, pushed the Pointers’ formula even further out there, adding country and western to their already ambitious repertoire. Scored by weepy pedal steel and fiddle, Fairytale was a break-up croon Anita had penned on the road, an unexpected hit that reached the Country Top 40 and scored the Sisters their first Grammy. It also won them an invite to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, where they became the first black women to perform on that legendary stage. “The audience there loved us,” remembered Anita. “But at the hotel, where there was a party for us, the staff assumed we were the hired help and directed us towards the kitchen.” The Sisters got more respect from Elvis Presley, however, who covered Fairytale on his 1975 album Today, and performed it live for the rest of his life – an affiliation made all the more meaningful since Elvis’s Crying in the Chapel had been one of the few rock’n’roll records the Pointer’s parents allowed in the house.

3. How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side)

The poor chart performance of a second country-ish single cut in Nashville, Live Life Before You Die, sent the group back in the direction of funk and soul for their third album, 1975’s Steppin’. The opening track, How Long, took Yes We Can Can’s elemental brilliance a quantum leap forward. Wah Wah Watson, former member of Motown’s in-house group the Funk brothers, and a cornerstone of the Pointer Sisters’ studio band, took centre stage, as producer Rubinson assembled a space-funk epic worthy of psychedelic soul maestro Norman Whitfield. Like Whitfield’s finest work, How Long took its sweet time: two minutes pass before Anita takes the microphone, a glorious holding pattern of rubbery bass, restless hi-hat rasp, diaphanous string stabs, Wah Wah’s percolating guitar squall, and the Sisters’ rasping, paranoid whispers of “Betcha got a chick on the side / Sure you got a chick / I know you got a chick on the side”. And once Anita begins unspooling her story of betrayal, alternating between seductive croon and stung snarl, the track spends its remaining five minutes building and building, a brilliant symphony of spaced-out elements, with the Sisters’ percussive backing vocals and looping harmonies leading the way. Anticipating the militant jitter-funk of Missy’s Get UR Freak On, How Long is a spacey, ballsy, psychedelic-funk epic that still sounds like the future.

The Pointer Sisters, from left: June, Anita and Ruth, are seen in this June 1990 file photo in New York.
The Pointer Sisters, from left: June, Anita and Ruth, in 1990. Photograph: Wyatt Counts/AP

4. Chainey Do

Like its predecessors, Steppin’s eclecticism was often disorientating – finding space for a six-minute antique jazz medley in tribute to the recently-deceased Duke Ellington and a schmaltzy cover of Bacharach and David’s Wanting Things – but its three heavy funk masterpieces anchored the album. Chainey Do was the second, a radical cover of an original by bluesman Taj Mahal that teamed the Sisters with guest Herbie Hancock (plus Headhunters alumni Bill Summers and Paul Jackson), splicing the Pointers’ trademark polyphonic vocal attack on to the hectic, dissonant avant-fusion of Hancock’s Sextant-era work. Chainey Do was operating from a defiantly off-centre groove, the Sisters offering up planet-sized hooks while their long-serving backing band played at their funkiest – in particular Gaylord Birch, always a star element and playing at his absolute peak here. The track swings audaciously between seething dancefloor funk and passages of out-there weirdness, as the Pointers chirrup and yelp and incant and ululate, evoking swarming jungle sounds and echoing the similar miasmic funk of Hancock’s own Hornets. Experimental music has rarely been aimed so successfully at the hips as Chainey Do.

5. Going Down Slowly

Steppin’ closed with this monster, the final element of the album’s holy funk trinity, a gospelised behemoth. Another Toussaint song, originally cut by the man himself three years earlier as a sitar-soaked psych-soul track, Toussaint offered the Sisters the song after telling them he had loved Yes We Can Can. If the title – and, indeed, its lascivious delivery – suggested something carnal, the lyric was darker, a tale of addiction delivered by Ruth with Old Testament menace. The effect is not unlike Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir being stuffed into glitzy stack heels and sent rampaging across the dancefloor, rock and funk working in perfect harmony to build its planet-flattening stomp. And an impromptu 2009 reunion performance by the surviving original Pointers shows the song’s potent funk has scarcely dulled with time.

6. Bring Your Sweet Stuff Home to Me

Always a combustive unit, not least thanks to regular squabbles over who would sing lead, the Pointers were in turmoil by the time they cut their fourth album, with Bonnie exiting the group for a solo career after recording the album’s opening title track (a cover of Sam Cooke’s Having a Party), and the remaining Sisters believing they’d been ripped off by their record label and management. Their last release for Blue Thumb and their final work with David Rubinson, Having a Party didn’t even make Billboard’s Soul Top 50, but contained at least one unmissable moment with this Stevie Wonder collaboration. The Sisters had worked with Stevie before, when he contributed the jazzy, woozy, magical Sleeping Alone to Steppin’. This time round, Wonder offered up this glorious, swooning, carnival-esque number, with Birch riding a samba rhythm and doing wonderful things on the cymbals, Wonder rambling giddily across the keyboards, and the now-reduced Pointer harmonies still conjuring something heady and seductive. Wonder’s own Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing already shown that Stevie had a magical touch for Latin rhythms, and this overdriven treat delivered again in abundance.

7. Fire

June went on to submit her resignation from the group, and a reeling Anita and Ruth went off in search of the Sisters’ future. They found it in the form of Richard Perry, a producer who had helmed Carly Simon’s breakthrough LP No Secrets, chaperoned Diana Ross’s withdrawal from the Motown machine on Baby It’s Me, and guided Barbra Streisand from Broadway success to pop/rock crossover with her breakthrough Stoney End LP. Perry had a vision for the Pointers, and it involved bringing June back into the fold, ditching their lurid thrift-store duds for the more understated gear they wore in the studio, and shifting the Sisters from soul, funk and jazz towards more “adult-oriented” rock fare. Perry signed the group to his new Planet imprint, and on 1978’s Energy and 1979’s Priority they turned their considerable talents to rock songs such as Steely Dan’s Dirty Work, the Rolling Stones’ Happy and the Band’s Shape I’m In. Best of all their rock’n’roll covers, however, was this Bruce Springsteen nugget, which the Boss had penned for Elvis just before the King’s death, and was ultimately recorded by Springsteen’s buddy Robert Gordon. Gordon’s version didn’t trouble the charts, but the Pointers’ cover – their first single as a trio – reached No 2 on Billboard. And it’s a triumph, not least because making the song’s narrator the pursued woman rather than her overbearingly insistent boyfriend rescues a lyric that really hasn’t aged well – it’s no longer the awkward tale of a horny guy pushing his luck: Anita’s in control here, her agency restored. And when June and Ruth chime in on the chorus (“When we kiss / Ooh / It’s like fire”), their luminous harmonies set the song aflame.

8. Slow Hand

The middle-of-the-road turned out to be a comfortable place for the Pointer Sisters to idle through the middle-stretch of their career, satiny balladry like this FM radio staple coming easily to the trio during their tenure with Perry. Erotic but mature – maybe even tasteful – Slow Hand was as close to the country sound as the Sisters had braved since the days of Fairytale; Del Reeves and Conway Twitty later scored hit singles with countryfied covers of the song. This crossover baby-boomer hit was the very soul of the burgeoning adult contemporary genre, a well-judged melange of soul, country and pop with traces of all those ingredients, with no dominant flavour, but sold by the soft-focus production and the Pointers’ honeyed harmonies. And just because you can easily imagine Alan Partridge adding this song to a seduction playlist doesn’t make it naff.

9. I’m So Excited

The Pointers’ could have seen out their career plying polished baby-making music, but they had one more potent transformation up their sleeves. MTV had arrived and, embracing the new era, the Pointers ditched the earnest dungarees and headscarves that had signalled their grasp for rock and baby-boomer audiences, in favour of the nightclub finery, neon miniskirts and mammoth shoulder-pads they sported in their glamorous new promo videos. The rock’n’roll cover versions ceased, as the Pointers turned their attention to the new urban sound, covering a song by a skinny fella from Minneapolis who was about to make that space between rock, funk and soul his own. But while the Pointer Sisters’ version of Prince’s I Feel for You today feels like a warmed-over dry run for the later Chaka Khan hit, the title track to 1982’s So Excited – composed by the sisters and their sax-player, Trevor Lawrence – led the way to their future: up-tempo, adrenalised pop painted with the boldest, brightest synthesiser key strokes, the Sisters maintaining a mind-bogglingly breathless state of euphoria for a full five minutes. Released as a single in 1982, however, it only managed No 30 in the charts (the relatively anodyne American Music had reach No 16 earlier that year). But perhaps I’m So Excited was just a little ahead of its time.

10. Automatic

The Pointers’ next album, 1983’s Break Out, made a multi-platinum, multiple Grammy-winning success of the Pointers’ new direction, selling over 3m copies in the US, and yielding six Billboard-charting singles, including a remixed I’m So Excited!, which finally cracked the Top 10 two years after its original release. The album’s other hits played their new electronic sound even further to the fore: the lighter-than-air pop of Jump, the brash apocalyptic stomp of Neutron Dance (which also appeared on the chart-topping soundtrack to the year’s highest-grossing movie, Beverly Hills Cop – an effective exercise in promotional synergy), and the album’s true gem, Automatic. Wired to the gills with synthesiser riffs and sequences, its surfeit of hooks winning the track heavy airplay on R&B radio, in 1983 Automatic must have sounded like the future, its robotic funk cloaking a lyric where love has rendered Ruth (who sings in an impressively funky baritone) as helpless as a servile android. Break Out marked the pinnacle of the Pointers’ career – their next album, 1985’s Contact, would be their last to go platinum. And while Break Out’s success – not to mention a hospitalising bout of spinal meningitis – prompted Ruth to acknowledge and confront her debilitating cocaine problem, June was not able get the better of her addictions. Ejected from the group in 2004 after she missed performances due to crack cocaine abuse, June died of cancer two years later, while Anita retired from the group in 2009. Ruth still fronts the Pointers Sisters, even if there are no longer any sisters in the group; it’s still a family affair, however, with Ruth’s daughter Issa and granddaughter Sadako now filling out the ranks.


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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