Bonnie Pointer obituary

Founding member of the Pointer Sisters who enjoyed solo success with Heaven Must Have Sent You

“I’m the kind of person who likes to do adventurous, new things,” said the singer Bonnie Pointer in 1979. “It’s got to be a challenge for me to go forward because I don’t like to be stuck into just one thing.”

Pointer, who has died aged 69 of cardiac arrest, was not afraid to leave her siblings in the Pointer Sisters in 1977 and strike out on a solo career, signing a deal with Motown. This brought her a hit single in 1978 with Heaven Must Have Sent You – a sleek disco remake of the Elgins’ original – which reached No 11 on the US mainstream pop chart.

The track stands as the commercial highlight of Pointer’s solo career, and lives on as a karaoke favourite, though her fans often cite Free Me from My Freedom as the finest moment on her debut album. However, it fell short of the Top 50, seemingly because radio stations thought the lyrics were advocating S&M sex: “Tie me to a tree (handcuff me)”. Pointer dismissed the notion, adding “People will just think what they want anyway, won’t they?”

Her four-album solo career never saw her reaching the heights scaled by the Pointer Sisters, whose most successful records were made after Bonnie left. But it had been Bonnie’s original collaboration with her younger sister, June, as Pointers, a Pair in 1969 that was the founding moment of the group. The duo became a trio when their sister Anita climbed on board, and signed to Atlantic Records. The Pointer Sisters reached their full complement in 1972 with the addition of Ruth.

The Pointer Sisters performing Fairytale, written by Bonnie and Anita

In her autobiography, I’m So Excited: My Life As a Pointer (2016), Ruth created a vivid sketch of Bonnie, describing her as “wild, fierce and not to be denied”, and recounting how she “protested at Berkeley, wrote poetry with Angela Davis, and dated Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther party”. The sisters’ early days with Atlantic proved commercially fruitless, but their fortunes changed when they moved to Blue Thumb. Two of their albums for the label, The Pointer Sisters and Steppin’, reached the US Top 30, and the singles Yes We Can Can (written by Allen Toussaint), Fairytale and How Long (Betcha’ Got a Chick on the Side) were Top 20 successes.

Fairytale was a particular highlight for Bonnie, who co-wrote it with Anita. A straight-up country song with pedal steel guitar and rich vocal harmonies, it brought the group their first Grammy award in 1975, for best country vocal performance. That year, Elvis Presley released his own version.

Bonnie was born Patricia Pointer in West Oakland, California, the third daughter of Elton Pointer and his wife, Sarah (nee Silas), both church ministers. Ruth was born in 1946, Anita in 1948, and June would arrive in 1953.

Their parents encouraged the sisters to sing gospel music, and they sang often at the West Oakland Church of God. Nonetheless the girls developed an enthusiasm for Elvis Presley and rock’n’roll. They attended Oakland technical high school, from which Bonnie graduated in 1968.

Bonnie Pointer in Los Angeles, 1982.
Bonnie Pointer in Los Angeles, 1982. Photograph: Harry Langdon/Getty Images

By the mid-1960s Ruth and Anita were both married with children, but Bonnie and June yearned for a career in show business. “When I was in high school someone told me I could sing,” Bonnie said in 2013. “I never thought I really could. I would sing along with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. So when they told me I could sing I started to believe them.”

After Anita left her job and joined them, the trio found work as backing singers to a number of up-and-coming Bay Area artists, including the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, the androgynous R&B singer Sylvester James, Boz Scaggs and the blues guitarist Elvin Bishop.

In 1969 Bill Graham, the rock promoter who’d opened San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium concert venue, signed them to a management contract. They were spotted by Jerry Wexler from Atlantic while performing with Bishop at the Whisky in Los Angeles, and he signed them to the label.

The Sisters were keen to create their own mix of musical styles that harked back to the 30s and 40s, drawing from jazz, blues, country and gospel (their second album That’s a Plenty is a fine showcase for their mastery of an array of American musical genres). They dressed to match, picking up clothes from thrift stores and church sales.

“I was always getting kicked out of school for being overdressed,” Bonnie recalled. “I would wear a hat and look like Bette Davis or Greta Garbo.” In 1976 the Pointer Sisters appeared in the multiracial comedy film Car Wash, playing Richard Pryor’s singing entourage the Wilson Sisters.

Bonnie’s move into a solo career on Motown coincided with her marriage to the producer Jeffrey Bowen in 1978, but while the remaining Pointer Sisters went on to their greatest successes with a streak of hits including Fire, He’s So Shy, Slow Hand and Automatic, Bonnie’s relationship with her label failed to blossom as planned. A legal dispute prompted a parting of the ways, and her next album, If the Price Is Right, didn’t appear until 1984, on the Private I label. Her final album was Like a Picasso (2011).

She continued to be a popular club and casino live performer. In 1994 she reunited with her sisters when they were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and two years later they collectively performed Jump (for My Love) in Las Vegas. In 2010, Bonnie appeared as herself in Monte Hellman’s film Road To Nowhere.

In 2011, Bonnie was arrested for possession of crack cocaine. In 2004, June had been arrested for possession of the same drug outside Bonnie’s apartment. Bonnie and Bowen divorced in 2016.

June died in 2006. Bonnie is survived by Ruth and Anita, and her brothers, Aaron and Fritz.

• Bonnie (Patricia Eva) Pointer, singer and songwriter, born 11 July 1950; died 8 June 2020


Adam Sweeting

The GuardianTramp

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