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Perfect 10: The Pointer Sisters

From the golden age of Motown to eighties eccentrics and nineties Spice, girl groups have continuously shaped the pop landscape and produced many of the most memorable moments in music history. 

But what about female trios? There’s more than you think. After a few line-up shenanigans, The Pointer Sisters recorded their first three albums as a four-woman enterprise. But it’s as a three-piece that they‘re best known, occupying a unique and long-held place in the pop pantheon — in chronological terms somewhere between the Supremes and Bananarama, but going one further — literally — than the Ronettes, these formidable femmes did what it said on the record and were an all-family affair, and able to dominate a market for much of the 1970s and ’80s with only Sister Sledge as their bona fide chart competitors.

While they’re often billed as an R&B vocal group, the singing siblings from Oakland, California made some of the most genre-diverse music out there. From pop to bebop, jazz to funk, dance to country, and everything in between, these women were not afraid to branch out… and break out — to namecheck their mid-eighties commercial zenith —  of any stereotypical little boxes the industry tried to contain them in. 

Starting out as a clunky-monikered club duo called Pointers  A Pair, The Pointer Sisters have been going in various permutations since 1969 — the year of my birth and the year Diana Ross made her final record with the Supremes. During their long career, the sisters enjoyed scores of hits that allowed each of them to shine as lead singer, won three Grammys, and in 1994 they received the ultimate showbiz accolade; a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, attended by all four siblings. 

Their musical legacy lives on and went full circle when their best-selling single Jump (For My Love) became a humungous hit for Girls Aloud in 2003. The group still perform, but with the incongruous youngest-first deaths of June (1953-2006), Bonnie (1950- 2020), and Anita (1948-2022), the sole surviving founder member is Ruth. She’s the big sister and the grand dame of the group (and my favourite of the four, I have to say), and now performs on stage with, well, if not her siblings then the next best thing — her daughter Issa and granddaughter Sadako, reducing the band to Pointer Sister but representing three generations of the family.

In the spirit of girl power, to celebrate Ruthie’s 77th birthday, and March being Women’s History Month, we’ve built a listicle of the ten most perfect Pointer Sisters classics. Go from sadness to exhilaration as we run through through them one by one. I’m about to list them all and I think you’ll like it.

Send Him Back (1972) 

Alright, who’s for a trip to the Wigan Casino?

Despite their God-fearing parents, the Rev. Elton Pointer and wife Sarah, encouraging their daughters to sing gospel (rock ’n roll and the blues were “the devil’s music”, they claimed), the gals’ eponymous debut, 1973’s The Pointer Sisters, included a driving blues-funk remake of Allen Toussaint’s Yes We Can Can, which gave the obstinate offspring their first hit, reaching No. 12 on the Billboard chart. 

Prior to the LP release, the girls were briefly signed to Atlantic Records, where the label tested the water with a couple of one-off singles featuring the Pointers as a girl group trio comprising of Bonnie, June and Anita (Ruth was the last to join in December 1972): 1971‘s Jackson 5-ish Don‘t Try To Take the Fifth, and the following year‘s Destination No More Heartache, released in March 1972.

Buried away on this this old-school obscurity was the scratchy little B-side Send Him Back, a raucous Ronettes meets Crystals number. Though the quartet’s time on the label that made Aretha a soul star was far from chart-bothering, this gem of a flipside became a Northern Soul classic in Britain, aided immensely by virtue of its rare groove status. To my knowledge it’s never appeared on any Pointers album or compilation, which is, frankly, any long-players’ loss.

Fire (1978)

1974’s Fairytale 45 pushed the Pointers’ riotous jumble of ragtime jazz and earthy blues even further out there, adding country music to their already ambitious repertoire. Not only did it win the girls a Grammy but the song even reached the ears of Elvis Presley, an affiliation made all the more meaningful since Crying In The Chapel had been one of the few rock ’n’ roll records the Pointer’s parents allowed in the house. Presley would record his own version in 1975 and sing it in concert for the rest of his days.

A confirmed Elvis fan from New Jersey, none other than the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, wrote Fire in 1977 with the idea of it too being recorded by his idol, after watching him perform in Philadelphia on his final tour. He sent Presley a demo, but by the time it arrived ‘The King’ had already left the building. 

A year later, the song made its way into Anita and Ruth’s hands, who were briefly a duo still reeling from June’s departure in 1975, followed by Bonnie’s exit in 1977. In 1978, a musically reinvented and recharged Pointer Sisters returned with June back in the fold and promptly scored a No. 2 US hit with Bruce’s song. 

Led by a brilliantly nuanced Anita vocal, the single also went huge internationally, topping the charts in Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and even apartheid South Africa, plus No. 3 in Canada. It petered out at 34 in the UK, but it garnered the girls their first Top 40 single across the pond, just weeks a rendition of Sly & The Family Stone’s Everybody Is A Star gave them their British chart debut. The 45s sitting pretty in the top spots when the Pointers were making baby steps? Blondie’s Heart Of Glass and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. And survive they sure did.

Happiness (1979)

When the reconfigured Pointer Sisters returned composed of Ruth, Anita and June, they eventually signed with producer Richard Perry’s fledgling label Planet Records. Impressed by their unique ability to fit their vocals into any genre, Perry decided to fashion the trio an album of innovative new arrangements of lesser known compositions by the rock fraternity.

1978’s Energy would become first Pointers project produced by Perry, who would go on to helm a total of nine albums in an 11-year association with the girls. Following Fire, Happiness was extracted as the LP’s second single in 1979 and saw the group returning to the repertoire of New Orleans icon Alan Toussaint after charting hits with his Yes We Can Can and Going Down Slowly earlier in the decade.

The song is a fun, hard-edged clash of impossible guitar, funky bass and disco backbeats overlaid with a gutsy June vocal. It scored moderately on the US pop Top 40, and has the distinction of featuring five then-current and future members of the band Toto. 

He’s So Shy (1980)

Although the title recalls the classic He’s So Fine by the Chiffons, He’s So Shy, written by Tom Snow with legendary songwriter Cynthia Weil, was in fact originally intended for curly-haired Cockney Leo Sayer, albeit under the gender-swap title of She’s So Shy, naturally.

Somehow, the song ended up in the Pointer Sisters’ laps instead, and gave the girls a much-needed comeback. After infusing it with their trademark jumble of pop, new wave, dance and R&B, the trio opted for June to take the reins and unleashed it on the charts, where they watched it climb all the way to third position on the Billboard Hot 100 (it would hold that position during the same three weeks that Barbra Streisand’s Woman In Love, held the number-one spot), pretty much setting the benchmark for much of their electronic-inspired ’80s output.

Slow Hand (1981) 

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 coming easily to the trio during their tenure with producer Richard Perry. Moreover, this FM staple happened to be my own introduction to the Pointer Sisters. Back in 1980 and ’81, in the transitional pre-teen period when my parents furnished me with a tape recorder but before I started buying records, I did as many a kid did back then and taped songs off the radio; in this Brit’s case BBC Radio 1. It was a mixed bag of tracks — anything from ABBA’s Super Trouper to Depeche Mode’s New Life and Spandau Ballet’s Musclebound. Slow Hand made it on my C90 too, despite not knowing the slightest thing about who was singing it.

Anita’s lead vocal on this is strong and sensual, and w ith hindsight, this crossover baby-boomer hit fed directly into the burgeoning adult contemporary genre. With the slightest of country twinges and a style that comes as close to ‘mature’ as the group ever came, its seductive melange of pop and soul sold by the soft-focus production and the Pointers’ honeyed harmonies. 

Erotic but sophisticated – maybe even tasteful – Slow Hand was as close to the country sound as the Sisters had braved since the days of Fairytale, resulting in a No.2 US hit, stuck behind Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s far slushier Endless Love. It also garnered the girls their first top tenner in Britain and soon became and one of the most enduringly popular songs in their catalogue. 

I’m So Excited (1982) 

“I’m so excited! And I just can’t hide it!”

It seems like every man, woman and their dog knows that raucous rhyming couplet, making this giddy classic probably the Pointer Sisters’ most famous song around the world. Though the first time we saw the video on Top Of The Pops in Britain, my mother took an instant dislike to this upbeat stomper, snorting after the chorus had been repeated perhaps once too often, “What a rubbish song!”

But this is an eternally fun feline frolic that’s enjoyed multiple lives so, sorry Mum, respectfully I say to thee… disagree. The track was composed by the trio and their sax-player, Trevor Lawrence. With a lead vocal by Anita, the girls maintain a mind-bogglingly breathless state of knicker-wetting euphoria for a full five minutes. So much so that just before the three-minute mark, Ruth lets out the most filthy, booming “Oh, yeah!” that makes you wonder if King Dong had just entered the studio and dropped his pants for a little side-session recreation.

The 45 got its first airing on 1982’s So Excited album, where it was soon off as the set’s second single. Inexplicably, the 45 only managed No. 30 in the US (the relatively anodyne American Music had reached No. 16 earlier that year), though did better Down Under, peaking at No. 9. Perhaps I’m So Excited was just a little ahead of its time. Either way, the song led the way to the Pointers’ future: up-tempo, adrenalised pop painted with the boldest, brightest synthesiser key-strokes. 

Proving you can’t keep a good romp down, two years later a remixed version of the song popped up on a reissued version of the Break Out LP, where it was spun off as its fourth 45. Considering how it’s regarded as a — if not the — girls’ signature song (aided in no small part by its use in countless TV shows, movies and ads, not to mention the slightly revealing video), it’s surprising to find the only country where it went top five was Sweden. It also made the ninth spot on the Hot 100 and legs 11 in the UK in November 1984. With bittersweet irony, the song sitting at No. 1 in Britain was Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You, which the sisters had tackled on the So Excited LP, though unlike Chaka’s rap-infused remake their version stayed reasonably faithful to the Prince original. 

Automatic (1983)

Ah, the piece de resistance. 

Released as the second single from their tenth album Break Out, this is unquestionably the true shining gem in the Pointer Sisters lustrous catalogue. An electro-funk masterpiece wired to the gills with motorik synthesiser riffs and squelchy sequencers, in 1983 Automatic must have sounded like the future, its robotic funk cloaking a lyric where love has rendered Ruthie as helpless as a servile androidrich. Elder Pointer dominates throughout, singing rich and resonant in a huskily low contralto that’s just so damn seductive it’s bordering on the baritone.

Everything about the song is brilliantly buoyant — from the key change leading into the bridge to the snappy, clipped rhythm guitar that’s the best axe work Nile Rodgers never put his name to. If there’s one tiny surprise it’s that the first verse is repeated after the second, looping back in at 3:20, which was an odd move, considering that was pretty much the standard running time for a single by the ’80s.

Nevertheless, its surfeit of hooks won the single heavy airplay on pop and R&B radio and the 45 soared to fifth position on the Hot 100. It was an even bigger hit outside of the US, eventually reaching No. 1 in Ireland, and 2 in the UK in May 1984, stuck for a fortnight behind a bit of wank by Duran Duran called The Reflex. Still, Automatic is the Pointer Sisters’ highest charting record of any description in Britain. Quite right too, and it’s easily one of my very favourite songs of not just the 1980s but, hell, any decade. Natch.

BONUS: Automatic‘s B-side was Nightline, the track dropped from the 1984 rejig of Break Out to allow inclusion of I‘m So Excited. It was a song originally written by Glen Ballard for Michael Jackson‘s Thriller but was never released at the time.

Jump (For My Love) (1984)

Break Out made a multi-platinum, multiple Grammy-winning success of the Pointers’ new direction, selling over 3 million copies in the US, and yielding six Billboard-charting singles. The album’s subsequent hits played their new electronic sound even further to the fore, injecting the sisters’ trademark harmonies with fresh the electrodance grooves that culminated in an intoxicating blend of old and new. 

Those long-term admirers who wished they still dressed like the Savoy may have had their doubts, but the lighter-than-air pop of Jump suits the Sisters just fine. The song is marked by exceptionally gutsy lead vocals from June, underscored with a jittery rhythm where the Minimoog, Fender Rhodes piano and drum machines determine its sound, while synths-a-plenty play regular bass notes and syncopated chords. All in all, it’s a hectic dance track that reached No. 3 in the US — the girls’ third biggest hit on home soil (behind Prince and Bruce Springsteen) — and the promotional video was in heavy rotation on MTV. 

Indeed, you couldn’t escape the song there or on radio. And, hurrah, because the song got a fresh lease of life in 2003 when British girl band Girls Aloud covered it for the soundtrack to Love Actually, with the single going one better on the UK chart — second place behind Westlife, even though everyone knows everything the Irish munchkins ever did was No. 2.

Neutron Dance (1984) 

Songsmith Allee Willis wrote the brash apocalyptic stomp of Neutron Dance in the hope it would get on the soundtrack of the movie musical Streets Of Fire. It didn’t, but happily, it did wangle a very prominent place in Beverly Hills Cop instead, 1984’s highest-grossing movie – an effective exercise in promotional synergy if ever there was one. Assuming lead duties, Ruth was reticent at first, though:

“When I first heard Neutron Dance I didn’t want to sing it. I liked the rhythm and vigorous arrangement but to me the word ‘neutron’ had a violent connotation on account of the neutron bomb then so much in the news.”

Indeed, laying her silky, sonorous vocals over an extraordinarily snappy and frenetic melody, Ruthie tried to get its author to change the lyrics but “she told me to quit overthinking it and just sing the damn song! Luckily, I shut up and listened. I gave Neutron Dance a gospel feel and nailed it in a few takes.” 

With a video featuring the girls as discontented theatre ushers the 45 also became the US fourth top tenner featured on Break Out, rising as high as 6 in February 1985 (George Michael’s Whamtastic Careless Whisper was No. 1). This was clearly the career apogee of the Pointers, who had never even enjoyed back-to-back top 20 singles in their homeland before. Alas, Neutron Dance proved to be the group’s final top ten hit, while Allee Willis went from strength to strength, lending her pen for hire talents to everything from the magical Pet Shop Boys & Dusty Springfield duet What Have I Done To Deserve This? to I’ll Be There For You, the Rembrandts’ ubiquitous TV theme for Friends.

Dare Me (1985)

Featuring a lead vocal by June, Dare Me was authored by Nashville-based songwriters Sam Lorber and Dave Innis. Later to become a founding member of Restless Heart, Innis said the tune was written specifically with the Pointer Sisters in mind:

“Sam Lorber and I did try to put ourselves in the place of what a gal might be thinking. Not specifically trying to be a Pointer Sister, but a song written from a female perspective, for sure. There are certain things that are more gender-specific and gender appropriate… certain things that a woman can say that a guy’s not going to be able to get away with saying.” 

Allmusic’s Amy Hanson described the song as an “audacious, rough-and-ready come-on draped in a samba beat, wrapped in period trimmings, and brimming with sharp vocal harmonies,” and they would be spot on. Though it had an uncertain start in the chart in the wake of Live Aid, the 45 would be aided by a video featuring the Sisters in male drag  scouting potential boxing talent and managed to tease its way to No. 11 on the Hot 100 by September of ’85, as well as No. 1 on Billboard Dance Chart – their highest ever position on the niche genre listing.

Alas, despite helping the trio to win an American Music Award for Favorite Video Group in 1986, Dare Me would become the Sisters’ last Top 30 hit in the US, UK and just about everywhere. As Allmusic summed up in their review of its attendant album Contact, the Pointers were “consummate performers, in excellent voice, their harmonies as pure as always. But by 1985 they seemed to have hit a plateau, not striving to change, but apparently happy enough to add synthpop R&B to a market already glutted with the stuff.”

Steve Pafford

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