The first time Oakland’s famous sibling group The Pointer Sisters performed “Yes We Can Can” on Don Cornelius’ hippiest trip in America, two minutes in, that ’73 Soul Train audience caught the dance floor holy ghost. When Bonnie, June, Anita, and Ruth declare in churchy shout unison “We got to make this land a better land than the world in which we live” yells, praises and arm wavings start transforming the room. Live, right in front of the cameras, for the remaining minute or so, Allen Toussaint”s good word on advocating unity and tolerance, delivered by this dynamic foursome, converts the center of “Peace, Love and Soul” into their father’s West Oakland Church of God.
When Bonnie Pointer, who passed away on June 8t at the age of 69, was a member of the group she started with her sisters—that quartet, stunting with the best of them, decked-to-nines in thrift store glamour (pre-Tony! Toni! Tone! Mind you)—they RAN the table on soul, country (they won a Country Grammy in 1975), funk, blues, folk… Whatever they felt, got conquered. Only taking questions after the fact. They were the first Black vocal group to play Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry. Then, because they had it like that, they pop up in the blaxploitation comedy Car Wash. They sang the Sesame Street counting song. It’s called versatility.
As pointed out in Variety, Ruth Pointer’s memoir, I’m So Excited: My Life as a Pointer touched on her sister’s ambitious, bohemian life. “Bonnie in particular was driven, citing a desperate need to do something with her life. She was wild, fierce, and not to be denied. She hung out in Haight-Ashbury with the hippies, protested at Berkeley, wrote poetry with Angela Davis, and dated Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party.”
Said Bonnie Pointer in a 2013 interview with Alan Mercer, “I knew I didn’t want to work a regular 9 to 5 job. I wanted to do something that I like to do. I am an entertainer and I’ve always done that since I was a little girl. My mother always used to tell me to dance for her friends. When my parents went to church, me and my sisters would get up on the coffee table and sing. We would use a pie pan as a tambourine.
“Then, when I was in high school someone told me I could sing. 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.” Performing for her was “desperation. I wanted out of the ghetto. I wasn’t even in the ghetto really, but I still wanted out.”
Maybe the only contemporary with all that encompassing musical vocabulary as The Pointer Sisters was Labelle, who could go from doo-wop to glam rock with a splash of disco in the middle, effortlessly. Point is, and we already know what it is, if it was Bowie, The Beatles, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart or whatever pale dude you can think of…they would have been properly lauded in the mainstream as the geniuses they were. Instead, music executives stood puzzled. Refusing to pour on the well-earned financial and critical dap. Take a whiff at the cinematic funk bomb ‘How Long (Betcha’ Got a Chick On The Side) and try to tell me different.
Slap a Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye producer name on it, we have a different conversation. Instead, it was co-written by Anita and Bonnie and produced by David Rubinson. Yet sampled by Salt-N-Pepa and Queen Latifah, who obviously read some liner notes and dapped it up in the future.
In 1978 Bonnie Pointer married Temptations and Chairmen of the Board producer Jeffrey Bowen and pursued a solo career—and contributing a Motown-disco classic that still hits today. She left The Pointer Sisters as a trio, where they double-dipped into the pop-country genre, attaining hits by covering Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” and their mega-hit ballad “Slow Hand.”
It was this incarnation of the group that became an 80’s hit machine with their best selling album BreakOut which dealt a much more palpable fussy synth-pop version of soul that made “I’m So Excited,” “Jump (for My Love)” and “Automatic” decade-defining arrangements. Much like Phil Collins reworked version of Prince’s 1999 on “Sussudio,” a slew of producers compacted Madonna’s upbeat anomalous form of synthetic disco into a career-altering Pointer Sisters mainstream triumph.
The intriguing 1973 “Soul Train” version of Ruth, Anita, Bonnie, and June never quite caught that same paycheck, but definitely kept US on our toes.