Group Biography (Full) Continued
As the Pointers began preparing to record their debut album, they made one firm decision: record executives be damned, they'd sing the kind of music they wanted to sing, and that meant eschewing the sounds on Top 40 radio and recording an album comprised of jazz, scat and be-bop. Moving full-steam ahead, they began writing jazz material for the album, but there was still one problem: the group needed performance clothes, but with no extra cash in sight, designer costumes were out of the question. Looking for ideas, the Pointers recalled how their parents had managed to clothe six children on such a tight budget--and in the process, they came up with an ingenious idea: once again, they'd hit the thrift stores, and sing their new songs in old threads. Following the fads of the 1940s, the girls stocked their closets with floral dresses, wide-brimmed hats, feathered boas, knotted pearls and platform shoes, and the original Pointer Sisters' style was born.
"It was the perfect way for us to dress, because it fit the type of music we were singing, and above all, it was cheap," June says. With all the pieces coming together, the Pointers began rehearsing their new numbers. Sometimes, they practiced up to five hours a day, working to perfect their style and sense of timing--and trying to become, as Ruth put it, "finger lickin' good." Finally, they got a chance to debut the new act in May of 1973. When an act canceled its scheduled performance at the famous Troubadour club in Los Angeles, David Rubinson swiftly got the Pointers onto the bill.
"We didn't even know how to give a show, but it was Judgment Day," Ruth told Newsweek magazine in 1973. "We just shook everything we could shake." And shake it they did--decked out in their '40s thrift shop apparel, the Pointers took the stage one by one, hanging umbrellas, feather boas and furs on an old-fashioned coat rack and immediately tearing into Lambert, Hendrick and Ross' "Cloudburst." They began scatting at a supersonic pace, and for the next glorious two hours, the sisters sang, sweat, shouted and testified through a scorching set of jazz, scat, rock, gospel and be-bop. By the time the Pointers left the stage, hysteria had taken over the Troubador audience, and amid stamping, cheering and whistling, the sisters were called back for several encores.
The performance set Los Angeles abuzz, and within weeks, the group made its first television appearance on The Helen Reddy Show. When the Pointer Sisters' self-titled album was released, the buzz became almost deafening--critics raved about its versatility and range and called the Pointers "the most exciting thing to hit show business in years."
Eventually, "Yes We Can, Can," the record's first single, reached #11 on Billboard magazine's pop singles chart; a second single, "'Wang Dang Doodle," written by Willie Dixon, also charted. By the time the album was certified gold, the group had become the most talked-about new act of the year. Even their sense of style became infectious--before long, concert attendees began showing up in their own thrift-shop attire. By summer's end, the Pointer Sisters had become, as Bonnie quipped, "the biggest thing to come out of Oakland since the Black Panthers."
The following year, the sisters released their sophomore effort, That's A Plenty. The album contained the Pointers now-famous array of musical styles--but this time, there was one difference: nestled between the finger-snapping jazz of "Little Pony" and the moody scat of "Black Coffee" was a bona-fide country-western tune, the Anita- and Bonnie-penned "Fairytale." When the single hit it big on the country charts (and pop, for that matter), Nashville came 'a calling, and before long, the sisters became the first black females to ever perform at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. But despite the group's increasing fame, it was still an era long before MTV, and many Nashvillers still hadn't actually seen the group. As the sisters have recalled in countless interviews, the Opry show didn't go off without at least one hitch: "We got onstage to sing the song, and a guy from the audience stood up and said, 'Well, hot damn, them gals is black!' " Anita laughs. And despite being the toast of the town, that lack of visibility caused other problems in Opryland as well--ones not surprising to four young black women exploring unchartered terrain. "When we first performed at the Grand Ole Opry, the audiences loved us," Anita recalls. "But at the hotel where there was a party for us, the staff assumed we were the hired help and directed us toward the back door."
Undeterred, the Pointers kept charging on--in late '74, they became the first pop act to perform at the San Francisco Opera House; tape recorders were running during the legendary performance, and Live at the Opera House was released that fall. In 1975, "Fairytale" won the sisters their first Grammy award, for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group (Anita and Bonnie were also nominated for songwriters of the year); later, The King himself, Elvis Presley, covered the tune. That year, the Pointers released their fourth album for Blue Thumb. Entitled Steppin', the record included "How Long (Betcha Got A Chick On The Side)"; co-written by Anita and Bonnie, it went Top 20 on the pop charts and sailed all the way to #1 on R&B. "Going Down Slowly" also scored well on the R&B charts. But soon, it became clear that mere vinyl wasn't enough to contain the Pointer Sisters, and in 1976, the group hit the big screen, joining Richard Pryor in the film, Car Wash. "You Gotta Believe," which was featured on the film's soundtrack, rose up the R&B charts. During this time the Pointers made appearances on the popular children's television show, Sesame Street. Their performances of "Hush Little Baby", "The Alphabet Song" and especially "Pinball Number Count" were replayed often. "Pinball Number Count" became extremely popular and is a fond childhood memory for a generation of viewers.
But despite such upward movement, trouble was brewing in the Pointer household. By 1976, June had dropped out of several performances due to reported health problems, and Bonnie was contemplating a solo career. In 1977, the Pointers released Having A Party, their last album for Blue Thumb. That year, much to her sisters' dismay, Bonnie left the group and signed with Motown Records. "We were devastated," Anita recalled in a 1990 interview. "We did a show the night she left, but after that, we just stopped. We thought it wasn't going to work without Bonnie." Reeling from their sister's departure, the Pointers cut back their touring schedule and contemplated the future. Both Anita and June mulled solo albums (Anita actually recorded one for ABC Records, but it never saw the light of day), while Ruth gave birth to her third child. But eventually, the stage called again, and the Pointer Sisters regrouped as a threesome.
Starting virtually from scratch, the Pointers faced an imposing question: what now? One answer was obvious: they'd throw away their nostalgia image, because, despite their achievements, the sisters had begun to feel stifled by their earlier success as a jazz act--and the image that they say David Rubinson pushed to continue. "The nostalgia thing got to be artistically frustrating after awhile," Anita told Rolling Stone magazine in April 1979. "In the beginning, thrift-store clothes were all we could afford, but then the clothes began dictating the style of music. David saw it as a gimmick we should use, but a lot of time, I felt really weird. It's hard to be sincere with a pile of fruit on your head."
In an effort to change their style, the sisters signed with Planet Records and teamed up with Richard Perry, a well-known producer who had previously worked with such artists as Barbara Streisand and Carly Simon. Together, they decided to obliterate the past and record a rock 'n roll album. "When Bonnie left the group, we decided we wanted a new direction so people wouldn't miss her, so we got new clothes, a new look, new music, new record producer, new everything," Anita told a reporter in 1986. The change worked: the group's debut single, Bruce Springsteen's "Fire," went all the way to #2 on the pop charts and went gold. Surprisingly, the Sisters say that it's their one hit song that they thought would never make it to the top. "We didn't even know who Bruce Springsteen was at the time," Ruth recalled in a 1997 interview. And Anita was especially hesitant about releasing "Fire" as a single. "I didn't even expect to sing lead on it," she said years later. "It sounded like a low, Ruth-type song to me. We certainly didn't expect it to become a hit." But happily, the sisters were wrong. Boosted by "Fire," the Energy album was certified gold and went on to spawn another top single with "Happiness."