Perhaps hard to fathom, but the 44th anniversary of the Pointer Sisters’ self-titled debut album is already past the rear view mirror. Billboard recognizes the melodic, Big Band-inspired quartet, reduced to a trio when Bonnie Pointer departed for a fleeting solo career on Motown Records in 1977, as the fourth most successful female group ever after the Supremes, TLC, and Destiny’s Child. The R&B crossover pop phenomenon accumulated 15 Top 40 singles in the ’70s and ’80s and sold a not too shabby 40 million records and counting.
Marshall Terrill, co-author of Rock and a Heart Place: A Rock ’n’ Roller-coaster Ride from Rebellion to Sweet Salvation with noted Beatles insider Ken Mansfield, logged hours going on-the-record with eldest member Ruth Pointer for the Christian tome exploring the epic rise, fall, and redemption of 15 music icons in their own words with accompanying contextual narrative.
When urged to encapsulate Pointer’s pivotal contributions to the harmony-laden real life sisters of “I’m So Excited” renown, the preeminent Steve McQueen biographer wasted no time in getting down to the heart of the matter. “I think Ruth’s contributions to the Pointer Sisters’ style, sound and legacy are greatly appreciated by those in the know and underestimated by those who don’t know the group’s history,” admits Terrill.
“Her low register was the final piece of the Pointer Sisters’ unique blend of voices and six months after she joined, they became a household name. That’s not by coincidence. She was a key element when the group reinvented themselves in the late 1970s and a charismatic presence in their 1980s videos. Ruth is the matriarch and the glue that has held the Pointer Sisters together after all these years.”
The hard-hitting journalist’s keen observations further shed light on Pointer’s authentic temperament and exactly why they bonded so well during their extended conversations. “Ruth has a dynamic personality,” explains Terrill. “She’s sweet and brassy, down-to-earth, knows what she likes and doesn’t like, and has great style.
“Ruth is totally in touch with her feelings and is a lot of fun to be around. She’s smart, well-read and has wonderful instincts about people, art, clothes and music. Most of all, she’s real. Truly one of the most amazing ladies I’ve ever met in my life. If you can’t tell, I’m crazy about her.” Unsurprisingly, Ruth selected Terrill to co-write her debut memoir, 2016’s Still So Excited! My Life as a Pointer Sister.
Today the “Neutron Dance” funky song belter exclusively bares her soul about growing up hard scrabble with five siblings, dealing with very strict parents who refused to let her wear makeup, jewelry, or attend dances, how the mother-daughter relationship evolved over time, bringing her first date home to meet the family, getting pregnant at 19, and why she disagrees with the theory that posits women marry their father.
The deep-voiced singer also details a typical Sunday worship service at West Oakland Church of God, if she considers herself to be a skilled pianist, her favorite hymns, and whether the trio has considered cutting a gospel album.
The Ruth Pointer Interview, Part One
When did you know that you wanted to be a singer?
Wow, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know the exact time that I felt like I wanted to be a singer. I grew up in the late ’50s and ’60s. My parents, Elton and Sarah, were very strict when it came to listening to secular music, which was not in our house most of my childhood. Both of my parents were ministers, and my dad was pastor of the West Oakland Church of God that we attended.
Singing wasn’t something that I really, really was aware at the time that I would be able to do. I did it because I loved it — singing in my dad’s church or singing around at local events like dances. I never — like today’s young people — aspired or groomed myself to become what I eventually became.
I always felt like I could sing, but I never really felt like I could sing like I really wanted to sing. There’s certain people that I’ve heard sing and even still today I’ll go, ‘Damn, I wish I could do that.’ I always felt like I could sing good enough, I guess you could say, to maybe entertain a certain number of people. When the opportunity came up to make a living at singing I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s great. I’ll do that then.’
When you were little, was there someone in your family who encouraged you to sing?
My parents loved music. There was always country, gospel, even patriotic music in our home. My father always encouraged music even though it wasn’t secular music. On either my 12th or 13th birthday my father wheeled in an upright piano as a birthday present. I started taking piano lessons, and I had a piano teacher through several years of my life.
I love the piano. I can play a little bit by ear. I know the keys, the musical scale, and all that kind of stuff. I never really became a successful pianist because I was too impatient to learn to read music quick enough and really practice on a consistent basis. I wish I could play properly.
I’ve never played piano on one of our records. If we were put on the spot at a concert and asked to sing with just piano accompaniment, I don’t think I would be up to the task. It would take practice for me to get it right. I can’t just sit down and do that [laughs]. Besides, I have too much energy to be stuck sitting on a piano stool while my sisters are singing and having all the fun
[Author’s Note: In the best segment from The Pointer Sisters: Up All Nite, the group’s extremely rare January, 23, 1987, one hour NBC television special, Ruth, Anita, and June visit a quaint Salvation Army church in Los Angeles. After reminiscing about their family’s church, Ruth sits down at a piano and delivers a spine-tingling solo version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Later, her sisters join in on harmonies for a rockin’, uptempo rendition].
What was a typical service at the West Oakland Church of God like?
On a regular Sunday morning we would get up and get ready for church. Like most African American families that I particularly can relate to, there was certain attire that was saved specifically for that day. We had to put on our Sunday best to go and worship, including clothing, shoes, hats, gloves, and purses.
As I remember it, my brother Aaron, Anita, and I would walk to Sunday school that would start around 9 o’clock in the morning. There would be a break around 10 o’clock, and the regular Sunday service would start an hour later.
The congregation would sing hymns from a book that would be in back of all the pews. My father would greet everyone and we would have prayers. There would be announcements made by an usher.
A couple of collections were taken up — one for things that needed to be built or events that we were planning while the second collection supported the actual function of the church which included my father’s salary.
The junior choir also sang a few songs. I eventually became their director. I have two favorites that immediately spring to mind. “I Surrender All” was one of my dad’s favorites. My mom always loved “Once Again We Come”, which we usually sang at the beginning of the service.
My father would then speak for hopefully a short moment [laughs], but his sermons tended to last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Another selection from the choir would follow. Next, he would call for an altar call for people that would want to come and surrender their lives to Christ, have prayer, or become members of the church.
After that there would be acknowledgments of visitors. Folks would say where they were from and whether it was their first time visiting. The church would extend an open invitation for them to join our church or come back whenever they wanted to visit again.
Church would be dismissed at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, so it was a long service. Kids would be falling asleep — sometimes their parents fell asleep, too [laughs]. My dad would greet everyone as they were coming out of the church on their way home. That would take up another good hour. A buffet followed on certain Sundays.
Our family would leave and go home to our own special Sunday dinner. Maybe we would have time for a nap. Before you knew it, it was time to start getting ready for evening service. We would have a youth service at 6 o’clock, and there was a final general service from 8 ’til 10 o’clock.
It was probably a spirit-filled day for some folks, but my brothers and sisters and I were just glad to get it over with [laughs]. As kids, we wanted to be with our friends. Fortunately, we had friends in the church, too. As a matter of fact, many times we would go home after the morning church service and spend the afternoon with them.
It begs the question…why have the Pointer Sisters never recorded a gospel album?
We’ve been asked about that a lot of times, and the idea has just kind of slipped by. It’s still not out of the question. Our fans might get a kick out of hearing us go back to our roots.
Looking back on your childhood, do you think your parents were too strict?
There have been times when I have thought that they were too strict. My opinion of the way we were brought up continues to fluctuate back and forth for different reasons.
As I get older, I understand that they dealt with circumstances that they grew up with and issues that they believed in. They did the best they could with the knowledge that they had. Many times I even think, ‘Wow, Mom and Dad were really smart in the way that they brought us up.’
There were six of us kids in the household. We never really had the proper accommodations like kids have today — our own bedroom and all that. Not that I feel like we should have had, but at that time we felt like we should have had.
Sharing such a small space with your siblings makes me consider the way kids grow up today. They don’t even really have to talk to one another because they’re on their cell phones texting. Plus, they rarely see each other. We had to learn to interact. We had to learn to get along. It was all we had.
As a result we really, really care about one another. The other lesson that we learned was when we got old enough, we wanted to get away from one another. We did whatever was necessary to be able to support ourselves and be on our own. There were a lot of lessons in the way my parents raised us, and I’m grateful for it.
The other side of the argument is valid, too. I’ve always felt like we were a bit behind our friends and had to catch up as we got older. We eventually took a hold of our freedom to do things that we weren’t originally allowed to do, whether wearing makeup, jewelry, or going out and partying.
Once you became famous and started having hits on both the pop and R&B charts, did that upset your parents, or were they immediately proud for you?
No, at that point it didn’t upset them. I think they had concerns about fame and where it would take us in our lives, especially my father. He had more experiences as far as being out in the world — going to nightclubs, watching people experience issues with drugs and alcohol — so he was very concerned about us.
Of course, at that point it was out of their hands. All they could do was really hope for the best for us and hope that what they’d taught us would kinda keep us in some kind of reality of where fame’s excess would take us and sort of reel us back in if we strayed too far.
Were you close to your mom, Reverend Sarah Pointer?
As a teenager, I was actually closer to my dad. My mother was generally the disciplinarian in the family. She just didn’t pull any punches when it came to what she wanted you to do. On the other hand, my father was a little more lenient.
My mother had been a minister since she was about 14 years old, and she never lived a secular life that involved dancing, partying, or wearing makeup — other than lipstick. Whereas my dad had lived in the city of Chicago when he was 19 years old, so he had experienced a little more of the world than my mom.
She would go to missionary conventions with some of her church friends, and while she’d be out of town my dad would allow me to do things that my mother probably didn’t want me to do like going to dances and parties [laughs].
Not surprisingly, I stayed in trouble all the time. I’m the oldest girl, and let me just say that I paved the way for my younger sisters to have a little more freedom. I endured quite a bit.
I don’t remember the very first Pointer Sisters concert she attended, but I remember one in particular that my dad, grandmother, and she all went to in San Francisco — Live at the Opera House [recorded on April 21, 1974] — which became our first live album. They had a great time. It was the first limo ride they experienced that was not a funeral.
They did live long enough to be able to appreciate what we were doing and enjoy watching us perform. Compared to my dad and grandmother, my mother really lived long enough to watch us perform a lot. She passed away in November 2000.
As I got older my mother and I became much closer. I think she started to really loosen up and appreciate who I was as opposed to resisting against me simply being different from her. She enjoyed listening to my crazy stories and expressions of what I was going through with relationships and things that I would do socially.
Were your parents receptive when you started dating?
I think they were receptive enough just to accept it because they knew it was coming eventually. There was always a rule that when my boyfriend came to the house, the door had to be left open in any room that we were gonna entertain one another in. It could not be a bedroom.
The first boyfriend experience that I had in my senior year in high school ended up being my first two oldest children’s father — Faun [born in 1965] and Malik . I really thought I was in love with him [laughs]. What do we know about love when we’re 18?
Believe it or not, I have 24-year-old twins today. I look at them and go, ‘God, you just have no idea.’ I probably did love the person to my knowledge of what I thought love was.
We weren’t married when I got pregnant. That was kind of a real blow to my family’s ministry. Still, my parents were so forgiving it was beyond forgiveness. I was always welcome in my parents’ home, no matter what the deal was I was going through.
When we started singing, my mother quit her job and decided to be the guardian of my two children and Anita’s daughter because we were both abandoned by our children’s fathers and became single parents. We had to be on the road, so my mother stepped in and raised them. She was a wonderful woman.
I’m sure my parents must have surrendered, prayed, and hoped that we would choose wisely in the future. Unfortunately, we usually did not [laughs]. Anita and I talk about it to this day — none of the four of us girls was in a meaningful, loving, successful relationship with a partner for the longest time. My brothers have both been married for years to the same person. I don’t know why that is.
That’s why I have controversy with the theory that they say women marry their father. None of the guys I’ve ever been with could come close to who my father was. No comparison. My dad was the most loving, patient, sweetest man in the world.
The guys that I’ve gone after have been charming, attractive, and talented, but they just didn’t have that spirit of faithfulness, human respect, and drive to live a wholesome, clean life. Maybe it has a lot to do with the times I’ve grown up in. I don’t know.
I can say that since 1990 I’ve been happily married to my fifth husband, Michael Sayles. To my wonderful surprise, we welcomed twins Ali and Conor three years later when I was 47 years old via in-vitro fertilization.
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Soul deep with natural-born singer Ruth Pointer [PART THREE]
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