The Pointer Sisters had a bunch of big hit singles in the 1980s [LISTEN to snippets], but it is their early work I want to concentrate on. The group was a quartet at the time – Ruth, Anita, Bonnie, and June – raised in Oakland, California by their minister-parents, who were NOT encouraging them to sing secular music.
They must have nevertheless listened to a varied mix of musical genres because that’s what showed up in their early recordings. Their eponymous first album yielded a #11 pop single, Yes, We Can Can [LISTEN to the album version].
1. Bangin’ on the Pipes/Steam Heat (Medley). The seemingly autobiographical first part segues into the song from the 1954 musical Pajama Game. Though it only went to #108 on the pop charts, it became an early signature song with the group performing it on The Carol Burnett Show broadcast of September 28, 1974. LISTEN to a live version of Steam Heat.
2. Salt Peanuts [LISTEN]. This Dizzy Gillespie’s bop classic allows the sisters to sound like horns, sing scat, and bend harmonies. I remember them performing this on Carol Burnett for laughs, with the hostess unable to keep up with the frenetic pace.
(They were on the Burnett show frequently in that period; here’s the lengthy skit Cinderella gets it on from November 29, 1975.)
3. Grinning in Your Face [LISTEN]. Bonnie Raitt played slide guitar on this Son House blues number.
4. Shaky Flat Blues. Written by June, Anita and Bonnie, it suggests a much earlier time.
5. That’s a Plenty/Surfeit, U.S.A. (Medley). A Dixieland feel.
6. Little Pony [LISTEN]. Music by Neal Hefti, and previously performed by Count Basie, with exuberant lyrics by Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert.
7. Fairytale [LISTEN]. Written by Anita and Bonnie, it made it to #13 on the pop charts and the Top 40 on the country charts. It won them their first Grammy, for Best Country & Western Performance by a Group, AND the sisters became the first black vocal group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. The song was covered by Elvis Presley.
8. Black Coffee [LISTEN]. Bonnie sans her sisters on the torch song immortalized by Peggy Lee, and later sung by k.d. lang.
9. “Love in Them There Hills”. This early sound of Philly song written by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, with Roland Chambers, is an OK three-minute B-side [LISTEN]. But here, it’s over eight minutes [LISTEN!] with a hypnotic middle section that is “a cosmic, free-flowing funk jam” that predated those 12-inch dance records. I used to turn off all the lights in my apartment to listen to it.
Eventually, Bonnie left to be a solo act with Motown, and the other three had some of their biggest hits. The Pointer Sisters still perform. While June died in 2006 of cancer, both Issa Pointer, Ruth’s daughter with Dennis Edwards of the Temptations; and Sadako Johnson, Ruth’s granddaughter, have been part of the group, on and off.