(January 10, 2023). Doesn’t it seem like the Pointer Sisters, that eclectic group of talented singing siblings out of Oakland, CA whose music has now endured half a century, weren’t always fully appreciated?
After all, they were an act that broke the rules of what it meant to be a “girl group”—first in the 1970s and then in the ‘80s—when they very successfully navigated musical genres as diverse as country, swing and rock, and later R&B, disco and pop, along with some new jack swing and even some rap thrown in as well!
Okay, the one song that I remember them rapping on (1981’s “What A Surprise” from their Black & White album), wasn’t exactly hip-hop, but they were rapping nonetheless.
Woven through all of these music types were the gospel vocal stylings the sisters honed during a very strict religious upbringing while growing up and singing in their father’s West Oakland Church of God during the 1950s and ‘60s (both their mother and father were pastors there).
Yet, with all those credentials and their immense success, the Pointers are rarely included in discussions about the greatest female recording acts of all time, or at least not in the upper echelon of those discussions, despite their unquestionable talents, long history and many unprecedented accomplishments.
Anita Pointer, the driving force behind much of that success, died of cancer on December 31 at the age of 74. This article is thus a tribute to her and her sisters—but primarily her—with a ranking of the 15 greatest Pointer Sisters songs on which Anita sang lead listed at the end of the blog.
The Pointer Sisters were pioneers
The Pointers’ groundbreaking achievements are many. For starters, they were the first Black female act to perform at the Grand Ole Opry (in October 1974) and are still the only Black act to win a Grammy for Country Vocal Group performance (for 1974’s “Fairytale”). They’re also the only group of any race to win a Grammy in the country field and then have a No. 1 soul chart hit just six months later: 1975’s “How Long (Betcha Got a Chick On The Side).”
Add to that their 1985 Grammy win for best Pop Vocal Group performance for “Jump (For My Love),” another Grammy that year for “Automatic,” plus the fact that they’re the only group to have top-40 hits on all five of Billboard’s country, R&B, pop, disco and adult contemporary charts, and the first girl group to have four top-10 pop hits from the same album (1983’s Break Out), and the Pointer Sisters were, simply put, pretty amazing!
Not like any other girl group
The four sisters—Ruth, Anita, Bonnie and June—who later became three when Bonnie left in the late ‘70s, changed what it meant to be a group comprised solely of women in the music industry.
Sixties girl groups like the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, and the Ronettes all had been the visions of male Svengalis like Berry Gordy or Phil Spector (a tradition continued in the early ‘70s with Holland-Dozier-Holland’s The Honey Cone, Barry White’s Love Unlimited and Gamble and Huff’s The Three Degrees, and in the ‘80s by Rick James’ Mary Jane Girls and Prince’s Vanity 6).
Additionally, those groups were usually treated as monoliths, often seen wearing similar or matching outfits, choreographed doing the same dance steps, and normally built around one woman spotlighted as the lead singer, with the others backing her.
But the Pointers were different, both from those other girl groups and from one other.
They eschewed the male dictator and instead recorded songs using various writers (including themselves) and producers (although their first four albums were credited to the production arm of “David Robinson and Friends, Inc.” and they later began an exclusive longstanding partnership with Richard Perry in 1978 for the second, most successful phase of their career, they were never considered the products of those two men).
In addition to the many musical stylings and genres they tackled, each sister also sang lead on at least one song on all their albums, with all three women—or four before 1977—singing background on nearly every song as well. Occasionally, they’d share leads or they’d harmonize lead vocals such that no one voice stood out above the others on a single record. And rarely did their performances consist of the sisters all doing the same dance moves, whether on TV or on stage.
In that way, the Pointer Sisters were pioneers who opened doors for future female acts, like the Bangles, En Vogue, TLC and many others, to develop their members both individually and collectively, in many of those cases to great success.
Still, to this day, the Pointers remain the only act in history to achieve top-ten songs from the same album with individual hits sung by each member. Their 1983 LP Break Out included the top tens “Automatic” and “Neutron Dance” (both lead vocals by Ruth), “Jump (For My Love)” (June lead), and “I’m So Excited” (Anita).
Yet even with this democratic approach to their creative output, one sister—Anita—would emerge as the most prolific Pointer, especially early on, often co-writing and/or singing lead on many of their hits, including their two biggest million-sellers: “Fire” and “Slow Hand,” both of which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1979 and 1981, respectively.
She also sang lead on their first pop top-40 hit, “Yes We Can Can,” their country top-40 single, “Fairytale” (which she co-wrote with sister Bonnie), and their only No. 1 soul smash, “How Long.”
Anita was viewed by many as the glue that held the group together throughout a tumultuous career that saw the comings and goings of all three other sisters: oldest sister Ruth was already married and not initially in the singing group in 1972, youngest sibling June had several departures due to exhaustion or other health issues, and the third sister Bonnie permanently left in 1978, although many interviews with the remaining Pointers claim this happened in ‘76.
For Anita, country came honest
Anita and Bonnie were the initial creative forces behind the group, the two of them having spent many childhood summers in Prescott, Arkansas where the family had relatives. There, the two middle sisters heard (and admired) a lot of country music by legends like Hank Williams, Tex Ritter and Willie Nelson. This, along with a cheating (married) boyfriend of Anita’s, would later inspire them to co-write “Fairytale,” which came honestly, complete with steel pedal guitar and fiddle accompanying Anita’s twangy lead vocal singing of unrequited love.
Anita’s slight, country-inspired southern drawl suited their pop-oriented hits perfectly. It was something later employed to more subtle effect on smashes like “Fire” and, especially, “Slow Hand,” yet it didn’t detract from their ability to reach Black audiences (both “Fire” and “Slow Hand” were top-15 soul chart hits as well, with the latter reaching No. 7 there).
But the deliberate, hardcore twang pretty much stopped with “Fairytale” (Anita and Bonnie did write another country song the Sisters recorded called “Live Your Life Before You Die,” which peaked at No. 97 pop in 1975 and was nominated for another Country Group Performance Grammy, which it lost. But “Live Your Life” never appeared on any of their albums).
The album containing “Fairytale,” 1974’s That’s A Plenty, was the sisters’ second LP, consisting mostly of an eclectic mix of 1940s swing, blues, jazz (with both Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday-influenced vocal stylings), and soul (both Philly- and Memphis-style). “Fairytale” was indeed a lone country music standout, almost a misfit, among the album’s nine tracks.
That’s A Plenty had been a continuation of the varied approach the sisters used on the songs for their previous album, 1973’s The Pointer Sisters. On that self-titled debut, listeners could find a similar mix of swing, boogie woogie, jazz, gospel, old negro spiritual, doo-wop, rock and soul music.
And like their second album, the first LP included one stand-alone track that was a stylistic departure from the others: the funky “Yes We Can Can.”
That Black empowerment anthem was thematically different for the versatile sisters, a song that capitalized on the post-Civil Rights sentiment shared among many Black musicians at the time and one whose ideology was no doubt influenced by the political protest scene the girls encountered (and, to a small degree, participated in) in their West Oakland hometown.
Indeed, “Yes We Can Can” could easily be paired with the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” as the era’s prime examples of how funk-pop successfully incorporated messages of uplift and hope for a tattered race of disenfranchised people still trying to realize the American dream. Yet even with this targeted audience, “Yes We Can Can” peaked higher on the pop chart (No. 11) than it did the soul one (No. 12) in 1973, an indication of things to come for the sisters who defied stereotypical genre labeling.
Breaking out of the 1940s swing image
The juxtaposition of “Yes We Can Can” with the Pointers’ otherwise 1940s blues and swing image was jarring, but it was proof that the now-famous siblings could deliver a hit song just as well as they could exude ragtime campiness. The very country “Fairytale” was likewise that example on the sisters’ second album in ‘74.
But it was the Pointers’ third album—and, in this blogger’s opinion, their best—that further endeared them to urban audiences with more contemporary pop and soul performances included among the jazzier numbers.
That album, 1975’s Steppin’, included the No. 1 soul, top-20 pop hit “How Long,” a pure jam founded on a funky rhythm track consisting of syncopated drum riffs, a slapping bass, and a chicken-scratch rhythm guitar that was prevalent in music at the time. Add to that the swagger of the four sisters’ whispery refrain (“I betcha you got a chick on the side, sho’ you gotta chick, I know you got a chick on the side”) backing Anita’s aggressive, assured and soulful lead, and you had the makings of a certified funk smash!
The entire Steppin’ album was a must-have, with no skips among its eight-song track list, especially the complex, somewhat bizarre, but stellar second track “Sleeping Alone.” That tune was written, produced and performed on by the one and only Stevie Wonder (during his “long” hiatus between 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale and 1976’s Songs In The Key Of Life) and, again, featured Anita singing the verses.
On “Sleeping Alone,” the sisters seemingly captured four or five musical styles in one four-and-half-minute triumph. There was at once soul, pop, blues, rock, and jazz all fused together in a tempo-defying number that is easily the most unsung gem among the group’s immense catalogue of hits and non-hits (but fear not, I’ve included it among Anita’s greatest songs ranked below…keep reading!).
The Pointer Sisters would release a fourth album in 1977, named for the title track and Sam Cooke cover, “Having A Party,” which, unlike the first three LPs, failed to generate a top-40 pop or soul hit. Around this same time, Bonnie would leave the group and, in 1978, the label for which they recorded—ABC/Blue Thumb Records—folded.
Except for a 1976 one-off contribution to the soundtrack of the motion picture Car Wash, starring the late comedian Richard Pryor (with whom the siblings later admitted they often “partied”) and featuring the four siblings in a cameo acting role as the Wilson Sisters (who perform the song “You Gotta Believe”), things looked down for the Pointers who seemed destined for pop music oblivion.
The Richard Perry/Planet Records era
Then, in 1978, Anita and Ruth, with June returning after a brief hiatus, connected with famed producer Richard Perry (and signed to his new label Planet Records). From that union would come the first of several albums that would send the reformed trio to even higher heights and greater chart success over the ensuing decade.
First up was the album Energy and its two hit singles: the sultry, rock-leaning “Fire” and the disco burner “Happiness.” Written by Bruce Springsteen, “Fire” featured Anita on lead and would become their first million-seller, peaking at No. 2 on the Hot 100 in February 1979.
Energy was followed by an unsuccessful album, 1979’s Priority, which, similar to its predecessor, featured the sisters recording more songs written by various rock talents (and legends), including Mick Jagger, Bob Seger, Gerry Rafferty, Ian Hunter, Robbie Robertson, Graham Parker and, again, Bruce Springsteen. Priority was noteworthy in that the sisters completely embraced the rock music genre, no doubt inspired by the success of “Fire” earlier that year (and disco’s demise at the same time).
That exclusive rock formula didn’t work for the Pointers this time out and they returned, undaunted, in 1980 with yet another new album, Special Things, featuring the post-disco pop nugget “He’s So Shy,” a No. 3 smash that sold a million copies and spent half a year on the Hot 100. Little sister June did the lead honors on that upbeat tune, reprising her role from “Happiness” a couple years earlier.
The Pointers’ growing success continued with the next album, 1981’s Black & White, featuring the country-blues leaning “Slow Hand,” another No. 2 pop smash that sold a million copies and featured Anita doing a sultry lead vocal. Black & White was the first of three successive Pointer Sisters albums to generate multiple top-40 singles (following 1978’s Energy in that regard).
Their 1982 album, So Excited! included two Anita-led singles, the appreciative nod to “American Music” and the titular “I’m So Excited,” which would arguably become the Pointers’ signature tune. In its original 1982 release, “I’m So Excited” only managed a No. 30 chart peak, something that would be rectified two years later after the immense success of their next album.
That album, 1983’s Break Out, was just that—a breakout smash—albeit one with a deceptively slow start.
The album’s first single—the mid tempo “I Need You,” which featured all three sisters sharing lead vocals—only managed a No. 48 Hot 100 peak (although it climbed to No. 13 on Billboard’s soul chart). As it turned out, that mediocre performance was just a primer for what would become the Pointers’ biggest success yet.
The album’s next four singles (including a remixed version of “I’m So Excited”) catapulted the Pointers to astonishing heights, creating the aforementioned chart firsts for any girl groups (first all-female album with four top tens; first group with all members individually singing lead on different top tens from same LP). To this day, “Automatic,” “Jump (For My Love),” “I’m So Excited,” and “Neutron Dance” (also featured in the Beverly Hills Cop movie), are collectively considered among the group’s most recognizable songs.
Break Out would sell more than three million copies, the biggest-selling album by a Black female group up to that point (eclipsed by TLC’s CrazySexyCool a decade later). More importantly, it cemented the Pointers as one of the premier groups of a generation, one who defied the odds and the rules of what it meant to be a “girl group” in the late 20th century.
“Dare Me,” its Casey Kasem connection, and the end of their chart success
After Break Out, the Pointers continued releasing albums.
Their next one, 1985’s Contact, on the RCA label (which had purchased then dissolved Planet Records), contained the No. 11 pop hit “Dare Me,” a song that had placed the sisters in more provocative territory lyrically (their previous hits had touched on intimate subjects before, but much more subtly).
In a bit of obscure pop culture trivia, “Dare Me” also holds the distinction of being the song that triggered famed radio personality Casey Kasem into an F-bomb-laced tirade directed at his producers in a September 1985 episode of “American Top 40” after their ill-fated decision to segue from the raucous, uptempo “Dare Me” (played at No. 13 that week) into a sad long distance dedication story about a family’s recently deceased dog.
Known in cult circles as the “dead dog dedication” (Google it), the abrupt mood-shift from fast and sexy to somber and sad was too much for Kasem to let go unscathed. Appropriately, the show’s producers spared listeners by editing out the bleep-worthy material and re-recording the segment for final mastering. But, thankfully, bootleg copies of the expletive-filled tongue lashing by Kasem can still be found all over the internet.
While “Dare Me,” sung by June, holds that odd place in radio history, it also has the dubious distinction of being the Pointers’ last top-20 pop (and top-10 soul) hit. Future songs by the sisters dotted the charts, but climbed no higher than No. 33 on the Hot 100 (1986’s “Goldmine”).
Yet the group continued onward and, as musical styles continued to evolve, the Pointer Sisters kept changing with them.
By the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the highly accomplished group had embraced new jack swing, but the sisters, by then either in their 40s or fast approaching them, were no longer resonating with younger audiences. Their last album was 1993’s Only Sisters Can Do That, recorded for the fledgling SBK label (after the Pointers had briefly done albums for Motown and RCA). It generated no hit singles, marking the end of a fabulous era.
The Pointer Sisters’ legacy
The Pointer Sisters have continued to tour in the 30 years since their last studio recording, albeit with various lineup changes. June left in 2004 (while continuing to battle a career-long cocaine addiction). Anita left in 2015 citing medical issues. Ruth continued the Pointer Sisters with her daughter Issa and granddaughter Sadako Pointer (Issa’s niece).
Many sister acts came before and after the Pointer Sisters and had varying degrees of success. There were the Staple Singers, the Emotions, Sister Sledge, the Jones Girls, the Bangles, and Wilson Phillips, to name just a few that either wholly or partially included sisters.
But few sets of female siblings have had as many hits or have been as successful as the Pointer Sisters. The few that come immediately to mind are the Andrews Sisters, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, and the McGuire Sisters, all white acts that prospered during the 20th century.
That would make the Pointers arguably the most successful Black sister act in pop music history, owing to the great talents of the individual siblings, and particularly to Anita’s immeasurable impact as the second-oldest, but possibly the most prolific of the Pointer women.
With Anita’s passing, she is survived only by older sister Ruth and two older brothers Aaron and Fritz, as both June (2006) and Bonnie (2020) preceded her in death. It’s a strange irony that the three youngest siblings have deceased in ascending order by their ages: first June, then Bonnie, and now Anita…as only the three oldest Pointers—Aaron, Fritz and Ruth—remain.
What follows below is a tribute to Anita…a ranking of the 15 best songs by the Pointer Sisters on which she sang lead, in this blogger’s opinion of course. An audio or video clip is included for each tune.
As a reminder, since this is an Anita Pointer list, songs like “Automatic,” “Jump,” “Neutron Dance,” “Dare Me,” “Happiness” and some others don’t appear on it.
With any such list being so subjective, readers will likely have different opinions of what Anita’s best songs were. Please feel free to share your thoughts and suggestions in the comment section at the bottom of the article.
Here are the 15 greatest Anita Pointer-led songs by the Pointer Sisters, counted down in reverse order by rank…
Rank. “Title” (year, album)
Fifteen. “Special Things” (1980, Special Things)
The title track to the sisters’ seventh studio album was written solely by Anita (and she sang it as well). Not an exceptional track by any means, but it’s not bad either, and Anita’s sole writing credit makes it worthy of entry here.
Fourteen. “Hypnotized” (1978, Energy)
From the same album that gave us “Fire” came this cover of an early Fleetwood Mac classic (written and sung in 1973 by Bob Welch, pre-Buckingham-Nicks). All three sisters—Ruth, Anita and June—did lead vocals on this stellar cover that maintained the eerie mood (and triple drum time) of the original.
Thirteen. “Dirty Work” (1978, Energy)
From the same album that gave us “Fire” came this cover of an early Steely Dan classic. “Dirty Work” was well-suited for Anita’s tender reworking, which maintained the song’s original, somber tone and further established her as the group’s premier pop vocalist. In other words, maybe folks should really investigate the Pointers’ Energy album. There’s much more to it than “Fire” and “Happiness.”
Twelve. “American Music” (1982, So Excited!)
There was no more perfect song for the Pointer Sisters than this nod to “American Music,” an institution the siblings clearly loved, no matter the form, shape, age, class or color. “American Music” was a top-20 pop hit for Anita and her sisters in the late summer of 1982.
Eleven. “Dreaming As One” (1979, Priority)
The steel pedal guitar makes a return in this outstanding ballad featuring Anita’s forlorn lead vocal. It was one of only two songs on 1979’s Priority album featuring Anita in a lead role, and the only one of those two to make this list.
Ten. “Everybody Is A Star” (1978, Energy)
This remake of the Sly Stone classic features alternating leads by Anita and sisters Ruth and June, but what might stand out the most is their recreation of the chicken-clucking scat breakdown during each chorus (“Bababababa, bababababa, bababa, bababa”). Unintentionally funny but good nonetheless.
Nine. “Freedom” (1985, Contact)
It was hard to tell whether Anita was singing about a love interest given some of this song’s lyrics, or about spiritual freedom given the song’s aura. Or it could have been a metaphorical longing for the artistic freedom they enjoyed in their earlier days now that they were mired in an electro-pop haze by the mid 1980s. Either way, the song was still good. The above video provides some clarity about the song’s meaning.
Eight. “Fairytale” (1974, That’s a Plenty)
It would be easy to say that this Grammy-winning country hit broke down color barriers for Black groups (especially female ones) in the country music field nearly 50 years ago. But “Fairytale,” which they debuted at the Grand Ole Opry in 1974 and which was famously covered by Elvis Aaron Presley a few months later, has proven to be an anomaly. Quick, name another Black group with three or more members who’ve had the kind of country success the Pointers did. Yeah, the barrier is still intact and going strong.
Seven. “I Need You” (1983, Break Out)
This mid-tempo ballad featured lead vocals by all three sisters—Ruth, Anita and June—and was the first single released from their most successful album, Break Out. By virtue of her small part, it is included here among Anita’s best. On an all-inclusive list, other Break Out singles like “Automatic,” “Jump” and “Neutron Dance” might rank higher (nah, they WOULD rank higher).
Six. “I’m So Excited” (1982, So Excited!; 1984, Break Out, Expanded Version)
It took two releases, but the second time was the charm, thanks to dance music’s 1984 renaissance and the success of the earlier singles from Break Out, to which “I’m So Excited” was added after its more modest success two years earlier. The highly uplifting “I’m So Excited” is now the group’s signature tune and easily one of their biggest when combining its two separate chart runs, plus the fact that it has registered nearly 400 million Spotify clicks (more than twice the number of second-place “Jump”).
Five. “Yes We Can Can” (1973, The Pointer Sisters)
More chicken-scratch guitar funk by the Sisters Pointer, with this song reaching the top 20 on both the pop and soul charts in 1973. At the time, the harmonizing foursome were being marketed as a throwback, 1940s swing act a la the Andrews Sisters, so this first single’s success was a bit of a surprise and an early indication of their versatility, which would prove to be a career-long virtue.
Four. “Sleeping Alone” (1975, Steppin’)
While at a neighborhood playground with a friend of mine as ten-year-old adolescents in 1976, we found a pile of about 100 thrown-out 7-inch vinyl records (all were recent hit 45s). We split this bounty 50/50 and my stack included the Pointer Sisters’ “Going Down Slowly” backed with “Sleeping Alone” on ABC/Blue Thumb Records. The pre-pubescent kid in me had no idea what either song meant and, admittedly, I didn’t play them much back then. But I’ve recently realized just how sublime “Sleeping Alone” is. And now, in the wake of Anita’s death, I’ve discovered old performance clips of the song (including the above-linked YouTube video, in which the sisters perform it on “Soul Train” while the show’s dancers hilariously struggle midway through to find the complex song’s rhythm. Oh, and this one has Stevie Wonder’s fingerprints all over it, further explaining its greatness!
Three. “How Long (Betcha Got A Chick On The Side” (1975, Steppin’)
Anita sings lead on this rousing No. 1 soul chart smash, but big sister Ruth memorably bears witness to the song’s antagonist’s philandering ways when, about two-thirds of the way through the tune, she admonishes: “I saw you, don’t you try to hide it,” setting the rest of the siblings up for the big finish and proving that, no matter what, she had little sister Anita’s back… come what may.
Two. “Fire” (1978, Energy)
The Sisters took a decidedly pop turn with this recording of a song written by Bruce Springsteen, sultry vocals courtesy of Anita. As the initial release from Energy, their first album on Planet Records (and under Richard Perry’s production wing), “Fire” did a slow burn up the charts until it peaked at No. 2 for two weeks in late February/early March of 1979, held out of No. 1 by Rod Stewart’s disco triumph “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy.”
One. “Slow Hand” (1981, Black & White)
The group’s biggest single, based on pop chart performance (No. 2 for three weeks in August 1981). Only one song prevented this twangy million-selling hit from hitting the top spot in 1981: the less time-honored “Endless Love” by Diana Ross & Lionel Richie. Featuring a lead vocal that only Anita could have provided, “Slow Hand” was yet another reminder of her country roots and how well she could navigate both that genre and soul, in this case within the same song! As for its chart fortunes, the song failed to reach the Billboard country rankings, but remade versions by Del Reeves and Conway Twitty did, with Twitty’s hitting No. 1. Hmmm…no double standard there!
I hope you enjoyed reading (and listening to) this tribute…my long overdue love letter and thank you to the Pointer Sisters for bringing so much joy to millions of people around the world, including yours truly. My heart goes out to Ruth and the rest of the Pointer family.
And may Anita Pointer (January 23, 1948 – December 31, 2022) rest with the angels.
Pointer Sisters fan and incessant listener DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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