The Pointer Sisters got the internet long before they got the internet. They may be one of America’s best-selling girl groups, with a career spanning five decades and three Grammys to their name, but the instincts that drove their success have a lot in common with today’s culture-mining millennial mindset. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, when genre lines were drawn along racial lines and policed by radio stations and critics alike, The Pointer Sisters had pop hits, electronic hits, jazz hits, and even a country music hit—all the while being categorized by the industry as an R&B group. Remembering that makes recent conversations about “the new R&B” and “alt-R&B”—ideas that erase R&B’s inventiveness—feel even more outdated than they already did.
“People kept saying, ‘You gotta pick a category,’” Ruth Pointer tells me over the phone from her home outside of Boston early one January morning. “Why? Why do you have to do that? It wasn't something we felt we had to do.” Despite finding success with their innovative, anti-purist approach, they caught criticism for sounding “too white”—but that didn’t faze them. In 1975, the sisters—Ruth, Anita, Bonnie, and June—won their first Grammy for their vocal performance of “Fairytale,” a country song penned by the group’s youngest two siblings that Elvis Presley went on to cover in a TV special. The year before, they’d become the first black women to perform at country music’s church, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, much to the confusion of country music fans who had no idea The Pointer Sisters were black. Flipping the script with every record, they even made a song that speaks to today's cyborg aesthetics—1984’s “Automatic” that’s still a staple in U.K. clubs and bars—and won a Grammy for it: I'm walking blindfolded/ Completely automatic/ All of my systems are down.
The song’s impossibly low lead vocal belongs to Ruth, the eldest of the sisters. This month sees the release of her autobiography, Still So Excited—a reference to the group’s most famous song, the pop-rock hit “So Excited”—which lifts the lid on what stratospheric fame in that most iconic of eras was really like. It’s a gripping read, not just for the music industry insights and the sisters’ glamorous exploits but for the directness with which Ruth describes the drug addiction that almost ended her life, and wrecked those of her nearest and dearest. Bonnie ended up leaving the group in 1978 and has had a long and well-documented battle with her own addiction, as did youngest sister June, who died from cancer in 2006. These days, Ruth—who is now 30 years sober—and Anita continue to perform as The Pointer Sisters with Ruth’s daughter or granddaughter taking turns to join them onstage.
Over the phone, Ruth Pointer is just as direct as she is on paper, with none of the subject-changing fluff that often litters the speech of today’s stars. There is no hesitation in her deep, rich voice when grappling with what most would deem difficult or painful subjects. She’s lived through a lot but nothing’s blunted her hunger for life or her love of music. There’s a bit in the book that perhaps best illustrates her spirit: as a young girl growing up in a strict and religious household, Ruth would often go up to her classmates and invite herself over to their house for dinner. “Looking back,” she writes, “I was curious how others lived and wanted to taste it for myself.”
The Pointer Sisters had hits in practically every genre. There's something very "internet" about that approach in that you're reaching out to everything and anything because you can. What fueled that creative curiosity in all of you?
RUTH POINTER: I think we just did not want to be pigeon-holed into one category. We grew up loving all types of music from classical to country, R&B and gospel. We loved it all. People kept saying, "You gotta pick a category!" Why? Why do you have to do that? It wasn't something we felt we had to do.
It's so strange today when I listen to the radio and they have what I always knew as R&B listed as jazz or easy listening. Really? Now R&B is hip-hop.
There weren't many other acts moving between genres like you did. Besides having an interest in music, what was pushing that desire not to be pigeon-holed?
It seemed that all the higher accolades were going into the white categories. The R&B artists weren't winning Grammys. That's why when we won the Grammy for the country song "Fairytale," we were in shock. They told us when we were on the road; we weren't even at the ceremony.
I also think it has to do with the tone of a singer's style that they want to put you in a category. We've never had that typical sort of R&B black sound in the tones of our voices because we didn't grow up singing in a church. We heard gospel on the radio. We got criticized a lot for "sounding white." When we did the "Fairytale" song, people in Nashville didn't even know we were black.
One of the moments in the book that burns into your brain is when, at a private afterparty following your performance in Nashville in 1975, you and your sisters were taken around the back of the house and left to sit in the kitchen because the person who answered the door thought you were hired help. Do you feel like the music industry has gotten any less racist than it was then? Have you seen it change over the years?
I have seen it change due to modern technology like social media. Back in the day, you were at the mercy of radio or record players. You didn't have the reach that these kids do today. The kids in the white neighborhoods now can tune into whatever music they want to experience and they like it.
Back in the day, it was very separated. A white radio station would not play Little Richard or Chuck Berry. That's why the success of Pat Boone and Elvis came along. They could record a song that Little Richard or Chuck Berry wrote and it would become a hit when no one would have ever heard it before from the original author. It's different nowadays. My kids turn me onto stuff I have never heard before.
It was radical that you recorded whatever you wanted to record.
We were lucky that we had a producer and manager David Rubinson. He was very open artistically for us to do what we felt like we wanted to do. He wasn't a rigid person and really loved being around us and our creative abilities. We had a lot of fun.
Do you think the music industry has changed in its treatment of women?
That's a tough question for me to answer because I still see a lot of exploitation with women in the business. Videos are just so sexually graphic as opposed to when a women could stand in a sequined gown in front of a microphone and sing her butt off. Now she's gotta actually show her butt or buy a new butt to attract the attention. That's real.
Is there anything you think any young woman starting in the music industry should know or attempt to follow?
We were performing with the Temptations and they pulled us aside and said, "Listen, you guys need to really pay attention to your business." I see these young people are much more aggressive about that than we were. I think that has a lot to do with why they're becoming so financially successful these days, more than we were. They're handling their own business and I'm real proud of them for doing that. Pay attention to those numbers and don't take no for an answer. I admire that about all the women, no matter what kind of butts they have.
“We were performing with the Temptations and they pulled us aside and said, ‘Listen, you guys need to really pay attention to your business.’ I see these young people are much more aggressive about that than we were. They’re handling their own business and I’m real proud of them for doing that.”—Ruth Pointer
We live in an age of really politicized musicians. We often look to stars to speak out on issues. Is there anything you wish you had been more outspoken on at the time?
I don't have any regrets about the way things have turned out for us. We got a miracle that I hadn't planned for. I was kind of just rolling along with the circus. I wish I could have been clearer and made that journey without the use of substances, but I don't know if it would have been different. Maybe that was just my path to be able to have this story and hopefully help someone else who's going down that road. That's my purpose for the book in the first place, to give people hope and to understand that they don't have to stay in that life.
What made you want to share so much in your autobiography, Still So Excited?
I guess within the last thirty years, which has been the biggest part of my recovery from drugs and alcohol, there were just things happening in my life as I got older that I felt were the grace of the universe or God or some higher power in some way that was protecting me and keeping me here for some reason. It made me want to share my experiences and share with people not to give up. The hope of continuing to live a positive life can be so inspiring and rewarding. To just keep getting up and putting one foot in front of the other, these really miraculous things started to happen in my life.
It might seem minute to other people, but the fact that I could come through the disease of meningitis, and that I could come through a blood clot in my lung, and come through several surgeries was unbelievable to me. I saw my friends passing away around me for things that I thought weren't as serious as what I was going through and I was just like, "Wow. Someone is watching over me."
You've got to give yourself some credit, too.
Well, that's the thing. I did turn my life around and so many times I hear today what you said, and my brother says that to me too. “You have to give yourself some credit.”
I changed pretty much everything in my life when I decided to give up those substances that I thought were killing me. I moved into an area where people that I used to know that indulged in that lifestyle could not get to me, I got adamant about not wanting those things around me so much that it annoyed the people I really loved. I pretty much separated myself from even some family members. I was alone a lot, but it was okay because I was sober. I was getting clean, clear, and healthy.
When you were climbing out of those lowest lows, what were the practical day-to-day things that helped you stay focused?
I went to sleep at a decent hour at night, which was something rare that I hadn't done in many years. I was prone to staying up all night and sometimes staying up for two or three days indulging in drugs and alcohol. I didn't give a lot of thought to my health in that way. I started waking up early enough to have simple things like a breakfast.
One of the things that started happening to me when I did give up the substances is that I started devouring food, which is something I started using these substances to avoid. It was my weight control and diet, and I thought it was okay. When I started to eat again, that's what scared me. I had tried to stop using several times, but when I started eating again, I thought, “I can't do this.” I hated being fat and I didn't want that body image of myself.
I started to seek out different ways to control my eating and I discovered a 12-step program that helped me pull some organized program for food. The more I stayed in that program, the more I learned about food addiction and it fascinated me. I used to set my clock so that I could wake up, have my breakfast, and then have a certain amount of hours between breakfast and lunch, so that it would be all balanced out to five to six hours each. Then, I could go to sleep at a certain time.
I still do that today. It's creating a new habit that I think made me healthier and I enjoy it. I really appreciate the discipline of it. I use a scale to weigh all my meals. My two youngest kids, that's the only way they know me. They're twenty-two now, and they even have concerns. My daughter will occasionally go, "Mom, is this a good meal?" And my son will ask me to fix him a salad. It inspires and rubs off on the people around me, which is not a bad thing.
You mentioned using substances to keep your weight down in the early years of being in the Pointer Sisters. Was this something that was widespread in the industry—was it encouraged?
I think it was encouraged. One of my fondest memories was the very first Saturday Night Live program that featured Desi Arnaz who came on the set with a barrel of cocaine and white powder all around his face and said, "This is my diet!" A lot of people remember that scene and we think it's hilarious. But during the ‘70s and ‘80s, not just women but both male and females used cocaine as a diet supplement. It was fun, it was easy to get, and you didn't have an appetite when you used it. No one was talking about the downside of it at all at that point. No one was dying, no one was saying you'll be addicted. As a matter of fact, Richard Pryor makes a great joke about what he did when he was alive doing his stand up: "Cocaine's not addictive; I've been using it for fifteen years!"
“I changed pretty much everything in my life when I decided to give up those substances that I thought were killing me. I was alone a lot, but it was okay because I was sober. I was getting clean, clear, and healthy.”—Ruth Pointer
Richard Pryor and Muhammad Ali are amongst the stars that pop up in the book—it paints a very compelling picture of celebrity life in the '70s and '80s. What was the best bit of advice a fellow luminary gave you during those times?
Wow...I can't really remember a lot of that time unfortunately [laughs]. The people that we worked with were so professional. I'm thinking of the great Carol Burnett, who is still with us, thank God. We worked with her for quite a while. She just took to us like we were her little girls and was constantly having us on her show. We even went on the road with her. We learned one of the best lessons from her: you put together a wardrobe for your road show, and that is the concept of the show every night. We had never heard that before.
When we came into the business, we were wearing vintage clothes that were very fragile. We thought we were supposed to be runway models and wear something different every night. We were going through those clothes like water. It was getting expensive. And the more notoriety we were getting, the more expensive those vintage clothes started to be. So when we met Carol Burnett, she told us this is the wardrobe for the tour and this is what we'll be wearing every night. That was one of the best lessons we learned.
Outside of the material things and accolades, what does music give you as a person?
Music is like the air I breathe. I love it so much. It could change my attitude for the day; it can change my attitude for a moment. I had a photo shoot the other day and we were playing loud music all day long. Me and the girls were talking about this very subject of how music affects us. I love listening to music in my car because it feels like I'm sitting in the speaker. If my favorite song comes on and I'm backing into the garage, I cannot get out of the car. It's almost like I'm in the middle of an orgasm, like don't move, don't move!
I'm in love with Chris Brown's voice, as bad as he is. I love Kanye West, I love Rihanna! I love Drake and The Weeknd.
“If my favorite song comes on and I’m backing into the garage, I cannot get out of the car. It’s almost like I’m in the middle of an orgasm, like ‘don’t move, don’t move!’”—Ruth Pointer
You hint in the book under one of the photos that there might be new music from you in the future. Is that something we can look forward to?
That would be a lot of fun for me, and there's still people calling me saying that they're waiting. But I'm not up on the new recording procedures and I know things have changed a lot. People are paying for their own products, which I'm not used to doing.
When you were starting out, the labels were like gods in a way and they controlled everything. Now, the most exciting people coming along are doing it all without a label.
That's what I was talking about earlier! That's why they're so financially successful; they don't owe anybody anything, which I love. I don't want to owe anybody anything. I'm trying to educate myself so that I can go about doing it and not have any bad feelings about a loss or have someone holding back my product for a stupid reason.
We did beautiful recordings of a couple Christmas songs a few years ago with my sister and daughter. But because of some kind of political stuff between the people who were financing the project, it was never ever released. I can't even begin to imagine how many wonderful, artistic things we don't get to hear because of craziness like that. Every time Christmas comes along I think about that—God, those songs need to be on the radio!
I would love to do something, I have ideas. I just need to get with the right people to do it so that it won't be a loss for me.
Near the end of the book, you say you keep Obama and his family in your prayers. Will you be lending your support to anyone else?
I'm really torn. And watching all these crazy politicians fight with each other, I’m like wow...I don't know about any of you guys! I love the Obama family and I think they did the best they could with what they had in front of them, what they had to work with. I think they'll be relieved to get the hell out of there. I think they’re beautiful people and I keep them in my prayers because I believe they need that; it's a tough job.