Pointer Sisters remain a force of nature

ON POPULAR MUSIC

December 15, 2005

I'm so excited. And I just can't hide it. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.) But it's true. This week I'm talking to my all-time favorite girl group and definitely one of the greatest singing-siblings acts in pop: The Pointer Sisters.

It's been a while since we've heard from the Oakland-bred ladies. Their commercial peak was 20 years ago with kinetic '80s smashes such as "Jump (For My Love)," "Automatic," "He's So Shy" and, of course, "I'm So Excited." But even with no new hits climbing the charts or a hot album coming down the pipeline, the Pointer Sisters' legend has long been cemented. They have shelves of awards, including three Grammys, and walls of gold and platinum plaques.

These days, the group is down to two original members: Ruth and Anita. Ruth's daughter Issa, whose father is former Temptations lead man Dennis Edwards, replaced June a few years ago. (In 1976, sister Bonnie left the lineup right after the Pointers' first run of hits.) The chemistry now has been altered, but their usual enthusiasm and soulfulness still invigorate the stage show. The Pointer Sisters play the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda tomorrow and Saturday night.

"Sisters definitely have a biological chemistry going," says Ruth, 59, who's talking on a speaker phone in her hotel suite in Las Vegas. Anita is also in the room. "The harmonies - it was automatic, as the song says, for the four of us. It was difficult when my daughter came. It's still family. We're still teaching her some stuff."

So if you want to hear the Pointers do their more challenging, bebop material from the early days, dazzling mile-a-minute renditions of Jon Hendricks' "Cloudburst" or Dizzie Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts," too bad.

"Oh, please," says Anita, who's 57. "We haven't even gotten to that stuff yet. There's a lot we still have to teach [Issa]."

The Pointer Sisters' 32-year recording career can be divided into two distinct phases: the wildly eclectic years from 1973 to 1977 and the synth-driven, neon pop peak between 1979 and 1985. During the latter period, the Pointers became darlings of mainstream radio and MTV, singing bubbly, super slick pop concoctions produced by Richard Perry. In 1983, the group sold 3 million copies of Break Out, one of the albums that defined the '80s sound with textured, programmed instrumentation. The LP featured "Jump" and "Automatic." The Pointers brought a sincere, gospel-honed feel to even the most ridiculous tunes on that monster hit album. Remember "Neutron Dance"?

The '80s era was OK - fun nostalgia, but potentially nerve-grating after a while. I prefer the Pointers' Blue Thumb/ABC recordings of the '70s, a period in the group's career that is often undervalued. They were a foursome then, dressed in funky, '40s-inspired drag. And they were fierce, utterly unpredictable. Just as fine and sassy as they wanted to be, these daughters of ministers could bring the funk all day long: 1973's oft-sampled "Yes We Can Can," 1975's "Going Down Slowly" and "How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side)."

In '74, they scored a major country hit - that's right, country - with the twangy "Fairytale," written by Anita and Bonnie. The next year, the group won a Grammy for it, and Elvis Presley covered the song on his Today LP. It wasn't unusual for the Pointers to dive into funk, pop, country, bebop and vaudeville-like show tunes all on one album. (Check 1974's aptly titled That's a Plenty.)

Last year, Hip-O Select reissued the bulk of the Blue Thumb albums, including 1977's long-out-of-print Having a Party.

"It makes me crazy to listen to those early records," Anita says. "I have hope that we can do that stuff again. We were so young then and the circumstances were different. I don't know."

Mostly because of personal demons and erratic behavior, June, 51, the youngest with the powerful pipes, had to leave the group. She and Bonnie, who's taut with platinum blond hair at 55, tour from time to time as a duo.

"They're fine," Anita says hesitantly. "I haven't talked to them in about month. They're singing, writing songs."

Still looking trim and radiant these days, Ruth and Anita tour the world with pretty Issa about a week out of every month. They play many dates in Europe, where they continue to draw capacity crowds. This month, the Pointers have the No. 1 song in Belgium, a remake of Aretha Franklin's "Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves" with Belgian pop-dance singer Natalia. The song hasn't been released in the United States yet.

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