June Pointer's song deserved better ending

ON POPULAR MUSIC

April 20, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

I missed June Pointer long before she died of cancer last week at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

She was only 52. And the last few years of her life were rough, indeed pitiful. She had been kicked out of the Pointer Sisters, the famed, multi-Grammy-winning pop-soul group she founded in the early '70s with her older siblings Ruth, Anita and Bonnie. June's longtime struggle with drugs and erratic behavior (missed performances and such) were the main reasons she was booted out in 2000. (Ruth's daughter Issa replaced her three years ago.) In 2004, the singer-songwriter was charged with felony cocaine possession and misdemeanor possession of a smoking device.

Poor June. Baby sister died before she could get her life together. But her contributions to one of the most dynamic vocal groups in pop shouldn't be overlooked.

Like many great black artists before them, the Pointers, who grew up in Oakland, received their early vocal training in church. Their parents were ministers and ran a strict household where the four girls and their two brothers weren't allowed to watch TV or listen to secular music. But by the time June, the youngest of the six, reached her teens, she resisted her parents' restrictions. The Bay Area was blooming with hippies, psychedelic soul and rock, and June threw herself into the thick of it.

At 15, she dropped out of high school to form the duo Pointers-A-Pair, with sister Bonnie. The two performed in Bay Area clubs. Sadly around this time, according to an obit in the San Francisco Chronicle last week, young June was raped in an East Oakland neighborhood, became pregnant and had an abortion. To cope, she soon turned to drugs, sparking a lifelong addiction.

In the meantime, June and her sisters (older sibling Anita joined in '69) steadily built a solid reputation as session singers. The threesome backed Taj Mahal, Boz Scaggs, Betty Davis and others. In 1972, Ruth, the eldest sister, joined the fold, and the quartet signed with Blue Thumb Records the next year. In the summer of '73, the Pointer Sisters' self-titled debut album hit stores, becoming a swift gold seller thanks in part to the bouncy funk single, "Yes We Can Can." But beyond the tight harmonies, the foursome was unlike any other black girl group before them. We're talking about the '70s, so matching glittery gowns, lacquered hairdos and coy love songs a la the Supremes were out. Girl groups like Labelle belted upfront, sexually charged numbers and sported outrageous drag.

The Pointers, on the other hand, did the high-camp retro bit, donning thrift-store, '40s-style getups. Unlike Labelle, the Emotions and Sister Sledge, the three most popular black girl groups of the '70s, the Pointer Sisters were far more musically adventurous. And their pop acceptance was immediate. Those chicks could sing anything, and they did: tricky, mile-a-minute be-bop numbers, show tunes, dusty blues grooves, torch ballads. In 1974, the Pointers won their first Grammy for "Fairytale," an unabashed country song later recorded by Elvis Presley.

But the sisters could funk it up when they wanted to, propelling Soul Train dancers into the breakdown and the robot with sassy jams like "How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side)" and "Going Down Slowly." Both were hits (the former an R&B chart topper) in 1975.

June stood out even then. She was wishbone-thin and long-legged with slightly protruding teeth. While her sisters wore buns and pompadours to complement their Andrews Sisters-inspired gear, June elevated the group's hip factor with her globular Afro. After Bonnie left in the late '70s, June's personality became more prominent. Each of the Pointers had a big, distinct voice, but June belted more. Her style was rougher, feistier, more rock-edged. She incinerates the lead on 1978's "Happiness," one of the Pointers' best dance tracks. She explodes near the end of 1980's "He's So Shy" and tears through 1985's "Dare Me." Her churchy vocals on Bruce Willis' surprise 1985 hit remake of the Staples Singers' "Respect Yourself" are the only thing that saved it.

In the '80s, during the Pointer Sisters' commercial peak, June released two solo albums that went nowhere. She even posed for Playboy in 1985. But as the '90s dawned and the Pointers' hits dried up, June sank deeper into drugs. By the end of the decade, she had discovered crack, a "fast, cheap high," she told People magazine in 2000. She spent the better part of the past decade in and out of court and in and out of rehabilitation centers. After suffering a stroke in February, doctors discovered the cancer that rapidly spread to her pancreas, liver and lungs.

"This isn't a Billie Holiday story," June told People magazine six years ago before entering a rehab stint. "I want a good ending."

It's a shame baby sister didn't get what she wanted.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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