Cloudburst: The Pointer Sisters’ Debut at 50

How their eponymous first LP brought swing moves to soul in 1973

The Pointer Sisters on the cover of City Magazine (Image: Dark Entries)

Raised by a pastor father in Oakland, California, the four Pointer Sisters–June, Bonnie, Anita, and Ruth–grew up on gospel, funk, and country by way of the time they spent with family members in Prescott, Arizona.

In 1969, after years of singing in their father’s Oakland church choir, June and Bonnie formed the initial version of the group. Sisters Anita and Ruth joined in time to sign with Blue Thumb Records in 1972 after a series of singles on Atlantic, as a trio, that didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Their 1973 self-titled, full-length debut would be another story, marking the emergence of a versatile, swinging R&B quartet with four distinct voices. 

As a testament to that versatility, they would win their first Grammy Award, for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, for “Fairytale” off their 1974 follow up, That’s a Plenty. The critical and commercial success of the Top 40 track would lead to a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, the first by a Black vocal group.  

As Tammy L. Kernodle notes in her 2021 NPR exploration of the band’s impact and originality (“The Hidden Legacy of The Pointer Sisters, Genre-Busting Pioneers of Message Music”), “From the very beginning the Pointer Sisters fought against genre categorization, racist marketing strategies, and intellectual exploitation.”


AUDIO: Pointer Sisters “Yes We Can Can”

Prior to the release of their debut, the Pointer Sisters released the single “Yes We Can Can.” I was in grade school when  I first heard it on Top 40 radio, and it was love at first listen, though I had no idea, at the time, that it was an Allen Toussaint via Lee Dorsey cover (Dorsey’s 1970 original from Yes We Can is great, too). There’s something about Black women singing those lyrics–with spirit and conviction–that complete transforms it. 

A song that was mostly, but not exclusively, about racial justice, also becomes a song about female empowerment. To Dorsey’s credit, it always was, but it plays even more powerfully that way when Anita and her sisters sing, “And do respect the women of the world–remember, you all had mothers.” Beyond the gender-switch and title change, the Pointers presented it as one integrated song, whereas Dorsey divided it into two parts. It’s representative of the way the sisters drew from preexisting material to create something uniquely their own, like their sexy, slow-burn 1978 version of “Fire,” possibly the finest Bruce Springsteen cover to date.  


VIDEO: Beastie Boys “Sure Shot”

I couldn’t say for sure, but it’s possible the Beastie Boys had the Pointer Sisters-by-way-of-Lee Dorsey in mind when they sang, “To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends, I want to offer my love and respect to the end” in “Sure Shot” off 1994’s Ill Communication. Granted, the hip-hop trio makes the Dorsey link explicit when they proclaim, later in the same song, “And everything I do is funky like Lee Dorsey.” 

Though it might be a stretch to claim the Pointers as an influence on the Beastie Boys, there’s no doubt that Barack Obama, then best known as an Illinois senator and community organizer, saw in the song his dreams for an America that seemed–at the time–just within reach, and it would encapsulate his winning 2008 presidential campaign as perfectly as Fleetwood Mac’s Boomer anthem “Don’t Stop” had encapsulated Bill Clinton’s in 1992. 

The Pointer Sisters The Pointer Sisters, Blue Thumb Records 1973

“Yes We Can Can” is one of the all-time great album openers, but it isn’t representative of The Pointer Sisters as a whole, which doesn’t abandon the funk, but hews more jazzy in a throwback, Harlem Renaissance-kind of way, an aesthetic reflected in the gorgeous cover photograph of the the four sisters dressed in thrift shop finery with their band name rendered in classy, swirling script. Coincidentally, the image rhymes with the cover of  1973’s Sylvester & the Hot Band, aka Scratch My Flower, in which the Bay Area icon–in his pre-disco years–sports a similar hairstyle and a band name rendered in classy, swirling script (like the Pointer Sisters, Sylvester also recorded for Blue Thumb). From music to image, they appeared to be drawing from a similarly deep well. 

Throughout the album, the Pointers sing and scat to throbbing stand-up bass, rollicking barrel house piano, and bursts of hard rock guitar provided by the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils. There was nothing else quite like it. 

So, the ladies had talent, charisma and an ace backing band, but without a sympathetic producer, things might not have come together quite as successfully. Fortunately, they joined forces with veteran Bay Area producer David Rubinson. Prior to the Pointers, he had produced dozens of artists including Moby Grape, the United States of America, Taj Mahal, Santana and the Chambers Brothers. The Pointer Sisters fit right in, even if Rubinson had worked primarily with male vocalists, with the exception of Lydia Pense and Cold Blood.  

If the Pointer Sisters remain best known for their performances, they were songwriters, too, and The Pointer Sisters includes two Andrews Sisters-style originals, “Sugar” and “Jada,” a piano-driven number named after Anita’s daughter. In lyrics co-written with Bruce Good and Jeffrey Cohen–with whom they would continue to collaborate–the Pointers imagine Jada as an adult, singing with a mix of affection and protectiveness, “Don’t want to see her hurt again, she has such a pretty smile, Jada is my only child…she’s gonna go for the top, sure can’t tell her when to stop…don’t you mess with my daughter.” Sadly, Jada Pointer passed away in 2003 at 37.

Just as The Pointer Sisters opens with first single “Yes We Can Can,” which is funkier than anything else on their debut, it ends with second single “Wang Dang Doodle”–a Willie Dixon-written song previously covered by Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor–which rocks harder than anything else. Ending on such a high note makes me want to flip the record over and start again from the top. It’s ideally how sequencing should work.

The Pointer Sisters would mark the group’s first gold-certified record, peaking at 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the decades to come, the lineup would change several times to incorporate daughters and even granddaughters as original members came and left, but the 1980s became the Pointer Sisters’ hit-making decade as they racked up two platinum albums, 12 more Top 20 hits and three Grammy Awards. As of Anita’s death in 2022, 77-year-old Ruth Pointer, the final sister to join the group, remains the only living member of the original quartet. 


VIDEO: Sesame Street Pinball Countdown compilation 

For my money, their finest follow up effort wasn’t a single or an album, but the exhilarating “Pinball Number Count” song they recorded in 1976 for Sesame Street, which exemplifies everything that made their spirited work so special (years later, Coldcut would have a left-field hit with his remix). If anything, this YouTube favorite is better known today than most anything off their debut, which has been overshadowed by the bigger hits to come. 

As Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote for Tidal in January (“Just Music: Why the Pointer Sisters Matter”), “As we near the 50th anniversary of the Pointer Sisters’ self-titled debut album, released in May 1973, now is a good time to reflect on these artists who defied pigeonholing so effortlessly, so naturally, that it’s easy to overlook how bold they were.”

Though it wouldn’t be accurate to say The Pointer Sisters hasn’t gotten its due: it deserves even more for the ways these ladies took convention, turned it inside out, and spun gold from the glittering threads.  





Kathy Fennessy

 You May Also Like

Kathy Fennessy

Kathy Fennessy is a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society, an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes, and a regular contributor to Seattle Film Blog. She has also written about film for Amazon, City Pages, Northwest Film Forum, Seattle International Film Festival, and The Stranger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *