Ruth Pointer “was a struggling single mother trying to raise two children and living with my parents,” she says, when she joined her sisters’ singing group. “I realized how much money I could make in a short amount of time singing and said, ‘Wow! I can support my children doing this,’” says Pointer, now 66.
Pointer’s first paying gig was singing backup to Sylvester James, a notoriously androgynous gay performer and former member of The Cockettes, who was then performing in San Francisco as Sylvester and His Hot Band. The sisters also sang backup on Sylvester’s 1972 jazz album “Scratch My Flower,” so named for the gardenia-shaped scratch-and-sniff sticker on the cover.
Sylvester was Pointer’s first exposure to gay audiences. The experience helped set her expectations for a career to come.
“Gay concertgoers love music and they love to dance,” she says. “I have visited several gay clubs since and I have always had so much fun.”
Thanks to that early exposure, Pointer decided that her group would be all about the performance. She plans on showing Milwaukee what that means when The Pointer Sisters appear Nov. 15 at Northern Lights in the Potawatomi Bingo Casino, where the vocal trio’s greatest hits will populate the evening’s playlist.
“I want Milwaukee to know that they can stand up, they can dance, they can whoop and they can holler,” she says. “I want everyone to have a good time.”
The current Pointer Sisters consist of a revolving cast of family members. Ruth and her sister Anita remain from the original group, but Anita’s health issues sometimes keep her from performing. Ruth’s daughter Issa Pointer and granddaughter Sadako Johnson fill in as needed to maintain the three-voice balance on stage.
The Pointer Sisters first began performing when sisters June and Bonnie formed “The Pointers, a Pair” in 1969 in West Oakland, Calif. The duo grew to a trio with the addition of sister Anita and became a quartet in 1972 when Ruth joined the group in the wake of record deals – first with Atlantic Records and then with Blue Thumb.
“My sisters got a recording contract and asked me if I wanted to join the group,” Pointer says. “I said, ‘Hell, yeah!’”
Pointer and her sisters, the daughters of the Rev. Elton Pointer and his wife Sarah, came from a Church of God musical background. The parents were from Arkansas and brought with them a love of country music to complement the church hymns, which were not traditional gospel, but more harmonic and serene. They did not approve of rock ’n’ roll.
The traditional influences eventually combined with the jazz preferences of producer David Rubinson to give The Pointer Sisters’ self-titled first album its unique sound. The 1973 recording, which went gold the next year, yielded the band’s first hit, composer Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can.” Old-fashioned thrift store clothing also gave the group an original look, which helped them appeal to 1970s audiences.
Pointer says the group’s penultimate performance came in 1974 at the then-new San Francisco Opera House. The concert, captured on the double album “Live at the Opera House,” was the group’s first live recording and the first time contemporary artists had performed at the prestigious venue.
“I can still remember it,” Pointer says. “I was so nervous backstage that I thought I was going to throw up.”
The Pointer Sisters’ blend of pop, rock, blues, dance and country kept the group’s sound fresh and evolving. They a won a 1975 Grammy Award in the country category for “Fairytale,” eventually covered by Elvis Presley. They landed on the stage as the first African-American female artists to perform at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
The sisters went on to record Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” and appeared on MTV with their dance hits “Jump (for my love),” a 1985 Grammy winner, and “I’m So Excited.”
Pointer credits the group’s stability partly to the fact that they are all members of the same family. They incorporate a wide variety of influences, including heavy doses of the Motown sound and Philadelphia soul. The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the O’Jays and Teddy Pendergrass also come up frequently in discussions about musical influences.
“These were people we loved and we wanted to have their music in our ears all the time,” Pointer says.
Performance characterizes the essence of The Pointer Sisters, something she says is true for most musicians. “Studio recordings are very controlled, with the producer dictating a lot of what you do. It can be frustrating,” Pointer says. “When you are on stage, it’s all about what you want to do.”
And what Pointer wants to do is leave a legacy of enjoyment for audiences of all types.
“I’d like us to be known as good people who worked hard, loved their fans, and didn’t know when to stop,” Pointer says. “As musicians, we play as hard as we can, and I think we’re pretty damn good.”