Yes We Can Can (Do It Our Way): The Pointer Sisters

Many do not put the words “black women” and “Americana” together. For many, they are mutually exclusive terms. We definitely do not think of black women when it comes to nostalgia crazes. Why would black women want to think back to the past to an existence that was never really kind to us? Especially pre-WWII America?

Yet, in 1973, four sisters from Oakland came onto the American music scene and reminded the country that we have always been a part of it even when was not so kind. We shared the movies and the music and found voice in it as well. Anita, Bonnie, June and Ruth Pointer brought the 1940s to the early 1970s and made themselves renaissance women of music with styles that also included country and funk. Originally beginning as Pointers, a Pair with Bonnie and June, Anita and Ruth eventually joined the group and rechristened themselves The Pointer Sisters.

Incidentally, The Pointer Sisters were never focused on a single genre from the beginning. Their debut album may have been filled with 40s bop and swing, but it started out on a much funkier note with a song that has since become an anthem (ironically for all America), “Yes We Can Can,” originally released in 1970 by Lee Dorsey. This one track has also forever entwined the group’s name with its writer, New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, who also wrote LaBelle’s mainstream breakthrough hit “Lady Marmalade” in 1974.

However, “Yes We Can Can” stands out almost as an anomaly on the self-titled album. The rest has a much less contemporary feel with homages to the likes of The Andrew Sisters and boogie woogie jazz. The Pointer Sisters also contribute to the songwriting on the album with the tracks “Jada” and “Sugar,” two throwback songs that showcase the diversity of their music. Interestingly, they also placed blues as part of that Americana sound with their cover of “Wang Dang Doodle” ending the album.

The Pointer Sisters were only just getting started. The next year, they continued their unique combination of vintage styles alongside contemporary funk and jazz with their album That’s a Plenty. Their cover of Son House’s “Grinning in Your Face” has a funky baseline with the lilting strains of acoustic guitar to accompany the sisters’ harmonies. Alongside covers like “Steam Heat” (included as a medley with “Bangin on the Pipes”) and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts,” The Pointer Sisters continued to play around with vintage jazz typically found in Broadway shows and popular Hollywood musicals of the 40s and 50s. For the record, Herbie Hancock performed the piano on “Salt Peanuts,” “Little Pony” and “Love in Them Them There Hills,” another funky outing that broke from the vintage style of much of the album.

Even with its attention to vintage pop, That’s a Plenty was far from more of the same as the debut album. Yet it all came together that same year when The Pointer Sisters released their live album The Pointer Sisters Live at the Opera House when they became the first pop act to perform at the San Francisco Opera House. Complete with an opening overture, the album showcases the full range of The Pointer Sisters’ repertoire with live versions of “Salt Peanuts,” “Steam Heat,” “Jada” and the “Old Songs” medley among others. However, they also impress with standout performances of “Cloudburst,” a vocal wonder that bests even the fabulous studio version. They also work with the song they wrote for the second album, a country tune called “Fairytale.” The success of the country song got the group an invitation to the Grand Ole Opry where they became the first black females to perform at the venue and garnered them a Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group.

The Pointer Sisters Live at the Opera House was released as a double album and showcased how far the sisters had come in two short years. They would still go further in 1975 with Steppin’. As with the first two studio albums, Steppin’ starts with a dash of funk with “How Long (Betcha’ Got a Chick on the Side)” and ends on the same note with “Going Down Slowly.” But these seven-plus minute studies in funk do not define the album in any way. Songs like “Easy Days” sound just as at home on the soundtrack of a film like Brewster McCloud, or one of the many other easygoing 70s films at the time, as they do on the album. Yet the Taj Mahal co-penned “Chainey Do” has a distinctly 70s funk feel with congas while the Duke Ellington tribute “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues” keeps that classic jazz feel.

June even takes a solo turn on the sublime Burt Bacharach tune “Wanting Things” just as Bonnie had with “Black Coffee” on the group’s previous studio album. However, songs such as these would become as much a part of the past for the group as the 40s and 50s. Things had changed by the time the group released Having a Party in 1977. The musical trajectory of the group was changing as their cover of “Having a Party” has a much more contemporary feel that worked well in the wake of disco taking over the music scene.

Having a Party is more heavily embedded in funk, soul and R&B than all the group’s previous efforts with timeless sounding tracks like “Don’t It Drive You Crazy” and “I Need a Man” recalling previous excursions into funk. The Pointer Sisters were also beginning to adopt more of a contemporary look and gradually began to let go of the 40s and 50s fashions that colored the first few years of their career. Stevie Wonder’s touch on “Bring Your Sweet Stuff Home to Me” is one of the tracks that helped cement the group more into this new direction and showed off even more of the group’s range.

Having a Party marked more than a change in music style and fashion for the group. June had been considering a solo career but stayed with the group even after dropping out of a few performances due to health concerns, which actually stemmed from issues with substance abuse. However, Bonnie decided to pursue a solo career with Motown after this album. Anita, June and Ruth eventually decided to go ahead as a trio. The 1978 album Energy began a new era for The Pointer Sisters. Not only did they plant themselves even more firmly into R&B and dance music, but they also broke out into the mainstream in a big way mostly in part to their hit cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire.”

While The Pointer Sisters had charted with previous efforts, “Fire” put them in a whole new light. The song went all the way to #2 on the pop charts and went gold along with the album. Perhaps the success of the album prompted them to delve further into their rock catalog for their next effort, 1979’s Priority. Interestingly, this was an album of covers with a barroom rock edge, which incidentally took the group further out of R&B/soul range. Unfortunately, Priority did not fare as well commercially as it should have with rockers such as “Who Do You Love” and “Happy” alongside beautiful vocal takes on classics like “Dreaming as One.”

The Pointer Sisters stayed busy as the next decade dawned and released Special Things in 1980. The opening track showed a huge departure from the rock-tinged Priority. The mix of disco, synth-pop sounds and soothing ballads found a home among the R&B and new wave acts that still embraced a the last part of the 70s but moved on with new possibilities with electronic instruments. The Pointer Sisters even made a promo video for the song that would become a Top 10 hit, “He’s So Shy.” This trip to the top of the charts began a streak for the group that would last for the better part of the 80s in which The Pointer Sisters would experience a level of commercial success they had not seen during the 70s.

Even with the change in musical styles, The Pointer Sisters continued to fuse a brilliant mix of harmonies and trading lead vocals. Like they did with “Where Did Time Go” in Special Things, the group found a unique harmony background vocals along the lead vocal in one of their most enduring songs “Slow Hand” from the 1981 album Black & White. “Slow Hand” resonated with women everywhere with a frank demand in sexual and intimate desire. Furthermore, the song went hand in hand with a sexier image that had been constantly evolving with the group since the late 70s. It was also evident in the sultry “Got to Find Love.”

Interestingly, The Pointer Sisters still went with the synth-pop sound but expanded it to include funk, R&B and soul as they would with the 1982 effort So Excited. However, only one single from the album cracked the Top 20, the mellow and nostalgic “American Music.” An early version of “I’m So Excited” only managed to make it to #30 on the charts. Still, the album contains a few standout tracks such as the “See How the Love Goes” and a cover of Prince’s “I Feel for You” (yes the song Chaka Khan made famous just two years later).

If any music year in The Pointer Sister’s career belonged to them, it was 1983. That year, the group released an 80s classic aptly titled Breakout. Incidentally, June’s previous solo effort Baby Sister paved the way for the music direction on this standout album. Many of the group’s most enduring classics are included on this album. The opening track “Jump (For My Love)” is a party anthem still played in any 80s function. However, it was the joyous “I’m So Excited” that burned up the dance floors and the charts after getting a second chance when “Jump” put the group in heavy rotation on MTV.

In all, the album spawned six hit singles including the hit also included on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack “Neutron Dance.” “Baby Come and Get It” brought out a sexier side of The Pointer Sisters that had been brought out with earlier singles like “Bring Your Sweet Stuff Home to Me” and “Slow Hand” but in a dance track. The single “Automatic” also charted that year and brought The Pointer Sisters a Grammy for Best Vocal Arrangement while “Jump” brought home the Best Vocal by a Duo or Group.

Breakout proved to be the height of The Pointer Sister’s career. Even though they continued to chart throughout the 80s and the early 90s, nothing else matched the success of the album in terms of commercial success. The album went triple platinum and won the group more than a couple of awards. However, the sisters moved from the Planet Records label they had been signed with since they left Blue Thumb in 1978. The move to RCA for 1985’s Contact would see The Sisters with more danceable classics including the album’s lead single “Dare Me” and the highly infectious “Twist My Arm.”

The Pointer Sisters released four more albums after Contact. Hot Together (1986) kept the group in the synth-pop, dance mode that garnered much of its success during the 80s. Serious Slammin’ (1988) received some critical acclaim with its R&B, funk and house combination but generated no major hits. However, the Motown release Right Rhythm (1990) found the group exploring a range of styles including country as they had when they first arrived on the music scene. The Pointer Sisters released one more album after this, 1993’s SBK release Only Sisters Can Do That – 20 years after their debut.

While The Pointer Sisters have released no albums in the past 20 years, they have remained busy and still tour. They even appeared on stage as part of the cast of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’. Currently, Anita and Ruth tour with Ruth’s granddaughter Sadako under The Pointer Sisters’ name. Sadly, June passed away in 2006 after suffering a stroke and receiving a cancer diagnosis. However, her legacy with her three sisters cannot be denied. The Pointer Sisters showed that black women literally encompass all genres of music – sometimes all at once. And to think it all started when the sisters from a low-income background chose 40s clothing from a thrift shop just because they could not afford costumes.