If you were to make a checklist of popular music of the 1980s, the Pointer Sisters could be a sub-category all their own.
From movie soundtracks to MTV videos, plus hit pop songs heard all over the radio dial, they changed the familiar image of the girl group a decade after the Supremes charmed the globe. But far from being imitators of divas who came before, these street-wise soul sisters from Oakland had a glitzy R&B style all their own, becoming one of the most commercially successful crossover groups of their era.
Though they started as a quartet, huge commercial success came after sister Bonnie left, making the group a trio. Following the 1977 success of their first major radio hit, a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Fire," Ruth, Anita and June set out to rule the charts with a slew of catchy tunes like "He's So Shy," "Slow Hand," "I'm So Excited," "Jump" and "Automatic."
Though June died in 2006, the remaining two sisters and a rotating lineup of Ruth's offspring hope to whip fans into a "Neutron Dance" frenzy when the Pointer Sisters appear at the Budweiser Pavilion at the Kern County Fair on Friday.
"We had such a great time back then," said Ruth Pointer, 66, during a recent phone interview from her home in Boston.
"We had already come by success, but when 'Beverly Hills Cop' came out and when we started playing 'Neutron Dance,' the audience just rushed the stage. We were in shock. I almost forgot the words."
The sisters began singing together as teens at the Bay Area church where their father preached the good word. Ruth, the oldest, recalls the seamless vocal chemistry she and her sisters have always possessed.
"We all have different voices and learned what we were capable of doing with that church training, knowing when to share the lead. We instinctively know what the other sister is capable of singing and where she's going to fit into the harmonizing. It's just innate in us and because of that, we've never required a lot rehearsing."
Outside church, the group performed first as a duo, with June and Bonnie, before all the sisters reunited as a quartet. Early career highlights include their 1974 performance at the famous Rumble in the Jungle fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, and an appearance with Richard Pryor in the classic 1976 blaxploitation movie "Car Wash." Bonnie Pointer left to pursue a solo career a year later, leaving the remaining three to rework their image and venture into new musical territory.
"When we came out, times had changed for everything for women," Ruth Pointer said. "Women's rights and all different kinds of things propelled women into a different stage of strength and a different stage of self-reliance. We didn't come into the industry groomed and bred like a lot of performers these days to be who we were. It was totally homegrown, and we were just having a good time, not really aware of what people assumed we should be doing."
Adding dimension to the Pointer Sisters' music was their choice of material, which touched on everything from country, rock, funk, to new wave. "I think most women had different ideas about women's representation of themselves, and we probably all fell into that and wanted to do something different than the little prissy girls with high pitches. We wanted to be a little rougher and more aggressive."
Collaborating with some of the biggest hit-makers in the industry, the Pointers' released "Break Out" in 1983. The album spawned four singles, including "I'm So Excited." But while the entire country was dancing away and executives were filling their wallets, the Pointers worked tirelessly as self-sustaining artists.
"We were always on the road touring with Lionel Richie and Chicago. Early in our careers, we didn't know anything about business. Our management would say we didn't have enough money to pay for things like a stylist, and things of that nature. I remember running around trying to find something to wear for the Grammys, the American Music Awards. It wasn't that we insisted on doing it ourselves. If it was available to us, no one bothered to mention that. We would watch, learn and duplicate professional stylist techniques."
Over the years, they did manage regain some control of their finances, but the lessons learned in the process were sobering.
"We gave up a lot of power to people. We learned five years later that we'd lost a lot. We were blindsided about the amount of money you dole out to be 'taken care of.' We were just so busy, the only thing we knew were the audiences we were performing in front of, not the general public."
'... the grief we feel missing her'
As the '80s wound down, the Pointers continued in various incarnations, making attempts to rekindle their early success. But when June succumbed to lung cancer at 52, the family was devastated.
"That was probably one of the hardest times in my career and every now and then, it still pops up -- the grief we feel missing her so much. June was the youngest and loved so much, and she always had so much love to give. ...
"She was the highest voice in the group. If she wasn't singing the lead, she and I would be in such sync. I could change things in such an instant vocally, and she didn't miss a beat of where I was going, unbeknownst to whoever was leading. I can't even explain it, it was just so magical. And I really believe that was just biological, because we knew each other so well. The chemistry was unmatched."
Ruth and Anita, 64, are joined these days by the rotating voices of Ruth's daughter, Issa Pointer, and granddaughter Sadako Johnson, who will appear Friday.
"I'm just really surprised with the fan base that we have and surprised the work keeps coming," Ruth said. "We would love to record again. We're just not sure how and when. We're still going through some changes in our lives. There's a lot of stuff involved with trying to make the transition from how they used to do things back then and how they do things now. ...
"People encourage us to get everyone together to do one big album with all of our families. Maybe one day we will."