Motown Spotlight, June 2020

Bonnie Pointer

Let's start with some good news.  Walt Disney Studios plan to develop a biopic based on Lionel Richie's music.  Apparently, he has an existing relationship with the studios through his role on ABC's American Idol, and sold the pitch to them earlier this year.  The working title is "All Night Long", Peter Chiarelli is the scriptwriter, with Lionel serving as executive producer.  And, that's not all.  Mr Richie also announced that he's booked to play at the Isle of Wight Festival in June 2021.  "Like so many of us I was very sad that so many things have been delayed.  Obviously everyone's health and safety comes first," he told his fans. "I'm now looking forward to it even more and know we'll all have such an incredible night of partying together."  Something positive to look forward to although my festival days are long gone.  However, that leads me to ask: will Diana Ross play next year's Glastonbury? 

"The Pointer Sisters would never have happened had it not been for Bonnie," sister Anita wrote in her 2016 autobiography I'm So Excited: My Life As A Pointer. "She was wild, fierce and not be to denied."  Once again, it's with sadness that we heard just recently of the death of another Motown artist who, although not with the company for many years, Bonnie Pointer was quite a coup for Berry Gordy at a time, so it's only right that we remember her now, not only for her Motown stay, but for her musical heritage with her sisters.  So let's TCB…

Bonnie Pointer and her sisters Ruth, Anita and June, were born to Reverend and Mrs. Elton Pointer, and raised in Oakland, California.  They sang in their father's Church of God before embarking upon a professional singing career. In a 2013 interview with Alan Mercer, Bonnie insisted she never envisaged taking a regular job and intended to plan her life around what she loved.  "I am an entertainer and I've always done that since I was a little girl…When my parents went to church, me and my sisters would get up on the coffee table and sing."

She also recalled her high school days which were far from enjoyable.  "I was always getting kicked out…for being overdressed.  I would wear a hat and look like Bette Davis or Greta Garbo…the kids would laugh at me and I was the first one in my class with an Afro."  However, on the upside, a teacher told her she had the qualities to be a singer. "I would sing along with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell so when they told me I could sing I started to believe them." With her sisters who shared her ambition to perform, Bonnie recruited a manager who sent them on dates that didn't exist but which did, inadvertently, lead them to session work.  They mingled with the hip San Francisco music scene, highlighted by Sylvester, Grace Slick and the Elvin Bishop Group with whom they later toured.

Briefly signing to Atlantic Records, which resulted in the funk-inspired "Send Him Back", it wasn't until they joined ABC/Blue Thumb in 1973 that they found their unique musical niche. A pair of gold albums – "The Pointer Sisters" and "That's A Plenty" - stunned the public, including this humble writer, who fell instantly in love with "Yes We Can Can" lifted as a single from their debut album. I think it was around this time that I saw them in concert and was totally blown away by their flashy revival of forties' scat/jazz harmonies, promoting a cross-genre style, and exciting performance routines. The Andrew Sisters on speed! From the second album, the track "Fairytale", written by Bonnie and Anita, topped the US country chart, later winning them a 1975 Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group.  Anita and Bonnie were also nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Song. Their reputation continued to grow legs as their popularity soared, and led to a string of concerts at the extremely prestigious Grand Ole Opry theatre.  The event was recorded for the 1974 double album "Live At The Opera House".

During 1977, The Pointer Sisters switched from Blue Thumb to Elektra/ Asylum; the move marked Bonnie leaving the group to join Motown.  A risky move, some felt, as the group's star was about to rise.  "I knew I had to split so that I could grow and learn more about myself," said Bonnie at the time. "So we came to the decision that I should do so. I missed being with them and the contact and dependency that comes from being part of a group situation. It took me a little time to realise that if I wanted something done, I had to do it myself…I'm the kind of person who likes to be adventurous….It's got to be a challenge for me to go forward because I don't like to be stuck into just one thing." Even so, when the time came to record as a soloist, panic set in, as she told The Los Angeles Times, "I got scared in the studio and called (my sisters).  I told them I needed them to do backups for me.  They told me, 'you're on your own.'"  By now, her sisters were in the process of reinventing themselves, with plans to cross over into rock/dance. They kick started their journey in early-1979 they released Bruce Springsteen's "Fire".  From here, they were serious contenders in the dance market with monster energised hits including "Jump", "I'm So Excited" and so on.  The Pointers were top of their game and, my, how we loved them.

FreeMeFromMyFreedom

Meanwhile, Motown producer Jeffrey Bowen and Berry Gordy produced Bonnie's self-named album, which one reviewer noted "(with) the miracle of modern multi-tracking, Bonnie makes like The Marvelettes of your dreams for an entire side…and the result is remakes that outdo the originals."  Jeffrey Bowen, who was originally brought to Motown by Diana Ross, married Bonnie Pointer, so it was obvious they would work together.  "Free Me From My Freedom (Tie Me To A Tree Handcuff Me)" was lifted as a single from what was to be later known as the "red album" in October 1978 – and headed straight into a media dispute. Motown's marketing department fielded comments claiming the single's lyrics highlighted S&M/bondage. Bonnie defended the song. "We didn't plan it as a controversial tune.  People with strange minds might think it means something else, but the storyline is about a lady who leaves her man, figuring that making it alone is easier, until she finds she misses him and wants him back.  People will just think what they want anyway."  Bonnie's take on The Elgins' classic "Heaven Must Have Sent You" followed; a striking, chugging version that should have grabbed attention.  Sadly not, but it did prompt  a brand new version six months' later which swept across discos in unashamed glory.      (Quotes: Motown:The History)

BonniePointerLP

Her second elpee "Bonnie Pointer/2" (known as the purple album) in February 1980, featured vintage Motown classics, a move I thought at the time was preposterous, given her own composing talent and natural ability to stylise contemporary and new material.  However, she explained her reasoning: "As a child I idolised those old songs and the artists who sang them.  It's amazing now (how they) are actually new to most of today's buyers.  For me, it's a nostalgic trip and I think a lot of people in their twenties and thirties will feel that way."  Crammed with Motown magic – "I Can't Help Myself" (a radio favourite), "Jimmy Mack", "Nowhere To Run", and so on - there was hidden away one 'original' song, a ballad to ease the emotions; a welcome oasis in a desert of disco, namely  "Deep Inside My Soul".  A magnificent slice of pure melancholy, beautifully performed and constructed, which, after much deliberating and persuasion, was eventually lifted as a single in April 1980.  I'm playing it now – sheer joy!

Anyway, despite Bonnie's recording enthusiasm and Motown's good intentions, something went drastically wrong because in 1981, Berry Gordy filed a complaint in a Los Angeles Court after Bonnie and Jeffrey had threatened him and libelled his company claiming defraudment of their royalties.   I don't have any more details about this, so let's move on.  From Motown, the Pointer sister recorded a couple more albums, "If The Price Is Right" and "Like A Picasso", but unfortunately failed to regain the success she had enjoyed with her sisters. While she continued to inject energy and enthusiasm into her professional life, she was a victim of domestic abuse and had a drug addiction, like her younger sister June, who died in April 2006 from lung cancer. After ten years of separation, Bonnie's marriage ended in divorce in 2016, but throughout she continued to tour across America and Europe.

On 8 June 2020, Anita Pointer told the world, "It's with great sadness that I have to announce that my sister Bonnie died this morning…..Bonnie was my best friend and we talked every day.  We never had a fight in our life.  I already miss her and I will see her again one day."

Heartbeat

Last month I mentioned a new release from Romina Johnson, partner of Angelo, brother of Edwin Starr.  A tenuous link for sure, but I felt the album "Heartbeat" was worthy of space within these pages, as what I had listened to was so very inspiring.  A lady who has paid her dues with a variety of musical projects, Romina has moved on in leaps and bounds with this release which I'm afraid for those who, like myself, love a physical CD, is only available digitally.  Nonetheless, I cranked up my time weary computer to listen to a raft of dazzling tracks like the opener "Love's Taking Over" into "Take Your Time".  There's a comfortable aura over the whole experience; unhurried melodies, searing choruses, and an unrelenting underflow of infectious music. The songs including the mesmerising "Glad I Got To Know You" and "Catch You Out" are a pure delight, ranking as a pair of personal highlights, while the album's title "Heartbeat" is so infectious that it demands attention. Summing up, I have no hesitation in recommending this release: it's unpretentious, honest, open-minded and a real comforter for anyone searching for authentic UK R&B. Do visit www.rominajohnson.com for more details.

During the lockdown, I thought I'd attempt to file the mountains of Motown press clippings, magazines and photos I've accumulated over the years, some yellowing with age while others quite pristine in plastic wrappers.  However, all best laid plans, because, as was to be expected, I became side-tracked by reading through some of the interviews. This got me thinking, why don't I share some of the more interesting ones with you.  However, it's not been possible this month because I obviously didn't intend to let the tragic passing of Bonnie Pointer go un-noted.  Mmmm maybe there's room for just a couple then. …..

Dusty & Martha

In Chartbusters magazine (of which I was a regular reader) dated December 2001, Rik Williams spoke to Martha Reeves about some of her favourite group tracks.  Obviously, I can't print them all, but here's a handful.  Of "I'll Follow You", she said "I thought it would be big, a number one song because it has beautiful lyrics…like a prayer for my love…No matter where you go I'll follow you, no matter where it is.  And it lets you know, the way I sang the lyrics that I sincerely meant it."  Next was "No One There" which, she explained, was written and produced by Johnny Bristol, and included on "Black Magic", her last Motown album.  "The lyrics are so beautiful, they were thoughtful and showed exactly what a person could experience sitting there, waiting for a person to pull up in a driveway, come inside and have the tea which was already prepared….Johnny pulled out a good performance from me.  He insisted I sit in the dark and imagine myself there. It took a lot of concentration to get into that role…..to capture it I had to put a tear in my eye, and it actually sounds like I'm crying because I get so far that I can't come back.  When I think about it, I have to smile because it was a successful song which only took one or two takes!"  Finally, "A Love Like Yours" which she explained was a song she had in common with Dusty Springfield. "She did a cover version of it and I did a tribute of it back to Dusty.  Brian Holland is singing in the background.  It's one of the first ballads they did for me at Motown. It's also what I feel about show business, about my friends, about a love like yours don't come knocking.  It's a song that everybody else overlooked."

Jimmy & David Ruffin

In a 19th December 1970 NME interview with Roy Carr, Jimmy Ruffin spoke about the tracks on "I Am My Brother's Keeper" which he recorded with David.  "As this is our first album together, I think it's beautiful for it gave both of us the opportunity of doing something we'd always wanted to do…We're both very pleased with the way it turned out."  Of all the songs Jimmy described, I've chosen a trio to bring to you now.  The obvious "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" which Jimmy felt was one of the best tracks.  "By that I mean, in the overall performance."  This was followed by the predictable "Stand By Me".  "…We've given it a different interpretation.  It's got a good atmosphere but it's not one of David's favourite songs."  Finally, "The Things We Have To Do".  "When David and I revealed we were gonna record together a lot of people expected us to do a Sam and Dave scene.  But we didn't. Of all the tracks, this is the closest we came to that bag."  More next time.

And that's it for now.  Thank you for your constant support which you know I appreciate so much. Please keep in touch as I do answer as quickly as I can, promise.  When I join you again in July, I'll be a year older: a sobering thought but, hey, it's just a number, and I'm grateful to still be here if the truth be known, particularly when so many people have sadly lost their lives and loved ones during the past twelve or so weeks.   The dreaded virus is not over yet, so remaining diligent is an absolute must.  Keep calm, listen to Motown, and take great care.

Sharon Davis

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