Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Apollo Theater Recognizes Four Bold Soul Sisters

Written by Stephen McMillian -- In honor of Women’s History Month, the Apollo Theater recently paid tribute to four legendary women in soul music as part of its monthly Live Wire series.

Bold Soul Sisters: A Revolution of Sound & Style featured conversations with Rochelle Fleming of First Choice, Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters, Nona Hendryx of Labelle, and Kathy Sledge of the Sister Sledge. The program was moderated by journalist and essayist Christian John Wikane.

The questions revolved around how the legends rose to fame, their accomplishments and struggles and how they have managed to maintain their careers.

“It’s always been a problem,” said Hendryx regarding working in a predominately male music industry. “Female songwriters would always be paired with male songwriters and could never stand alone. There wasn’t much of a precedent set for women. The women that were making strides were primarily the artists who stepped out in front of big bands. They were the ones making changes and becoming businesswomen and also writing songs. To this day, it’s still a male-dominated industry. It’s still assumed when a woman walks through the door, you are an artist, not a label owner since there is an unspoken rule that if you are a woman, you’re an artist and not a business person.”

Fleming, whose voice has been sampled many times on rappers’ and fellow recording artists’ songs, said she used to get mad when she heard her voice being used for other people’s hits. “Now, I consider it an honor,” Fleming said.

Working with sisters in a group is difficult, explained Pointer. “In the late seventies, when Richard Perry was forming a new record label, he wanted us to come aboard. However, June and Bonnie, who went solo, were no longer a part of the group.” Pointer admitted that there were tensions at times with June and Bonnie. “We tried out two different girls to replace June and Bonnie,” said Pointer, “but it didn’t work out.” Pointer also admitted that between June and Bonnie, she and Anita decided to have June be a part of the rebirth of the Pointer Sisters by the early 1980s.

Sledge recalled the painstaking process in working with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards on their 1979 album We Are Family. “We had to learn each song one line at a time as opposed to learning the songs entirely,” said Sledge. She also reflected upon her and her sisters opening for the late Rick James while he was on tour, and her naïveté that he did drugs. They had also opened at one point for Bill Cosby.

“Bill Cosby was always a gentleman to us,” said Sledge. Throughout touring, she said she eventually learned to maintain a balance between both her personal and work life.

Pointer noted that when her group was struggling in the late seventies, Rick James called them to do background session work. “It was a blessing because Anita and I had children to support,” said Pointer.

When a clip of First Choice from Soul Train was screened, Fleming recalled how nervous she was when she appeared on the show. “I was nervous, happy and overwhelmed. So many things were running in my mind.” Soul Train host Don Cornelius asked her backstage where she got her singing voice. “I was blessed with it,” she recalled telling Cornelius. “Well, that is a blessing,” Cornelius replied to her.

Labelle was the first black group to ever play the Metropolitan Opera House. Hendryx reminisced that “it was exciting. We wanted everyone to dress in silver so everyone came dressed in various silver outfits. There were even two nuns dressed in silver!”

The group’s space age look was due in part to their designers. “Labelle needed to change,” Hendryx said. She wanted the group to be considered a band, not just a trio of girls singing. Change was also a part of the group’s lyrical content. Hendryx, who wrote many of Labelle’s songs, said, “I didn’t just write songs about relationships, but political songs as well. I can only write about what I experienced and the community in which I lived.”

The Pointer Sisters’ 1930s look was inspired by the music of the records of that era that the group listened to when they were younger which ultimately influenced their outfits. “This was the year after Lady Sings the Blues came out, and we were inspired by Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, the women of that time period,” Pointer said.

The ladies had their share of dealing with racial prejudice as well. For instance, one time when the Pointer Sisters were invited to a party in their honor, they found out that they were actually believed to be the servants and were told to wait in the kitchen.

When asked about sexism in the music industry, Pointer recalled a situation years ago in which their drummer, Tom Saulsberry, told her and her sisters that he and the rest of the all-male band was making more money than the group and that they had no idea what their managers were doing to them. “I thought it was very honest of him to tell us that,” she stated. She added that she and Saulsberry remain friends to this day.

Although there are more opportunities for women now in both the creative and business side of the entertainment industry, all of the ladies still see a need for further growth.

“It’s changed but there is still a long way to go,”Hendryx said.

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