The Pointer Sisters: Automatic

American R&B group the Pointer Sisters is one of the most enduring family bands in the world – with a career spanning almost five decades to date. Since forming in 1969, the all-girl group has had a string of top 20 hits in both the US and the UK and shows no sign of slowing down any time soon!


Early years

The group was formed by California-born sisters June and Bonnie Pointer, who began performing in clubs as a duo when they were aged 17 and 19 respectively. They became a trio when they were joined by their sister, 21-year-old Anita, soon after making their debut. Then, in 1972, they became a quartet when their fourth sister, Ruth, aged 26, joined them.

The girls had grown up in West Oakland listening to gospel music and had been encouraged to sing along by their parents, Rev Elton Pointer and wife Sarah. They were warned that the blues and rock ‘n’ roll were “the devil’s music”, but they sang both when their watchful parents weren’t around!


Rise to fame

After forming the Pointer Sisters, they played the live circuit (usually as a supporting act) and provided backing vocals for the likes of Grace Slick, Boz Scaggs, Sylvester James and Elvin Bishop. In 1971, while supporting Bishop, they were spotted by a talent scout and signed up to Atlantic Records.

They went on to release an incredible 51 singles, 16 studio albums, three live albums and 11 compilation albums. They have also won three Grammy Awards, including one for best country vocal performance for Fairytale in 1975 and two in 1985 – best pop performance for Jump (For My Love) and best vocal arrangement for Automatic, their most famous single.


Automatic’s global success

With June having left the band in 1977, the now trio moved to the Planet label and Automatic was released as a single from their 10th studio album, Break Out.

It became one of the Pointer Sisters’ signature songs and reached number five in the Billboard Hot 100 charts in the United States. It also charted in the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart and the Hot Dance Club Play chart, reaching the number two spot.

Automatic gave the Pointer Sisters their biggest hit in the UK, spending two weeks at number two in in May 1984. It reached number one in Ireland, number five in Belgium, number nine in the Netherlands, number eight in New Zealand and number 15 in Australia.


Lyrics meaning

The lyrics of the song refer to being hopelessly besotted with someone, to the point where you find it hard to function when they’re around and you become a nervous wreck. The lyrics, “All I can manage to push from my lips is a stream of absurdities,” describe how you begin to talk gibberish.

Singing the lead vocal, Ruth Pointer describes how her legs are “too weak to stand”, her hands “shake like a leaf” and her “systems are down”.

The vocals suggest this is an automatic reaction to being so close to the singer’s object of desire: “No way to control it – it’s totally automatic whenever you’re around.”


Popular culture

Dance act Ultra Naté released a cover version of Automatic in 2007, which hit the number one spot in the US dance chart on 28th April. The original song featured on the soundtrack of a number of films, including The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman in 1987 and Ricochet in 1991.

It also appeared on the soundtrack of the cult video racing car game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, in 2002. In September 2015, it featured on the soundtrack of the US comedy horror series, Scream Queens. There were also cover versions by Belgian singer Afi in 2006, British rock band Hot Leg in 2008 and Dutch group Mai Tai in 2011.

Sadly, June Pointer died of cancer at the age of 52 in 2006. The Pointer Sisters’ line-up today features Ruth (now aged 72 and a mother-of-five) and her daughter Issa, aged 40. They have recently been joined by Ruth’s granddaughter Sadako, aged 34, to complete the line-up as a trio.

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