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Classic Tracks: The Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can”

When the Pointer Sisters burst onto the national scene with Yes We Can Can in mid-1973, they seemed completely different from any other popular group

When the Pointer Sisters burst onto the national scene with “Yes We Can Can” in mid-1973, they seemed completely different from any other popular group of the time. The Oakland, Calif. — born sisters — Anita, Ruth, June and Bonnie — clearly had some gospel music in their background and oodles of “soul,” but they also had a look and sound that hearkened back to the ’30s and ’40s, with echoes of Billie Holiday and the great female big-band singing groups. Nobody was going to confuse these girls with The Supremes. And “Yes We Can Can” was the perfect vehicle for their intricate harmonies and upbeat attitude: The song, written by the great New Orleans producer/songwriter Allen Toussaint, had been a minor R&B hit for Lee Dorsey in 1970 (Dorsey had previously had hits with such Toussaint numbers as “Ya-Ya,” “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Get out of My Life Woman”), but it was essentially unknown in rock music circles. The Pointer Sisters, it turned out, successfully bridged the white and black music worlds, and “Yes We Can Can” was precisely the kind of optimistic anthem of harmony and brotherhood that seemed to strike a universal chord at a politically volatile and divisive time.

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“Yes We Can Can” was one of a number of fine songs the Pointer Sisters recorded at the suggestion of David Rubinson, who produced their first few albums. “I had loved the original of that song,” Rubinson told me recently by phone from Jamaica where, now retired from the music business, he lives several months a year. “In fact, I loved almost everything Allen Toussaint ever wrote; what an amazing man! But I could really hear the Pointer Sisters doing that one, and in that case, my instinct was right.”

By the time Rubinson and his studio partner, engineer Fred Catero, recorded the Pointers’ eponymous first album, he was already well-established in the Bay Area recording community. Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Rubinson got his start at CBS Records in New York in the mid-’60s, at first doing Broadway soundtrack work, then moving into other genres, working with everyone from Mongo Santamaria to the Clancy Brothers to comedian Phyllis Diller. Along the way, he went to San Francisco and checked out the burgeoning rock scene there in the late ’60s, producing classics such as Moby Grape’s first album and the Chambers Brothers’ The Time Has Come, and falling in love with the area. After he was unsuccessful in his attempt to get CBS to open a major studio in San Francisco (that would come later), he and Catero left New York and moved to the Bay Area as independents (still a rarity in 1969) and set up shop in a mid-sized studio called Pacific Recording in San Mateo, south of San Francisco. Outfitted with a custom console and one of the first Ampex MM-1000 16-tracks when the New York duo arrived, Pacific Recording later acquired a Quad Eight console when those came in vogue; that was the board they used to record various projects by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Taj Mahal, Cold Blood and others. For a while, Rubinson worked as part of Bill Graham’s Fillmore Corporation, but by 1972, he had broken off and formed his own production and management company, David Rubinson & Friends (of which Catero Sound was one element).

The Pointers, meanwhile, were following their own path. Bonnie and June sang as a duo in Bay Area clubs; after Anita joined, they went to Houston hoping to make a dent in the music scene there, but ended up broke and desperate instead. A call to Rubinson, who had admired their talent but did not know them well personally, brought them enough money to return to the Bay Area, where he started to use them as backup singers on projects by Cold Blood, Elvin Bishop and others.

“The greatest thing about the Pointer Sisters back then is they hadn’t been brainwashed by anything,” Rubinson reflects today. “Not by religion or ghetto life — they didn’t really pre-conceive who they had to be and what they had to look like or sound like. They were very open. But they were also sui generis; there’s no place they really fit, which is why I was so attracted to them. I remember very early on I gave them a Lambert, Hendricks & Ross album, which they’d never heard, and a couple of days later, they came back with it learned. It knocked me out. They were singing with Sylvester, which I think is part of how they were influenced to wear thrift-store clothes and boas and all that, and they seemed to be able to sing just about anything.”

Catero notes, “David was one of those people who, if someone had raw talent, if you were undirected but artistic and had a lot of energy, he could mold them into a viable act. That’s what happened with the Pointer Sisters. He really shaped them and directed them and found what they were best at. So much of that first album was songs and ideas that he came up with.”

Rubinson and Catero almost didn’t get the chance: The Pointer Sisters first sessions were cut for Atlantic Records, but that label was interested in a more traditional “soul” sound, and neither the group nor the label were pleased with the results. So in early 1972, Rubinson signed the band to a management deal, and it was around that time, too, that sister Ruth joined the group. That fall, they went into Pacific Recording and started work on the group’s first album, beginning with “Yes We Can Can,” “Jada” and “Cloudburst” (all of which they had demo’d before the Atlantic Records debacle). As fate would have it, midway during the recording of the album, Rubinson and Catero left Pacific Recording for good and moved their operation to Studio A of Wally Heider Recording in San Francisco, the hottest facility in town. “We were busy, busy, busy,” Catero recalls. “It seems like we barely slept.” Studio A, too, was equipped with a Quad Eight console, but by ’72, Heider’s had switched from Ampex 16-tracks to 3M models. The studio was a famously good-sounding tracking space, with a nice complement of high-quality microphones and a great-sounding echo chamber.

“I know we did the basic track for ‘Yes We Can Can’ at Pacific Recording,” Rubinson says. “I can remember recording [drummer] Gaylord Birch there — getting that bass and drum part down that was the foundation of the song.” (On the album, there are no musician credits for individual songs, but Rubinson’s recollection is that the bass on that song was played by Richard Greene of the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils, whose nom de bass was Dexter C. Plates. Ron McClure played bass on most of the album, however.) The guitarist was Willie Fulton, “who had really invented this whole funky, slinky sound as part of Tower of Power,” Rubinson continues. “Boy, was he funky!” Fulton laid down a rhythmic thwack all through the song, and later added an overdubbed lead part. And really, that was it: The rest of the track is the intricate vocal arrangement, with Anita’s lead dancing above perfect group harmonies for nearly all of the tune’s six minutes.

“We used to rehearse our asses off to get the vocals right,” Rubinson says. “That’s one thing I really believed in. Because if you got the vocals down in advance, then you could get free in the recording and have some fun. When you hear some of the other vocals on the first album, we let them be raw; we didn’t refine some things. And that makes them sound very human. The best thing about ‘Yes We Can Can’ is that Anita’s vocal is so human and so real, and then the way it meshes with the background vocals and the double layers going against each other is very organic.”

Rubinson says that he always liked to record vocals live with the band playing, “and then we’d go and put in the background vocals and leads and we’d see what spaces were around rather than putting down a whole bunch of [instrumental] tracks and trying to fit the vocals around that. Having all those vocals that double-back on each other didn’t leave a lot of room for other things, so we left it simple. It’s funny, because later, after the song was done, various people asked me, ‘Aren’t you going to add some horns? Don’t you think it needs some keyboards?’ And I’d look at them stupefied because it was right there; there was nothing else needed.”

When it came to recording the Pointers, “I never liked to put a group of vocalists on their own mics because they know what their blend is better than the engineer and I do,” Rubinson says. “They balance themselves and they react instinctively and intuitively — they know when to move in, move out, shape the tones to match. When you have people all on different mics, you’re dealing with headphones and the monitor mix and they’re not hearing their blend the way they’re used to. So to record the Pointer Sisters, we always put them around one microphone”; in this case, a Neumann U87. “The great thing about the 87 is it had a 360 setting; you could open it all the way around,” Rubinson continues. “You could do a cardioid pattern or a 180 or a 360. I think when we were still at Pacific Recording, we might have used a [Neumann] 67, but we definitely used an 87 [at Heiders].”

“We didn’t care about leakage,” Catero adds. “Unless they were going to change vocal parts, it didn’t matter. We always did as much as we could live in the studio.”

Rubinson says that the intricate vocal parts — indeed, all of the tracking and overdubbing — was done fairly quickly, “a matter of hours, not days. We had a very limited budget — maybe $15,000 to $20,000 — but beyond that, I never believed in whacking at vocals for hours and hours, and I didn’t like picking three words from one take and five words from the other take. If you have good musicians and good singers, that shouldn’t be necessary. I was more interested in getting good performances.”

Clearly the formula worked. The album was released in March 1973 to immediate acclaim, and an edited version of “Yes We Can Can” stormed the airwaves that summer, lodging at Number 11 on Billboard‘s pop chart and Number 12 on the R&B chart. This started a chart run for the Sisters (and Rubinson) that included “Fairytale,” “How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side),” “You Gotta Believe” and “Having a Party.”

In the late ’70s, Bonnie departed for a solo career and the remaining trio and Rubinson parted ways, as well. Then, with producer Richard Perry at the helm, they traded their vintage look for modern clothes, and they went in a more rock direction, scoring huge crossover hits with such songs as “Fire” (by Bruce Springsteen), “He’s So Shy,” “Slow Hand,” “Automatic,” “Jump (For My Love),” “I’m So Excited” and “Neutron Dance” — all cracked the pop Top 10. By the late ’80s, however, their star had faded and they never regained their footing as a popular act. Even a mid-’90s turn back to their earlier style, spearheading a new version of the Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehavin‘, failed to turn the tide in their favor. But today, they still are fondly remembered as hit makers and true originals in a world filled with copycats and sound-alikes. And “Yes We Can Can” was the beginning.