How the Pointer Sisters Blended Countrypolitan Flair With Champagne Soul on 1981’s ‘Slow Hand’
The Pointer Sisters’ growth from critically acclaimed arthouse favorites to the premier act responsible for ushering in the mega-massive era of music industry profit takes a necessary detour through country music. Their global Top 10 hit “Slow Hand” -- released on May 23, 1981, 40 years ago -- brazenly blends genteel countrypolitan flair with polished champagne soul.
Ultimately, the song about a “lover” who won’t “come and go in a heated rush” created a portal of sorts in which country, R&B and Top 40 pop hid as the shrapnel from disco’s demolition laid waste to an industry and culture unprepared for mechanized electro-pop and liberalized social progression. The template that emerged allowed a disco-damaged segment of the music industry to rebuild itself in components of the chart-topping song’s image.
Aside from the Pointer Sisters’ work, 1981 was a fascinating year for genre-bending pop: Kenny Rogers went full soul-piano-ballad with the Lionel Richie-penned hit “Lady,” while Kim Carnes mixed synth-pop with Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”-style disco-rock for “Bette Davis Eyes.” Sonically, countrified guitar licks, steel drums and a metronomic drum machine construct “Slow Hand;” however, the family trio’s decision to tap the Carpenters’ secret weapon, John Bettis, to co-write a seductive love song with his frequent collaborator, Michael Clark, is what gives the track its true hidden power.
For Karen Carpenter, Bettis under-wrote to the emotional impact of a phrase and allowed her haunting timbre and alluring phrasing to fill lyrics with a unique depth and scope of meaning. Between 1972 and 1975, he penned the Carpenters hits "Top of the World," "Only Yesterday," "Goodbye to Love," and "Yesterday Once More." During that time, Bettis lived in Nashville and was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lynn Anderson, who re-recorded “Top of the World” in 1973 and took it to the top of America and Canada’s country charts.
Writing for great phrasers with fascinating timbres is a notion that’s familiar in country music, but it certainly wasn’t a frequently showcased skill in the mainstream pop realm, especially in the post-disco era. For every Michael Jackson (Bettis is the pen behind 1982’s “Human Nature”) and Madonna (for whom Bettis wrote 1985’s “Crazy for You”), there are a litany of one-hit wonders whose talents are bolstered by songs featuring extraordinary levels of post-production and vocal processing. In the Pointer Sisters, though, Bettis found a group able to push Karen Carpenter’s style to an unprecedented, salacious edge, thus creating a song with an incredibly widespread appeal.
For AllMusic, reviewer Amy Hanson notes that Black & White -- the Pointer Sisters’ fourth consecutive Top 10 album, on which "Slow Hand" appears -- “[leaves] behind some of the early soul that had taken them through the 1970s, the band now focused on a purer pop.” Moreover, she continues, songs such as “Slow Hand” “perfectly welded their old intentions to the mainstream diva flag they'd unfurl a little later in the decade.”
Because the songs share salacious-feeling lyrical appeal, many are quick to describe “Slow Hand” as analogous to the trio’s 1978 cover of Bruce Springsteen’s 1977 hit “Fire." However, though sonically similar, the two bear wildly different creative narratives, and former outweighs the latter due to key differences in Bettis’ lyric-writing influences and Springsteen’s lyrical inspirations.
“Fire” was written in an era where The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau called “the Boss” a rocker who was a “self-conscious primitive” who sometimes engaged in "pseudotragic beautiful loser fatalism." Comparatively, Bettis’ restrained gentility in "Slow Hand" directly correlates with the tropes required to make direct, lucrative appeals to country’s middle-of-the-road, conservative fanbase.
"Fire" has the Pointer Sisters vamping about in-automobile makeout sessions and comparing their wanton desires to the literary love affairs between Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the Bible’s Samson and Delilah. “Slow Hand” is similarly a vamp, but Bettis takes the painstaking effort of setting the mood through mentions of shadowy, moonlit trees under starry skies and imagined thoughts of what passion should be.
If “Fire” is a rapturous romance, “Slow Hand” is delirious foreplay.
On "Slow Hand," Anita Pointer’s lead vocal is clear and direct, flatly presenting the situation at hand. When Bonnie and June chime in for the chorus, however, the combined contralto when the trio sings “slow hand” drives home the promise of requited sensual desires.
This delivery also creates an intriguing analogy to Karen Carpenter, an alto with a low, stirring quality quality to her voice. Bonnie and June Pointer, though, are contraltos -- a range below that of Carpenter. When considering the level of training and experience the Pointer Sisters' voices had by that point -- two decades' worth -- their ability to flawlessly crystalize simmering lust that had yet to boil into sexualized passion becomes apparent.
Ultimately, the era in which countrypolitan-tinged soul ruled popular music was short-lived. True, for many R&B acts, attempts to dive into the space resulted in now-ironically beloved milquetoast songs such as James Ingram and Patti Austin's 1982 Billboard chart-topper "Baby Come to Me." While often technically superior, such songs lack an essence that leaves them outside the country-influenced space that was at pop's center during the era.
By 1983 -- just two years after the release of “Slow Hand” -- the country-soul pairing diverged. Via Michael Jackson’s Quincy Jones-produced Thriller and works released by Prince and his disciples Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (Controversy, 1999 and Purple Rain), techno-funk and the edge of soulful metal replaced countrypolitan soul as the world’s most exciting, youthful pop sound.
Meanwhile, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ "Islands in the Stream,” written and produced by the Bee Gees, pushed country music in a more adult contemporary mainstream direction -- which included Conway Twitty covering “Slow Hand” and reaching the top of Billboard’s country songs chart in 1982 -- until the ascendance of neo-traditionalists such as Randy Travis by the mid-to-late ‘80s.
For a brief, fleeting moment, after being negatively affected by the dying days of disco, country and R&B were “drifting free, like two lost leaves, on the crazy wind of the night.” But, with the aid of a sound and style delivered with the care of “a lover with an easy touch,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Slow Hand” stands the test of time as an essential and vital bridge in country, pop and soul’s musical legacies.
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