Monday, January 2, 2023

Quote of the Day (Carina Del Valle Schorske, on the Painful Origin of a Pointer Sisters’ Country Hit)

“Anita Pointer wrote the first draft of the country song ‘Fairytale’ at a motel in Woodstock while she and her sisters were on tour singing backup for Dave Mason. She was still reeling from the revelation that her new boyfriend, a San Francisco radio DJ, had been married all along—a story so common she’d call it cliché if she didn’t have to plot the next chapter herself. That night she stayed up late running her favorite James Taylor tape on repeat, and the lyrics she wrote channeled his plainspoken style: There’s no need to explain anymore—I tried my best to love you, now I’m walking out that door. Once the tour was over, Anita’s baby sister Bonnie provided the bright and buoyant melody, as if to sustain the momentum of departure.”—Writer and translator Carina Del Valle Schorske, “Fairytale: The Pointer Sisters, the Great Migration, and the Soul of Country,” Oxford American, Issue 119, Winter 2022

I had just bought the latest issue of Oxford American this weekend when I heard about the death of Anita Pointer. The sad news brought back to me—as, I’m sure, it did countless other music fans—40 years and more ago, when she and her sisters embodied all the sass and ebullience of our collective youth.

The vocal harmonies of the Pointer Sisters began in youth gospel choirs in their parents’ church, before they would be heard, to joyous effect, across other genres: soul, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, and most surprisingly, as Ms. Schorske indicated, country.

(Not only did “Fairytale” win a Grammy for Best Country and Western Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, but Anita would join sisters Ruth, June and Bonnie in appearing at the Grand Ole Opry—one of the first African-American acts to headline at that legendary venue.)

Alex Traub’s obituary for Anita in The New York Times stressed the versatility of her lead vocals: how, from her low register, she could “coo,” deliver “an earnest, imploring tone,” segue to a “huskier, sexier side,” but above all singing “with the speed and flavor of molasses.”

Although Traub’s piece sums up Anita’s protean vocal gifts, you really should read Ms. Schorske to appreciate what a cultural touchstone she created in “Fairytale”—a song that symbolized not only their musical restlessness, but also the larger movement that The Pointer Sisters represented as part of the Great Migration from the Deep South of the Jim Crow era. (Their parents left Arkansas for Oakland, Calif.)

Anita’s urge to remember the heritage of slavery and racism found an outlet in a collection of objects related to African-American history, a constant reminder to her that “everybody don’t love you and you have to prove them wrong.”

Remembrance was her private means of defiance, though the adoring public for her and her sisters will surely remember their public exultation in the face of everything, in hits like “Yes We Can Can,” “Jump (For My Love),” “Automatic,” “Fire,” and my favorite, “I’m So Excited.”

(For more on Anita Pointer and her sisters, you might want to listen to her interview three years ago with "Nasty" Neal Jones on the “Inside Your Head” podcast, promoting Fairytale, her memoir written with brother Fritz. In it, she discussed her sisters’ struggle starting out at Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, as well as the group’s appearances on Sesame Street, The Carol Burnett Show, and entertaining the troops with Bob Hope during the Gulf War.)

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