In tributes to Barbara Walters, who died last week, came remembrances about her decades of interviews with world leaders, celebrities, and newsmakers. But there were also countless stories about how the legendary television journalist spent much of her early career navigating the hideous sexism that polluted newsrooms dominated and controlled by white men.
Overcoming hateful slights and insults is a crucial part of Walters’ origin story and how her determination changed the industry for women. That’s an account I want told about singer-songwriter Anita Pointer, who also died last week, at age 74. With her sisters, she was a pioneer for Black women in country music.
For nearly 50 years, Pointer was a member of the genre-hopping Pointer Sisters. Best remembered for such hits as “Jump (For Your Love),” “I’m So Excited,” and a sultry cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire.” The group, which originally included Ruth, Anita, Bonnie, and June, first garnered raves for reviving the vocalize of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross with “Cloudburst,” a tongue-twisting take on the Dizzy Gillespie classic “Salt Peanuts,” and the fatback funk of Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can.”
During their career, The Pointer Sisters were nominated for multiple Grammys in pop and R&B categories. But they won their first with a country song in 1975.
A poignant break-up song sung by Anita who cowrote the song with Bonnie, “Fairytale” was no gimmick. Though raised in Oakland, Calif., the sisters spent summers in their parents’ native Arkansas and loved country music. Still, that wasn’t enough for country stations, which shunned adding a song by Black women in heavy rotation for their predominantly white listeners. “Fairytale” barely cracked Billboard’s Top 40 country chart.
But The Pointer Sisters did win the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance By A Duo Or Group, beating out such genre stalwarts as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Rita Coolidge. They remain the only Black women to garner the music industry’s most coveted award in a country category.
That could soon change as more Black women claim their rightful place in country music. Last year Mickey Guyton, a four-time Grammy nominee, became the first Black woman to cohost the Academy of Country Music Awards, where she performed her song, “Love My Hair” with Brittney Spencer and Madeline Edwards. And in “Black Like Me,” Guyton’s signature song, she speaks about the racism she has suffered since childhood but also declares her pride in her Blackness.
None of which means it’s now easy for Black women in country music. Those who populate the country charts remain overwhelming white. Black artists, especially women, are still fighting for airtime and respect — just like The Pointer Sisters did.
After their Grammy win, the sisters were invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, the first Black female group to grace the stage of country music’s cathedral in Nashville. Following their historic appearance, the Pointers were taken to a party in their honor at a private home.
As Ruth Pointer, now the last surviving member of the group, recalled in her autobiography “Still So Excited! My Life as a Pointer Sister” (with Marshall Terrill), upon their arrival they were led to the kitchen and told to sit, where they would remain for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, the party thrown for them carried on without them.
“Because we were Black, the person who answered the door assumed we were there as the hired help and led us to the back door,” Ruth Pointer wrote. David Rubinson, their producer, “went ballistic.” But the sisters “just laughed and shrugged it off.” She wrote, “It wasn’t the first time we had come face to face with racism and it sure wasn’t the last. And it wasn’t confined to the Old South.”
The Pointer Sisters made other country songs and earned another country Grammy nomination, but none were as successful as “Fairytale,” which was later covered by Elvis Presley. That song was treated as an aberration, but it was more a reclamation of music that Black people played an integral role in creating.
“Country music is as much born in African American history as it is in what we think of as white, rural Southern history,” filmmaker Ken Burns, who made the multipart PBS documentary “Country Music,” told CBS News in 2019.
From West African banjos that traversed continents during the transatlantic slave trade to the work songs and spirituals born in fields tilled by the enslaved for more than 200 years, country music is Black music. Anita Pointer knew that. And it is “Fairytale,” inspired by her true life story of love gone wrong, that has allowed other country music-loving Black women to find their way through doors that, nearly a half-century ago, The Pointer Sisters boldly pried open.