Anita Pointer, who has died from cancer aged 74, was a member of the Pointer Sisters from their formation in 1969 until illness forced her to step down in 2015. They achieved immediate success with their debut album, The Pointer Sisters, in 1973, which reached No 13 on the US chart, and their first single, the Allen Toussaint composition Yes We Can Can, went to No 11.
They enjoyed further success with How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side), a Top 20 hit, from the Steppin’ album (1975), and their appearance in the 1976 movie Car Wash propelled their single You Gotta Believe into the R&B Top 20. But it wasn’t until the group signed to producer Richard Perry’s Planet Records that they were launched into the pop stratosphere. The album Energy (1978) entered the US Top 20 and gave them a major hit with a version of Bruce Springsteen’s Fire.
Anita described to Goldmine magazine how she had said to Perry that “maybe he wanted Ruthie to sing lead as she had the big voice, but he said ‘No, I want you to sing it’. So I did and it became our first gold single and I was just so thrilled.”
In 1983 they released Break Out, a multi-platinum seller, which delivered a quartet of giant electro-pop singles, Jump (For My Love), Automatic, Neutron Dance and I’m So Excited (a remix of their 1982 hit). This was the only single from the album featuring Anita’s lead vocals and it now reached No 9. Automatic, as well as reaching 5 in the US, gave the Sisters their highest-ever chart placing in the UK when it peaked at No 2. They received an extra commercial boost when Automatic was used in the 1984 film Beverly Hills Cop. “We just got so famous all of a sudden from that song being in the movie,” Anita marvelled. The group won Grammy awards for Jump (For My Love) and Automatic.
Anita was born in Oakland, California, the second daughter of the Rev Elton Pointer and his wife Sarah (nee Silas). Her older sister, Ruth, had been born in 1946, and two younger sisters, Bonnie and June, arrived in 1950 and 1953 respectively. The girls had two talented older brothers: Aaron went on to have an illustrious career in baseball, while Fritz, who became an English professor, also at one stage managed the Pointer Sisters, and co-authored the book Fairytale: The Pointer Sisters’ Family Story (2020) with Anita.
In 1965 Anita graduated from Oakland technical high school, and in the same year, aged 17, she married David Harper. Their daughter, Jada, born in 1966, was the inspiration for the song Jada on the sisters’ debut album. The Pointer girls frequently sang gospel music in their father’s church, the West Oakland Church of God, but as teenagers in the 60s they could not help being lured away by the heady excitement of rock’n’roll, although their parents considered it the work of the devil.
Bonnie and June formed a duo, Pointers, a Pair, in 1969. Anita then quit her job as a secretary to join them and they became the Pointer Sisters. “I was planning on continuing being a secretary in a law office, like I was doing,” she recalled, “when I heard Bonnie and June singing in the Northern California State Youth Choir… So I quit my job and said I had to do this too.”
They cut their professional teeth by working with a variety of artists from the burgeoning San Francisco music scene, including Boz Scaggs, Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and the blues guitar player Elvin Bishop. The local rock promoter Bill Graham signed them up for management, and it was while supporting Bishop at the Whiskey a Go Go club in Los Angeles that they were signed by Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records. They released several unsuccessful singles with Atlantic, although one of them, Send Him Back, became a favorite on the British northern soul circuit. The group became a quartet when Ruth joined in 1972.
They moved to the Blue Thumb label and released their debut album, The Pointer Sisters, the following year. Their penchant for wearing 1940s vintage clothing prompted their fans to follow suit, and their second album, That’s a Plenty, found them pursuing jazz, gospel and bebop styles. They also made a strikingly successful foray into country music with Fairytale, a No 13 pop hit that also reached the country music Top 50. It earned the sisters an invitation to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, making them the first black group to play there. Fairytale (written by Anita and Bonnie) won them a Grammy award, and was recorded by Elvis Presley.
After their album Having a Party (1977) was a flop, June and Bonnie left the group. Ruth and Anita decided they should aim for a more contemporary direction, and they signed with Planet Records. June returned to the fold, and the three-piece Pointer Sisters now embarked on their period of greatest success with Energy, on which they covered songs by Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac and Stephen Stills, among others.
It was the start of a long streak of success with Perry’s label. The album Special Things (1980) reached the Top 40 and Black and White went to No 12 (and spun off the No 2 hit Slow Hand), but it was the success of Break Out, a Top 10 album in the US and the UK , that put the icing on the cake. The group’s last album to go platinum was Contact (1985) and their final studio album was Only Sisters Can Do That (1993).
In 1986, Anita hit No 2 on the country chart when she teamed up with the country artist Earl Thomas Conley on the single Too Many Times, and she released the solo album Love For What It Is in 1987. In 1995-96, the Pointer Sisters toured with the musical revue Ain’t Misbehavin’, based on the song catalog of Fats Waller. The group received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994.
Anita Pointer’s two marriages both ended in divorce. Her daughter died in 2003, and her sisters, June, in 2006, and Bonnie in 2020. She is survived by a granddaughter, Roxie, and her siblings, Ruth, Aaron and Fritz.