Inside ‘Fairytale,’ the Pointer Sisters’ defiant country kiss-off covered by Elvis
Growing up, Elvis Presley’s quasi-gospel ballad “Crying in the Chapel” was the first secular recording allowed inside the Pointer Sisters’s strict Church of God in Christ home in West Oakland, California. Ruth, Anita, Bonnie, and June were only allowed to listen to the radio on Sundays. On top of that, it had to be gospel stations. Thank God their mom fancied the song.
Years later, the group — minus an already married Ruth — were struggling backup singers. A brief tour supporting guitarist-songwriter Dave Mason of Traffic fame wound up one night in Woodstock, New York. Trying to get some much needed rest in a dinky motel, Anita was listening to James Taylor croon a gentle ballad on her compact cassette machine.
In an extensive 2006 interview with Ken Sharp regarding Writing for the King: The Stories of the Songwriters, Anita revealed that some melody and lyrics came to her out of the blue — “it was like magic” — and that she had no intentions of writing a country-sounding song.
Basically crafted that night and presented to Bonnie for fine-tuning after the tour was over, “Fairytale” was based on a true story. In the early ’70s the Pointers were writing commercials and selling them for $50. A San Francisco radio station named KSAN loaned their equipment so the group could properly record the spots.
Anita fell in love with the station deejay and had an affair. Not surprisingly, her flame neglected to mention that he was a married man. “He lied to me so when I found out that’s when that song came out,” recalled Anita.
Once Ruth joined the group in December 1972, a recording contract with Blue Thumb Records resulted in the group’s first hit, a cover of Allen Toussaint’s syncopated, funk-fueled “Yes We Can Can.” Two follow-up singles — neither penned by the group — largely failed to connect with listeners. Scoring a bona fide follow up hit was paramount.
Recorded in Nashville during sessions for the quartet’s second album entitled That’s a Plenty, “Fairytale” was originally buried on the B-side of Philadelphia soul songwriting team Gamble and Huff’s “Love in Them There Hills.” Pop radio thumbed its nose at the A-side but inexplicably turned the 45 over and heard something of far greater value.
In a gutsy move considering the Pointers were African American and had never recorded country music before, original producer-manager David Rubinson decided to target country radio and send the group to “Music City USA” on promotional appearances. His tactic reaped encouraging dividends for the most part.
The Pointer Sisters hold the distinction as the first black female group to perform on the hallowed stage of the Grand Ole Opry. “Fairytale” won the Pointer Sisters their first of three highly coveted Grammy Awards for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. But despite Rubinson’s best efforts, country programmers weren’t very enamored — ”Fairytale” barely eked into the Top 40 at No. 37. Whether good ole prejudice played a significant role is up for debate.
When the single peaked at an impressive No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 a week before Christmas 1974, the Pointer Sisters were on top of the world. Conversely, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll had a midlife crisis — both personal and professional — to combat.
Presley had not stepped into a studio since December of the previous year at the soul-infused Stax Studios in Memphis. Such a sustained period of recording inactivity had not been experienced since his draft sanctioned two-year tour of duty in Germany.
His interest in recording contemporary rock ’n’ roll was dwindling substantially and fans knew it — the driving, back to basics “Burning Love” had been his last Top Ten record over two years earlier. Ironically, the Pointer Sisters’s “Fairytale” kept Presley’s fantastic reading of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” from shuttling further up the Hot 100 — it stalled at No. 14.
Tabloids and even reputable news organizations cracked snide “fat and forty” jokes incessantly leading up to Presley’s much ballyhooed birthday on January 8. The occasion came and went quietly as the recently divorced superstar brooded in his upstairs bedroom at Graceland.
A 12th soul-crushing, month-long engagement at the Las Vegas Hilton was wisely postponed. Presley’s primary physician, Dr. George Nichopolous, convinced his head-strong patient to enter Baptist Memorial Hospital for nearly a month so an enlarged colon and ongoing glaucoma could be professionally monitored. But Dr. Nick’s underlying motivation for the sojourn was so Presley could undergo regimented detoxification.
After the brief period of rejuvenation, Colonel Tom Parker rescheduled the Vegas engagement as a limited two week run beginning on March 18. Presley flew out to California two weeks prior to begin show rehearsals with his crack TCB Band [e.g. Telecaster maestro James Burton, drummer Ronnie Tutt, and pianist Glen D. Hardin]. Longtime record label RCA shrewdly finagled a proper recording session during the flurry of activity.
Recorded on March 10, 1975, at RCA’s Studio C in Hollywood, “Fairytale” was the first song cut during sessions earmarked for Presley’s under-appreciated Today album. Nearly all 10 songs on the project had country origins, a genre that Presley frequently explored in the 1970s.
Anita believes that Rubinson’s Nashville connections were responsible for getting the song to Presley. However, in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, well-regarded scholar Peter Guralnick asserts that Linda Thompson, best known as the steady girlfriend that most Memphis Mafia members believe should have married Presley, eventual second wife of Bruce Jenner, and successful songwriter in her own right, suggested that her beau add “Fairytale” to his repertoire. What cannot be denied is that Presley covered it before anybody else.
While sometimes struggling to hit the high notes suggested that the song should have been tackled in a lower key, Presley nevertheless delivered the prophetic hook line, oozing unbridled intensity that wasn’t wholly evident in Anita’s vocal: “You used me, you deceived me, and you never seemed to need me, but I’ll bet you won’t forget me when I go!”
Taken at a slighter faster tempo than the Pointers’ rendition and sporting crisp lead guitar licks courtesy of Burton, the master was achieved after undergoing just one extended false start and two complete takes.
This shattered, let’s-get-it-over-with work ethic was echoed by the same rock ’n’ roll trailblazer who spent 31 takes attempting the iconic “Hound Dog” 20 years earlier before he was satisfied with the results.
That’s not to say Presley’s cover was terrible. It wasn’t by any means. He could sing the Yellow Pages and sleigh all of the competition in one fell swoop. It is fair to admit that Presley’s rendition was a tad over-produced during subsequent “sweetening” aka overdubbing sessions in Nashville. Case in point: witness the ramped up fiddle quotient. The first, less polished take unleashed decades later on the Elvis: Great Country Songs compilation is welcome ear candy and arguably much better than the official master.
The innovative rocker was apparently quite fond of the song, as it remained one of the select few studio recordings from his later years that regularly appeared in concert setlists. In fact, he introduced it as the “story of my life” and performed it at his very final show on June 26, 1977, at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana.
In her conversations with Sharp, Anita reflected that “it was so unbelievable that someone like Elvis could relate to the story in that song and want to record it…I think Elvis did ‘Fairytale’ beautifully. I was very pleased. He really captured the emotion in his version.” And now, Ruth unearths the rest of the story in her own inimitable style.
In the second installment of a brand new interview, Anita’s eldest sister Ruth offers an enlightening take on the “Moody Blue” vocal belter. Of course, she dishes on what it was like to debut “Fairytale” on the Grand Ole Opry, whether the sisters experienced any prejudice in Nashville, and if Presley stole his music and incendiary dance steps from his significantly less prosperous African American musical influences.
The Ruth Pointer Interview, Part Two
Are you an Elvis Presley fan?
Oh yeah. Believe it or not, “All Shook Up” was the very first record in my collection. I love that song. My mother loved Elvis, too. “Crying in the Chapel” was one of her favorite songs for a long, long time. We never met Elvis, but we were really grateful that he covered “Fairytale.” We still perform it, depending on how much time the show allows. It does go over well whenever we do it.
How did it go over when you guys debuted “Fairytale” at the Grand Ole Opry on October 25, 1974?
It was interesting because our song had been a hit for the longest time [No. 13 Pop, No. 37 C&W, No. 13 Adult Contemporary], and the audience didn’t know that the group singing the song was black women. It was quite the surprise when we showed up, but they just received us and it was great. These gals are black, and we like them [laughs].
Did you experience any prejudice when you were in Nashville?
The South is what the South is, and they have endured a long, long history of segregation, racism, and all that stuff. We weren’t aware of it, even though we are California girls.
We had a party that was planned for us in Nashville. We got to the party, and they led us around through the back into the kitchen. We thought that they were doing that because we were supposed to be surprising the guests that were there.
Turns out they thought we were the hired help. Our manager was, of course, livid and so angry about it all. But we didn’t know any different. We thought it was hysterically funny that they thought we were the help.
We finally had to walk out after the party and say, “Oh no, we’re not the help, we are the people that wrote this song and we’re performing at the Grand Ole Opry tomorrow night.” I thought it was funny, and I still think it is funny.
Did the Pointer Sisters record any other country songs besides “Fairytale?”
We returned to Nashville for another session to record a follow-up single that Anita and Bonnie wrote called “Live Your Life Before You Die.“
That one didn’t go over as well [No. 89 POP, January 1975], although we received a Grammy nomination in the Best Country Group Performance category. To my memory those were the only two that we did…or released anyway [“Live Your Life” has yet to appear on an official Pointer Sisters album].
Some critics argue that Elvis stole his music and dance moves from African Americans. Does that theory hold any water?
I love the diversity of the world. I love the diversity of musical artists, and we all steal from one another. I know I do. When I see someone that has a move that I like — if I can do it — I want to do it. I don’t see anything wrong with that. You see Usher, Chris Brown, and all of them stealing Michael Jackson’s moves. That’s what you do — you learn from your peers.
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