Inspired by politically oriented folk music and rhythm and blues, this lady worked for twenty years on perfecting her unique style of guitar playing and crossover music as a singer-songwriter before becoming “discovered” by most of the general public and raised to the level of superstar.
At one point she was even dropped by her record company because of poor sales, this being prior to the release of her 1989 block buster album, Nick of Time. The album title could not have been more appropriate; it coincided with breaking free from a typically deadly downward spiral of addictions that have taken so many other great artists from us.
Bonnie Lynn Raitt
Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy with Junior Wells (Young Bonnie is really enjoying Junior)
Love Me Like A Man (1976)
Runaway (Live 1977)
Pride and Joy – Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughn
1989 / Oakland California / Have a Heart /
In The Mood (1991) with John Lee Hooker
Night Life with BB King – Sacramento Night Out
2003 / Bonnie Raitt & Kim Wilson / Coming Home /
2012 / Kennedy Centre / Sweet Home Chicago / in honour of Buddy Guy /
2016 / Amazon Front Row /
Al Green Bonnie Raitt Joss Stone Michael McDonald Hall Oates Live /
Some of Her Hits
1989 Thing Called Love
During the 1970s Bonnie Raitt released a series of roots-influenced albums that blended elements of blues, rock, folk and country.
But she is likely better known for her more commercially accessible recordings released during the late 1980s and ’90s. Such hits as “Nick of Time “, “Something to Talk About“, “Love Sneaking Up on You“, and the ballad “I Can’t Make You Love Me” resonate for most people and she has received nine Grammy Awards during her career.
Beyond her music, Raitt is also a very avid political activist.
Bonnie Lynn Raitt (born November 8, 1949) was born in Burbank, California. The daughter of Broadway musical star John Raitt and his first wife, pianist Marjorie Haydock.
Bonnie grew up loving blues music, and at age 8 she picked up her first guitar, a Stella acoustic, and taught herself how to play; something few of her high school girlfriends did.
Bonnie recalls: My parents would drag me out to perform for my family, like all parents do, but it was a hobby – nothing more… I think people must wonder how a white girl like me became a blues guitarist. The truth is, I never intended to do this for a living. I grew up… in a Quaker family, and for me being Quaker was a political calling rather than a religious one.
Later she would become famous for her bottleneck-style guitar playing. “I had played a little at school and at camp”, she later recalled in a July 2002 interview.
The camp Bonnie refers to is Camp Regis-Applejack, located on upper St. Regis Lake in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. A lot of folks had their kids go to camp during summer months.
I used to come east from California to Camp Regis. It was run by Quakers, but most of the people there were Jewish and progressive. The counselors went to Colleges like Antioch and Brandeis and Swarthmore and were into the civil rights, peace movement thing. I went there every summer from ’58 until about ’65. It counteracted the whole beach boy scene in California which I couldn’t stand. I started wearing peace symbols around my neck and listening to an Odetta record what one of the counselors had brought up in ’59, and I learned to play guitar from that. Then I heard Joan Baez and fell in love. I wanted to pierce my ears and grow thin cheekbones. When I heard the Blues at Newport ’63 album, I wanted to get away from camp and go to the folk festival, but I was too young. I was thirteen.
When I heard “Candy Man” by Mississippi John Hurt on that album, I went, “What is that?” I’d been doing a lot of Odetta and Joan Baez stuff, but when I heard that I went – “I don’t know what that stuff is, but this guy is so cute, his voice is so cute, and his guitar is so pretty…” I just had to learn about it. I couldn’t figure out the tuning because I just wasn’t versed in guitar. I didn’t ever look at a guitar book, and I didn’t know anybody who played that stuff. I found out later that Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder were all in L.A. at the time and that there was a little burgeoning folk scene going on at Ash Grove, but I was living on top of Cold Water Canyon and was still only thirteen or fourteen.
By the time I was in the last two years of high school, I went to a Quaker school in Poughkeepsie, New Your, and that’s where I started to hear about the Club 47. I just couldn’t wait. I was playing guitar, and I was a real folkie. It wasn’t that I wanted to play music so much, it’s just that I wanted to be around it. So I chose Radcliffe because of Cambridge [Mass.] and the Club 47 and went there in the fall of ;67. I was a regular little freshman, wearing my tights, but I soon started listening to the Harvard radio station, WHRB, and found out that some of the guys like David Gessner and Jack Fertell were connected with the folk and blues circuit, …”
The above quotes are an excerpt from the book “Baby, Let me Follow You Down – The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years” by Eric Von Schmidt and Jim Rooney.
Early in her career, while living in one of the West Hollywood apartment complexes directly behind Cherokee Studios, Bonnie used to pick up work singing backup vocals at recording gigs with music producers Bruce Robb and Steve Cropper.
As Cherokee Record’s owner Bruce Robb recalls,
“Bonnie became somewhat of a fixture around Cherokee, hanging out on the back steps when she was in need of work. Cropper and I would pull her in to sing on stuff and give her a couple hundred bucks. She already had the awe of us on the ‘music’ side of the industry. It was the suits who took a little longer to figure out that she was a star.”
In 1967, Raitt entered Harvard’s Radcliffe College as a freshman, majoring in African Studies. “My plan was to travel to Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere was creating a government based on democracy and socialism”, Raitt recalled. “I wanted to help undo the damage that Western colonialism had done to native cultures around the world. Cambridge was a hotbed of this kind of thinking, and I was thrilled.”
While at Harvard, Bonnie began playing in the blues clubs around Boston. One day, 19-year-old Raitt heard that a blues promoter, Dick Waterman, was giving an interview at Harvard’s college radio station, WHRB. An important figure in the blues revival of the 1960s, Waterman was also a resident of Cambridge.
Being all consumed with the love of blues music, Raitt just had to go and meet Waterman. He became very impressed with her raw singing and playing abilities and the two soon became friends. Key to this story is that Waterman persuaded Raitt to begin what would become her long, fruitful music career.
Dick Waterman recalls: “It was February 8, 1968, and my friend Jack Viertel (then a student at Harvard) came by my house in Cambridge to spend some time with the great blues singer, Son House, who had just come back from a tour. He brought along a young red headed Radcliffe (i.e. also Harvard) student and I recognized the name immediately. I was a huge fan of her father, John Raitt, a Broadway legend of the highest order.”.
If you want to read the total story from Dick Waterman’s point of view, go here: http://www.dickwaterman.com/2012/a-singer-of-songs/
Now, Dick will be the first to tell you he does not feel that he was instrumental in making Bonnie Raitt a success. He merely introduced her to some incredible people who, by association, helped propel her career. Waterman did this by helping Bonnie get gigs at clubs in the Boston area, opening for many legendary blues musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf, Sippie Wallace, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Waterman moved to Philadelphia because Skip James, an ailing American Delta Blues musician, lived there. Consequently, a number of local musicians Waterman counted among his friends went with him, Bonnie taking the Spring semester off to follow suit.
In Philly, Bonnie was introduced to a large blues community who mentored her and became friends. She became a strong part of this vibrant musical community. She recalls:
“These people had become my friends, my mentors, and though I had every intention of graduating, I decided to take the semester off and move to Philadelphia…It was an opportunity that young white girls just don’t get, and as it turns out, an opportunity that changed everything.”
Even before she had a record deal, she accepted an offer to open for The Rolling Stones during part of their 1970 US tour.
Signing with Warner Bros.
In the fall of 1970, while opening for McDowell at the Gaslight Cafe in New York, she was seen by a reporter from Newsweek Magazine, who began to spread word of her performance. Scouts from major record companies were soon attending her shows to watch her play. She eventually accepted an offer with Warner Bros. who soon released her debut album, Bonnie Raitt, in November 1971.
This debut album got almost universally positive reviews, but it was not commercially big at all. It was warmly received by the music press, many of whom praised her skills as an interpreter and as a bottleneck guitarist. It should be noted that at this time, very few women in popular music had strong reputations as guitarists.
Meanwhile, many critics were blown away. She was something new, a 21-year-old white, female, blues guitarist with beautiful red hair and a great singing voice.
While admired by those who saw her perform, and respected by her peers, Raitt gained little public acclaim for her work. Her critical stature continued to grow but record sales remained modest.
A few months later, Raitt went back into the studio to record her follow-up album. While she would maintain her blues edge, she wanted to add in a mix of other genres, too. Recording commenced in June of 1972 in Woodstock, New York with her backing musicians comprised of some of the best session players around at the time. They were the musicians that had backed artists like The Band, Van Morrison, and Taj Mahal during their recent recording sessions in Woodstock.
Her second album, Give It Up, was released in 1972 to universal acclaim; though many critics still regard it as her best work, it did not change her commercial fortunes.
“Give It Up Or Let Me Go” also has a touch of the Delta blues with Bonnie’s steel guitar playing. A really great song.
1973 saw Raitt’s third album, Takin’ My Time, which was also met with critical acclaim, but these rave reviews were not matched by sales.
Raitt was beginning to receive greater press coverage, including a 1975 cover story for Rolling Stone Magazine
With 1974’s album, Streetlights, reviews for her work were becoming increasingly mixed.
By now, Raitt was already experimenting with different producers and different styles, and she began to adopt a more mainstream sound that continued through 1975’s album, Home Plate.
In 1976, Raitt made an appearance on Warren Zevon’s eponymous album with his friend Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
Recast as a heavy R&B recording based on a rhythmic groove inspired by Al Green, Raitt’s version of “Runaway” was disparaged by many critics, but its commercial success prompted a bidding war between Warner Bros. and Columbia Records.
“There was this big Columbia / Warner war going on at the time“, recalled Raitt in a 1990 interview. “James Taylor had just left Warner Bros. and made a big album for Columbia…And then, Warner signed Paul Simon away from Columbia, and they didn’t want me to have a hit record for Columbia ? no matter what! So, I renegotiated my contract, and they basically matched Columbia’s offer. Frankly the deal was a really big deal.”
Warner Bros. held higher expectations for Raitt’s next album, 1979’s The Glow, but it was released to poor reviews as well as modest sales. Raitt would have one commercial success in 1979 when she helped organize the five MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) concerts at Madison Square Garden.
These shows spawned a three-record gold album as well as a Warner Bros. feature film, No Nukes. The shows featured co-founders Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, John Hall, and Raitt as well as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Doobie Brothers, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Gil Scott-Heron, and numerous other stars.
For her next record, 1982’s Green Light, Raitt made a conscious attempt to revisit the sound of her earlier records, but to her surprise, many of her peers and members of the press would compare her new sound to the burgeoning New Wave movement. The album received her strongest reviews in years, but her sales did not improve and this would have a severe impact on her relationship with Warner Bros.
Drop from Warner Bros.
In 1983, as Raitt was finishing work on her follow-up album, titled Tongue & Groove, Warner Bros. cleaned house, dropping a number of major artists from their roster. Van Morrison and Arlo Guthrie were two of the most high-profile cases, and the day after mastering was completed on Tongue & Groove, Raitt was notified that she was to be dropped too. The album was shelved indefinitely, and Raitt was left without a label.
By now, she was also struggling with alcohol and drug abuse, but despite her personal and professional problems, Raitt continued to tour and participate in political activism.
But two years after dropping Raitt from their label, Warner Bros. notified her of their plans to finally release Tongue & Groove. “I said it wasn’t really fair“, recalled Raitt. “I think at this point they felt kind of bad. I mean, I was out there touring on my savings to keep my name up, and my ability to draw was less and less. So they agreed to let me go in and recut half of it, and that’s when it came out as ‘Nine Lives’.”
So, in 1986, Warner commissioned her to re-record half of the songs from the Tongue and Groove sessions, and then released the revised album called Nine Lives.
In late 1987, she joined K.D. Lang and Jennifer Warnes as female background vocals for Roy Orbison’s television special, Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night.
Following this highly acclaimed broadcast, she began working on new material. By now, Raitt was clean and sober, having broken her alcohol and substance abuse habit (for which she would ultimately credit Stevie Ray Vaughan in a Minnesota State Fair concert the night after Vaughan’s 1990 death).
During this time, Raitt considered signing with Prince’s own label, Paisley Park, but negotiations would ultimately fall through. Instead she began recording a bluesy mix of pop and rock under the production guidance of Don Was at Capitol Records.
Along with her participation in Farm Aid and Amnesty International concerts, Raitt would later travel to Moscow in 1987 as part of the first joint Soviet/American Peace Concert later shown on Showtime television.
Also in 1987, Raitt would organize a benefit in Los Angeles, for Countdown ’87 to Stop Contra Aid, featuring herself, Don Henley, Herbie Hancock, Holly Near and others.
Raitt had met Don Was through Hal Wilner, who was putting together Stay Awake, a tribute album to Disney music for A&M. Don Was and Wilner both wanted Raitt to sing lead on an adult-contemporary arrangement created by Was for “Baby Mine“, the lullaby from Dumbo. Raitt was very pleased with the sessions, and she asked Don to produce her next album.
Peak commercial success
In 1989, working with producer Don Was, Raitt rebounded professionally when she recorded her tenth album, Nick of Time.
The title for this album could not have been more appropriate; it coincided with this artist breaking free from a typically deadly downward spiral of alcohol and drug addiction that has taken so many others from us.
This recording surprised many with its hit songs “Thing Called Love,” “Nick of Time,” and “Have a Heart.“
In 1990 Raitt had won three Grammy Awards for Nick of Time. At the same time, she walked away with a fourth Grammy for her duet “In the Mood” with John Lee Hooker on his album The Healer.
Nick of Time went on to sell more than four million copies and the album catapulted Raitt into super-stardom. By comparison, her previous albums had each sold in the ballpark of several hundred thousand copies.
In 1991, Raitt recorded a follow up album with Don Was, Luck of the Draw, which has currently sold nearly 8 million copies in the United States.
This album included the hit singles “Something to Talk About,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and “Not the Only One.”
Three years later, in 1994, she added two more Grammys with her album Longing In Their Hearts, her second no. 1 album. Both of these albums were multi-platinum successes.
Raitt’s collaboration with Don Was would amicably come to an end with 1995’s live release, Road Tested. Released to solid reviews, it sold well enough to be certified gold.
For her next studio album, Raitt hired Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake as her producers. “I loved working with Don Was but I wanted to give myself and my fans a stretch and do something different“, Raitt said. Her work with Froom and Blake was released on Fundamental in 1998.
In March 2000, Raitt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Silver Lining was released in 2002 while Souls Alike was released in September 2005.
Australian Country Music Artist Graeme Connors has said, “Bonnie Raitt does something with a lyric no one else can do; she bends it and twists it right into your heart.” (ABC Radio NSW Australia interview with Interviewer Chris Coleman on 18 January 2007)
Raitt appeared on the June 7, 2008 broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s radio program “A Prairie Home Companion.” She performed two blues songs with Kevin “Keb’ Mo'” Moore: “No Getting Over You” and “There Ain’t Nothin’ in Ramblin’.” Raitt also sang “Dimming of the Day” with Richard Thompson. The show is archived on the Prairie Home Companion web site.
In 2009 and she did sessions with artist/producer Joe Henry and on her own, resulting in Slipstream, one of the strongest albums in her canon and an amazing return to form.
Slipstream plays like a greatest hits albums of brand new songs, as Raitt reels off sterling examples of everything she does best, from slinky guitar leads and searing slide runs to heartfelt balladry and intuitive arrangements.
Rolling Stone placed Raitt on their lists of 100 Greatest Guitarists and 100 Greatest Singers; Slipstream is the only supporting evidence required for that decision.
Used To Rule The World / Slipstream Album / Austin City Limits
Raitt’s web site urges fans to learn more about preserving the environment. She was a founding member of Musicians United for Safe Energy.
In 1994 at the urging of Dick Waterman Raitt funded the replacement of a headstone for one of her mentors, Fred McDowell through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. Raitt would later finance memorial headstones in Mississippi for Memphis Minnie, Sam Chatmon, and Tommy Johnson through the Mt. Zion Fund.
Bonnie Raitt is a staunch liberal. In July 2004, she drew thunderous applause at the Stockholm Jazz Festival for dedicating a classic to sitting (and later re-elected) U.S. President George W. Bush. She was quoted as saying, “We’re gonna sing this for George Bush because he’s out of here, people!” before she launched into the opening licks of “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)“, a cover that was featured on her 1979 album The Glow.
In 2002, she signed on as an official supporter of Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit organization that provides free musical instruments and free lessons to children in public schools throughout the U.S.A. She has visited children in the program and sits on the organization’s board of directors as an honorary member.
For her 2005 Fall/Winter and 2006 Spring/Summer/Fall tours, Raitt worked with Reverb, a non-profit environmental organization.
Raitt is part of the No Nukes group which is against the expansion of nuclear power.
In 2007 the group recorded a music video of a new version of the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth“.
During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign Raitt, along with Jackson Browne, performed at campaign appearances for candidate John Edwards.
Bonnie Talks –
About why the electric guitar burns inside of her:
“It really sounds like a human voice. The electric guitar will sustain a note, especially a single note, much longer than an acoustic will. And then when you play slide—which is so much like a human voice—you can work the amplifier and the overdrive. Now I use a compressor when I play slide, and with that you can sustain a note as long as your emotions will hold. It’s like surfing— you can ride that wave of emotional intensity and taper it off and build it up, depending on how you work your volume knob. It’s really an exciting way to express yourself. So electric guitar, for me, has the raunch and the beauty that more openly reflects the range of emotions I want to get when I’m singing and playing. It’s much more expressive to me. And that’s what keeps me going back.”
“I play in open A [E–A–E–A–C#–E, low to high], or I go down to G [D–G–D–G– B–D, low to high], which is the same but everything is one whole note lower. The reason I use so many guitars onstage is because songs are in different keys—open D, open E, open E%—and it saves time between songs. Sometimes I use capos, too—if I’m singing in C, I’ll put the capo on the third fret.
About which guitars she is currently taking to tour with her:
“I’ve got a really great collection. My brown Strat—the body is a ’65 and the neck is from some time after that. It’s kind of a hybrid that I got for $120 at 3 o’ clock in the morning in 1969. It’s the one without the paint, and I’ve used that for every gig since 1969. I also have two or three of my signature Fenders. Those guitars are a metallic blue to indigo, and they have Texas Specials pickups—which are really great— and jumbo frets like my other Strats. Then I have a ’63 sunburst Strat that used to be owned by Robin Trower. I have Seymour Duncan pickups in that.
About her Gibson:
“I have an old Gibson ES-175 cutaway. I went to the cutaway because I use a capo on the third and fifth frets, and I can’t get the octave unless I have a cutaway. That’s part of the reason I went to electric, as well. Partly for sustain and partly to be able to get the octave when I have a capo on.
Thanks to Tessa Jeffers for the above interview comments.
And now for something recent… February 14 2013 – Long Beach, California – Terrace Theatre – Bonnie Raitt singing “Have A Heart“