When Bonnie Raitt won a phenomenal four Grammys in 1990, it came as overdue recognition for an artist who had been breaking down barriers of gender and genre since the early Seventies. Her feel for the blues was evident on her first album, Bonnie Raitt (1971), and though she’s explored different kinds of material over the years — including pop, rock, and balladry — a serious rooting in the blues has remained evident in her work.
Bonnie Lynn Raitt was born in 1949 in Burbank, California. Her father, John Raitt, became a major Broadway star in the Forties and Fifties, as a result of his roles in such musicals as Oklahoma!, Carousel,Annie Get Your Gun, The Pajama Game, and Kiss Me Kate. Her mother, Marjorie Haydock, was a piano player. The family spent most of Bonnie’s early years shuttling between the two coasts until 1957 when they settled in Los Angeles after her father landed a role in the film version of The Pajama Game.
Bonnie got her first guitar – a $25 Stella – as a Christmas present when she was eight years old. At the time, her instrument of choice was piano, but within a few years, she changed her mind. Her maternal grandfather played Hawaiian lap-steel guitar, and he taught her a few chords. She honed her guitar skills by playing at Camp Regis-Applejack , a Quaker summer camp in the Adirondacks, Bonnie was exposed to folk and protest music. In addition, when she was 14, she learned about the blues via an album recorded at the 1963 Newport festival, Blues at Newport 1963, and a batch of Ray Charles recordings a family friend had given her.
When she was 15, Bonnie and her family moved back East. She attended a Quaker high school in Poughkeepsie, New York, then enrolled in Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She took classes at both Radcliffe and Harvard and majored in social relations and African studies. While attending college in Boston, she gravitated to the Cambridge folk-blues scene of the late Sixties. She emerged as both a prodigy and anomaly: a young woman who sang blues with gritty passion and played slide guitar with authority as if the genre’s fundamentals had been etched in her soul. The late B.B. King always said that Bonnie was his favorite slide guitarist.
While at Radcliffe, Raitt met Dick Waterman, a former photojournalist who had helped many bluesmen resuscitate their careers in the wake of the Sixties blues revival. He took her under his wing, and Raitt was schooled by, and performed alongside, such estimable legends as Sippie Wallace, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Son House. “I’m certain that it was an incredible gift for me to not only be friends with some of the greatest blues people who’ve ever lived, but to learn how they played, how they sang, how they lived their lives, ran their marriages and talked to their kids,” she said.
Eventually, Raitt decided to pursue music full time. “I never expected to have a career in music,” she said. “But I thought, ‘Geez, if I want to take a semester off from college and support myself by making $50 here and there, well. . . .’ It was hilarious to me that it went over.” After one of her shows at the Gaslight Club in New York, Raitt was offered a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records. Throughout her career, she’s combined an old-school country-blues grounding with a contemporary outlook and willingness to experiment.
One of the early highlights of “Late Night,” before James Brown, before Kaufman/Lawler: Bonnie Raitt performs “Me and the Boys” with The Bump Band, chats with Dave on April 27,1982, is later joined by Sippie Wallace, who then performs “Women Be Wise” with Bonnie and Dr. John. Sippie tends to sing “shit” instead of “shout,” and it’s not edited out of the broadcast.
Raitt produced five albums from 1971-75, containing mostly covers of blues, folk, and pop songs. Tracks included several Sippie Wallace tunes (“You Got to Know How,” “Mighty Tight Woman,” and “Woman be Wise”) as well as songs by Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Jackson Brown, and Randy Newman. By the mid-Seventies, she’d accrued a loyal and growing following on the strength of such albums as Streetlights (1974) and Home Plate (1975). In 1977, Raitt’s LP Sweet Forgiveness turned into her first gold album and produced a hit cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.”
Raitt’s interest in linking music and social causes was evident in her 1979 participation as a founding member of Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.). Joining M.U.S.E. co-founders John Hall, Jackson Browne, and Graham Nash, she performed in a series of five benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden, which were recorded and released as a three-album set.She recorded eight albums for Warner Bros. from 1971 to 1986, progressively moving from straight blues into more pop-oriented areas without losing sight of her roots. All the while, she selected tunes by the choicest songwriters (e.g., Randy Newman, John Prine, Eric Kaz, Allen Toussaint and Jackson Browne), while working with the cream of Southern California musicians.
The late Lowell George’s Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt sometimes worked together in the 1970s. On the east coast blues-rock tour circuits, Bonnie, Emmylou Harris and Little Feat’s paths frequently crossed. Raitt would occasionally join Lowell and the Feat onstage and vice versa. With George being a premiere country-ish slide rocker, Little Feat, Harris and Raitt had a natural affinity. “Dixie Chicken” is one of Little Feat’s most notable songs; adding Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris makes it something extraordinary.
Robert Hilburn commented in the Los Angeles Times, “At 44, an age when many pop rockers are in the twilight of their careers, Bonnie Raitt exudes the energy and ambition of someone just entering her prime—which she may well be.” A performer who loves to tour, Raitt is also a tireless champion of social issues. Within the musical realm, this includes encouraging women to play the guitar and helping aging, financially-distressed blues musicians.
Raitt parted ways with the company in 1983, sought new management, and later signed a contract with Capitol Records.was at this time she began gaining weight and started drinking. Her life was falling apart personally and professionally. She even had an opportunity to perform with Prince, though the project fell through due to Raitt’s perceived appearance. After that, she got her act together and had the biggest successes of her career.
The upheaval in Raitt’s life was personal as well as professional. In 1987 she joined Alcoholics Anonymous, feeling that she had hit bottom physically and emotionally. Raitt looked back on the experience in a New York Times interview, noting, “I’m really grateful that I didn’t either kill myself or somebody else. I really used to think I needed to be messed up to sing the kind of music I sing…. I don’t regret all those years, but I was one of the lucky people that could say no to [alcohol] and not miss it that much.”
Some of Bonnie Raitt’s best work has been her collaborations with other artists. Raitt’s teaming with the legendary blues pioneer, John Lee Hooker, nicknamed “The Healer,” is remarkable. Raitt and Hooker, separately and together, represent the royalty of blues rock. Available on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Volume 1: 1986 – 1991, Raitt’s guitar growls alongside the late Hooker’s restrained vocals in a special live performance.
Raitt’s breakthrough album, Nick of Time (1989), slowly gained momentum, reaching the top of the chart exactly a year after its release — and a month after Raitt won the aforementioned batch of Grammys. On that memorable evening, Raitt put her awards in selfless perspective: “It means so much for the kind of music that we do,” she said. “It means that those of us who do rhythm & blues are going to get a chance again.”
The overwhelmingly positive response to Raitt’s own songs on that hit album had given her a new confidence and interest in songwriting. Indeed, the follow-up album Luck of the Draw fared even better, selling 5 million copies and winning three more Grammys. It also gave Raitt the first bonafide hit single off of her 20-year career in “Something to Talk About,” which reached Number Five. In 1994, Raitt released Longing in Their Hearts. The album went to Number One and won two Grammys.
The media attention generated by these two breakthrough albums gave Raitt new opportunities to promote political and social causes as well as to express her views on the music business. In 1991, Raitt co-founded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, an organization devoted to assisting aging and often poor musicians. She frequently appears at political benefits, such as a 1998 fund-raiser for Democratic California senator Barbara Boxer. In the New York Times, Raitt commented on using fame to advance causes: “You just do what you can…. As long as I’ve got a mouth, somebody’s going to be hearing about it. I’m just glad I won those Grammys, so now I get on a better page when the newspapers cover these things.”
Subsequent albums have included the double-live CD Road Tested (1995), Fundamental (1998), Silver Lining (2002) and Souls Alike (2005). After the release of Souls Alike, Raitt took a break from touring and recording. Both of her parents had died, her brother had died and one of her best friends had died. “I took a hiatus from touring and recording to get back in touch with the other part of my life,” she said. In 2009, Raitt appeared at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
In 1998 she took part in several concerts at the Lilith Fair festival, which featured an eclectic mix of female performers. Raitt expressed both appreciation for her good fortune and a yearning for the smaller, intimate performances of the past in Billboard, saying, “I’ve been playing these sheds because there’s 15,000 people a night who want to see [me] luckily, and that’s great for me. Except, I’m sure those longtime fans sure get tired of only getting to see me in a big place.” And she concluded that her time onstage was still her greatest thrill: “The time when you’re actually getting onstage and playing makes it all worth it. If you can have a life where you get to travel around and control when and where you work and have that much fun and make that many people happy’. I’m not complaining for one minute.”
In 2012, Raitt released her first album in seven years, Slipstream produced by John Henry. She issued the album on her own label, Redwing Records, and it sold more than a quarter-million copies and won a Grammy for Best Americana Album.
Over the course of her career, Raitt has won 10 Grammys. Rolling Stone magazine ranked her at Number 50 in its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and at Number 89 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Bonnie Raitt’s powerful voice and slide guitar prowess is just what the doctor ordered in 2016. “Dig in Deep,” was released on Feb. 26th, will be Raitt’s first studio album since her Joe Henry produced 2012 “Slipstream.” Since “Slipstream” came out, Raitt has found a new audience in the growing Americana music scene, with her latest release winning the Best Americana Album award and Raitt being presented with an Americana Music Association.