1949 – Pop/blues artist Bonnie Raitt is born on this day in rock history!
More than just a best-selling artist, respected guitarist, expressive singer, and accomplished songwriter, Bonnie Raitt has become an institution in American music. The release of Souls Alike, her eighteenth album, marks yet another brave, exhilarating step in a legendary body of work.
Born to a musical family, the nine-time Grammy winner is the daughter of celebrated Broadway singer John Raitt (Carousel, Oklahoma!, The Pajama Game) and accomplished pianist/singer Marge Goddard. She was raised in Los Angeles in a climate of respect for the arts, Quaker traditions, and a commitment to social activism. A Stella guitar given to her as a Christmas present launched Bonnie on her creative journey at the age of eight. While
growing up, though passionate about music from the start, she never considered that it would play a greater role than as one of her many growing interests.
In the late ’60s, restless in Los Angeles, she moved east to Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a Harvard/Radcliffe student majoring in Social Relations and African Studies, she attended classes and immersed herself in the city’s turbulent cultural and political activities. “I couldn’t wait to get back to where there were folkies and the antiwar and civil rights movements,” she says. “There were so many great music and political scenes going on in the late ’60s in
Cambridge.” Also, she adds, with a laugh, “the ratio of guys to girls at Harvard was four to one, so all of those things were playing in my mind.”
Raitt was already deeply involved with folk music and the blues at that time. Exposure to the album Blues at Newport 1963 at age 14 had kindled her interest in blues and slide guitar, and between classes at Harvard she explored these and other styles in local coffeehouse gigs. Three years after entering college, Bonnie left to commit herself full-time to music, and shortly afterward found herself opening for surviving giants of the blues. From Mississippi
Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, Son House, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker she learned first-hand lessons of life as well as invaluable techniques of performance.
“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 says. “I was especially lucky as so many of them are no longer with us.”
Word spread quickly of the young redhaired blueswoman, her soulful, unaffected way of singing, and her uncanny insights into blues guitar. Warner Bros. tracked her down, signed her up, and in 1971 released her debut album, Bonnie Raitt. Her interpretations of classic blues by Robert Johnson and Sippie Wallace made a powerful critical impression, but the presence of intriguing tunes by contemporary songwriters, as well as several examples of her own writing, indicated that this artist would not be restricted to any one pigeonhole or style.
Over the next seven years she would record six albums. Give It Up, Takin’ My Time, Streetlights, and Home Plate were followed in 1977 by Sweet Forgiveness, which featured her first hit single, a gritty Memphis/R&B arrangement of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” Three Grammy nominations followed in the 1980s, as she released The Glow, Green Light, and Nine Lives. A compilation of highlights from these Warner Bros. albums (plus two previously unreleased live duets) was released as The Bonnie Raitt Collection in 1990. All of these Warners albums have recently been digitally remastered and re-released.
In between sessions, when not burning highways on tour with her band, she devoted herself to playing benefits and speaking out in support of an array of worthy causes, campaigning to stop the war in Central America; participating in the Sun City anti-apartheid project; performing at the historic 1980 No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden; co-founding MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy); and working for environmental protection and for the rights of women and Native Americans.
After forging an alliance with Capitol Records in 1989, Bonnie achieved new levels of popular and critical acclaim. She won four Grammy Awards in 1990—three for her Nick of Time album and one for her duet with John Lee Hooker on his breakthrough album, The Healer. Within weeks, Nick of Time shot to number one (it is now certified quintuple platinum). Luck of the Draw (1991, seven-times platinum) brought even more success, firing two hit singles— “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” —up the charts, and adding three more Grammys to her shelf. The double-platinum Longing in Their Hearts, released in 1994, featured the hit single “Love Sneakin’ Up On You” and was honored with a Grammy for Best Pop Album. It was followed in 1995 by the live double CD and film Road Tested (now available on DVD).
After all the awards and honors and decades of virtually non-stop touring under her belt, Bonnie decided to take a break and enjoy some of the well-earned rewards of life off the road. Spending time biking, hiking, and doing yoga, enjoying family and friends, and traveling for fun instead of work brought her a great sense of renewal and purpose. Of course, she never really went too far away, continuing her activism and guesting on numerous friends’ records, including Ruth Brown, Charles Brown, Keb’ Mo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Bruce Cockburn, as well as tribute records for Richard Thompson, Lowell George, and Pete Seeger. She picked up another Grammy in 1996 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for her collaboration on “SRV Shuffle” from the all-star Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and continued her “dual career,” performing with her father, John, in concerts as well as on his Grammy-nominated album, Broadway Legend, released in 1995.
In 1998, she returned to the studio with a new collaborative team to create Fundamental, one of her most exploratory projects, signaling her growing desire to “shake things up a bit.” Inspired by the music of Zimbabwean world-beat master Oliver Mtukudzi, Bonnie wrote “One Belief Away,” the first single, with Paul Brady and Dillon O’Brian.
In March of 2000, Bonnie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; this was followed by her welcome into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame, along with her father, in June 2001. Over the years, Bonnie has appeared as a guest on over 100 album projects, as chronicled in the discography section of her official website. She continues to stretch the boundaries, performing with artists as varied as Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, and legends B.B.King, Tony Bennett, and Willie Nelson.
After the Fundamental tour and more inspirational travel, she went back into the studio with her veteran road band to record Silver Lining, released in 2002. Featuring Bonnie’s stunning interpretation of the David Gray-penned title track, the Grammy-nominated “Gnawin’ On It,” and the hit single “I Can’t Help You Now,” Silver Lining was considered by many critics to be one of the best albums of her career. She promoted the album with a lengthy world tour that included her Green Highway Festival and an eco-partnership promoting BioDiesel fuel, the environment, and alternative energy solutions at shows and benefits along the way. In 2003, she released the retrospective The Best of Bonnie Raitt on Capitol.
Raitt also stayed busy with more guest appearances, including the stunning duet “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” on Ray Charles’ final release, Genius Loves Company, which won the Grammy award for Album of the Year, and a duet on the Grammy-winning album True Love by Toots & The Maytals. Her 1989 breakthrough album, Nick of Time, was remixed for surround sound, and released by Capitol Records in 2004 as a DVD-Audio, garnering a Grammy nomination in the newly created category, Best Surround Sound Album.
In 2003, she also participated in Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed PBS series, The Blues, performing two songs in Wim Wenders’ film, The Soul of a Man, and joining the all-star cast of Lightning in a Bottle, the live feature concert film on the Blues directed by Antoine Fuqua. She also contributed songs for two Disney movies, The Country Bears and Home on the Range. Currently, she plays guitar on a track on the new Stevie Wonder album, A Time To Love, and appears in the upcoming TV/DVD tribute, Music l0l: Al Green. A DVD of her 1977 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival has also just been released.
These last few years have also brought some personal challenges as well. After a prolonged illness, her father passed away in early 2005; her mother died unexpectedly from complications from Alzheimer’s just months earlier. Concurrently, Bonnie has also been helping support her older brother, who contracted brain cancer and, thankfully, is now virtually cured (largely, she says, through a macrobiotic diet program). “When there was time to go listen to more songs for my record,” she says, “it was a welcome relief.” During this time, she also co-headlined with Jackson Browne and Keb Mo’ as part of the historic “Vote For Change” tour leading up to the 2004 Presidential election.
All of Raitt’s experiences led her to Souls Alike, her first album ever to bear the credit “Produced by Bonnie Raitt.” The album, again recorded with her close-knit, beloved touring band and ace engineer/co-producer, Tchad Blake, is a collection of songs by lesser-known songwriters with whom Raitt feels a deep affinity and whose work she is eager to champion.
Featuring some surprising new directions and, as she describes them, “thorny, adult themes,” the ambitious and innovative Souls Alike reveals an extraordinary artist who’s never been content to rest on her laurels. “You gotta do stuff that stretches you,” Bonnie says. “I’d hang up my spurs if I didn’t have something new to play.” Sounds ranging from the stark fragility of “I Don’t Want Anything to Change” (written by Liz Rose, Stephanie Chapman, and Maia Sharp) to the swampy electronic loops behind John Capek and Marc Jordan’s “Deep Water” attest to Raitt’s desire to grow and find new things to say. The themes tackled in “The Bed I Made” (also by Batteau and Sharp) or Randall Bramblett and Davis Causey’s “God Was In The Water” are sophisticated, adult, and complex — hardly conventional material for pop songs.
“I Will Not Be Broken,” the Grammy-nominated lead single from Souls Alike (written by Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick, and Tommy Sims, the team behind Silver Lining’s “I Can’t Help You Now” and Eric Clapton’s “Change the World”) reflects Raitt’s mindset during the making of the record. “There was an element of being pushed to the wall with what was going on in my personal life, my family crises—and then there was the election,” she says. “So that song was like an anthem for me, and for everybody that wants to feel like they can stand up to getting pushed around.”
Souls Alike debuted at #19 on the Billboard 200 in September 2005, eliciting widespread critical acclaim and propelling Raitt back onto the road. (She’s resumed the Green Highway eco-partnership she began on the Silver Lining tour.) On September 30, 2005, Raitt performed a special concert at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, NJ, which aired as the premiere episode of VH1 Classic’s “Decades Rock Live” series. The innovative concert series pairs celebrated artists of rock and roll with some of today’s hottest recording acts who have been influenced and inspired by these legends.
Raitt has since been selected as the inaugural artist for the companion series of DVD/CD releases. VH1 Classic Decades Rock Live! Presents Bonnie Raitt and Friends Featuring Norah Jones, Ben Harper, Alison Krauss and Keb’Mo’ was released in August of 2006 andfeatures never-before-seen performance and interview footage, including four duets not included in the VH1 Classic broadcast of the concert. With two hours of concert and interview footage, the concert which was filmed in Hi-Definition and is presented in 5.1 audio, features Raitt performing 17 songs with her longtime band – George Marinelli (guitar), James “Hutch” Hutchinson (bass), Ricky Fataar (drums) and Jon Cleary (keyboards). Included are such classic Raitt hits as “Something To Talk About,” “Love Letter” (with Mo’), “You” (with Krauss) and a knock-out encore of “Love Sneakin’ Up On You” with Raitt, Jones, Harper, Krauss and Mo’ as well as highlights from Souls Alike, including “I Will Not Be Broken,” “God Was In The Water”, “I Don’t Want Anything To Change” (with Jones) and “Unnecessarily Mercenary” (a duet with keyboardist Cleary, who wrote the song). The accompanying CD features 11 tracks, including the radio single “Two Lights In The Nighttime” (featuring Ben Harper).
Bonnie continues to use her influence to affect the way music is perceived and appreciated in the world. In 1988, she co-founded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which works to improve royalties, financial conditions, and recognition for a whole generation of R&B pioneers to whom she feels we owe so much. In 1995, she initiated the Bonnie Raitt Guitar Project with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, currently running in 200 clubs around the world, to encourage underprivileged youth to play music as budgets for music instruction in the schools run dry.
Her commitment to the redemptive power of music is expressed in the foreword she wrote to American Roots, the book based on 2001’s PBS series of the same name:
“I feel strongly that this appreciation needs to be out there so that black, Latino and all kids can understand the roots of their own musical heritage,” she explains. “The consolidation of the music business has made it difficult to encourage styles like the blues, all of which deserve to be celebrated as part of our most treasured national resources.”
Raitt, the daughter of Broadway musical star John Raitt, began playing guitar at an early age, something not a lot of her high school girlfriends did. 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.
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.
Early in her career, while living in one of the West Hollywood apartment complexes directly behind Cherokee Studios, Bonnie used to pick up back up singing recording gigs with music producers Bruce Robb (producer) and Steve Cropper. As Cherokee’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.”
One day, Raitt was notified by a friend that blues promoter Dick Waterman was giving an interview at WHRB, Harvard’s college radio station. An important figure in the blues revival of the 1960s, Waterman was also a resident of Cambridge. Raitt went to see Waterman, and the two soon became friends, “much to the chagrin of my parents, who didn’t expect their freshman daughter to be running around with 65-year-old bluesmen”, recalled Raitt. “I was amazed by his passion for the music and the integrity with which he managed the musicians.”
During Raitt’s sophomore year, Waterman relocated to Philadelphia, and a number of local musicians he counted among his friends went with him. Raitt had become a strong part of that community, recalling that “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.”
By now, Raitt was also playing folk and rhythm and blues clubs in the Boston area, performing alongside established blues legends like Howlin’ Wolf, Sippie Wallace, and Mississippi Fred McDowell, all of whom she met through Waterman.
Signing with Warner Bros.
In the fall of 1970, while opening for Fred 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 eponymous debut album, Bonnie Raitt, in 1971. The album was warmly received by the music press, many of whom praised her skills as an interpreter and as a bottleneck guitarist; at the time, very few women in popular music had strong reputations as guitarists.
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. Her second album, Give It Up, was released in 1972 to universal acclaim, and though many critics still regard it as her best work, it did not change her commercial fortunes. 1973’s Takin’ My Time was also met with critical acclaim, but these notices were not matched by the sales.
Raitt was beginning to receive greater press coverage, including a 1975 cover story for Rolling Stone Magazine, but with 1974’s 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 Home Plate.
In 1976, Raitt made an appearance on Warren Zevon’s self-titled album with Warren Zevon’s friend Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
Achieving commercial success
1977’s Sweet Forgiveness gave Raitt her first commercial breakthrough when it yielded a hit single in her cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” 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. The 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, James Taylor, Gil Scott-Heron, and numerous others.
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, Raitt was also struggling with alcohol and drug abuse.
Despite her personal and professional problems, Raitt continued to tour and participate in political activism. In 1985, she sang and appeared in the video of “Sun City”, the anti-apartheid record written and produced by Steven Van Zandt. 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.
Tongue and Groove’s name change and release
Bonnie Raitt at 1990 Grammy Awards
Two years after dropping her from their label, Warner Bros. notified Raitt of their plans to 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.” A critical and commercial disappointment, 1986’s Nine Lives would be Raitt’s last new recording for Warner Bros.
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 substance abuse — for which she would credit Stevie Ray Vaughan in a Minnesota State Fair concertref,ref 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.
Raitt had met Was through Hal Wilner, who was putting together Stay Awake, a tribute album to Disney music for A&M. 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
After more than twenty off and on years, recording popular music, Bonnie Raitt achieved belated commercial success with her 10th album, Nick of Time. Released in 1989, Nick of Time went to the top of the U.S. charts, her first of two No 1 albums, and won three Grammy Awards. At the same time, she walked away with a fourth Grammy Award for her duet “In the Mood” with John Lee Hooker on his album The Healer.
She followed up this success with three more Grammy Awards for her 1991 album, Luck of the Draw. 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 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.
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 political leftist. 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.
Raitt worked with Reverb, a non-profit environmental organization, for her 2005 Fall/Winter and 2006 Spring/Summer/Fall tours.
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.
Raitt and actor Michael O’Keefe married on April 27, 1991, (The Associated Press says they were married on April 28, 1991) and announced their divorce on November 9, 1999.