A Guide To: Bonnie Raitt

on June 28, 2021 No comments
By Paul Sexton

In the glow of Bonnie Raitt’s lifetime as a universally adored stateswoman of blues-rock, it’s a little strange to think that her records were once on a downward slide from critical acclaim to the bargain baskets. After her exciting emergence half-a-century ago as an embodiment of blues-roots authenticity and maturity beyond her years, her records from the mid-1970s through most of the 80s were sadly ruled by the law of diminishing returns.

But to anyone who ever recognised her as a cool blues rocker and one of the greatest slide guitarists known, she saved both herself and her career in one nimble move. At least, that’s how the Grammy-guzzling Nick of Time album made it seem. Raitt’s real story of personal and creative salvation is far more nuanced, but it was that 1989 chart-topper that opened the second chapter of her story, and it’s one we’ve been lapping up ever since.

Holler’s guide through her formidable body of work goes from the first steps of those early Warner Brothers releases, via the reawakening of her bestselling Capitol albums and onwards into the stately but still sassy demeanour of her more recent work. They reflect Raitt’s unfailing ability to record compositions that fit her being in every sense, as well as her belated blossoming as a songwriter in her own right.

All of 27 years ago, I sat down with Raitt in the storied surroundings of the Capitol Tower in Los Angeles as she released her 12th studio set, Longing In Their Hearts. That total has since climbed to 17, so with a cache of some 200 tunes to choose from, and barely a misstep among them, our playlist is highly selective. But, nevertheless, it’s lovingly drawn from one of the great catalogues in any genre.

The Bonnie I met all those years ago stays firmly in my memory as warm, engaged, completely motivated by music and never to be messed with. With a self-awareness that any young artist would do well to learn from, she knew full well that the “life-changing” success of her most famous album had refreshed her shelf life, just when the clock was close to midnight.

That renewal had much to do with her determination to clean up her act and distance herself from a wild past, in which the rule of excess applied to most of her life. But this was no born-again evangelism – “You’ll torture yourself, at least if you’re this kind of personality,” she told me. “They call it an alcoholic or addictive personality; I call it a rock ‘n’ roll personality. Just rebellious to the end, going kicking and screaming into adulthood. I’m very happy to be responsible and alert all the time, but it’s a pain in the ass”.

An eloquent advocate for artists’ rights and for the legacies of her forebears, she spends far more time championing her fellow travellers than amplifying her own achievements. It gives us all the more reason to do the latter, as we invite you to leaf through Bonnie’s back pages.

‘Thank You’ (Bonnie Raitt – 1971)

From the get-go, Raitt’s instincts were to infuse her unimpeachable credentials as a new blues ambassador with ingredients from the worlds of pop, soul, rock and the new singer-songwriter era. That’s why her self-titled 1971 debut included Stephen Stills’ ‘Bluebird’, a tune recorded by Motown’s Marvelettes, Robert Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’ and two covers of 1920’s “Texas Nightingale” by Sippie Wallace. On a spontaneous LP recorded partly live when she was just 21, she also contributed her first two self-penned songs, of which ‘Finest Lovin’ Man’ is bona fide raunchy blues. Our choice, ‘Thank You’, is cut from more contemporary cloth; its graceful changes and soulful vocals hinting at glories to come.

‘Love has no Pride’ (Give It Up – 1972)

This sumptuously sad ballad was written by the undeservedly lesser-known Eric Kaz and Libby Titus. It served notice of Raitt’s foolproof radar for the right type of song for her, with Kaz joining the original circle of composers (which also included Jackson Browne and Chris Smither) whose work she especially admired. Elsewhere, she also interpreted Kaz’s ‘Angel’, ‘Cry Like A Rainstorm’, ‘River of Tears’ and another gem that we’ll come to in a short while. This closing track from Bonnie’s second album displayed her uncanny ear for a lyric, as she explores the almost heroic desolation of romantic defeat (“Love has no pride when there’s no one left to blame / I’d give anything to see you again”).

‘Write Me a Few of Your Lines / Kokomo Blues’ (Takin’ My Time – 1973)

The album-a-year schedule of the 1970s brought a splendid third LP that covered the waterfront, from soul (Martha & the Vandellas’ ‘You’ve Been In Love Too Long’) via calypso (‘Wah She Go Do’) to singer-songwriter, with songs contributed by Browne and Randy Newman. Bonnie’s beloved blues lineage was also admirably represented, both with Mose Allison’s ‘Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy’ and this skilfully segued tribute to another of her guiding lights, Mississippi Fred McDowell. A-list album contributors also included Van Dyke Parks, Taj Mahal and most of Little Feat. The bottleneck, electric and acoustic guitars were all the artist’s own.

‘Angel From Montgomery’ (Streetlights – 1974)

John Prine’s immortal composition from his debut album, one of his first vignettes to make poetry out of real life, has become an endlessly remade Americana staple. It’s little remembered that it was first covered by John Denver, but when Bonnie got to the song, she took up permanent residence. I remember her playing it at a London show in the early 1990s when, as she does at every show for almost every writer she covers, she gave generous thanks to its creator. Everyone has done it since, from Tanya Tucker to Carly Simon to Old Crow Medicine Show, yet it goes without saying that Raitt’s is the unassailable interpretation.

‘I’m Blowin’ Away’ (Home Plate – 1975)

More exquisite melancholy from the pen of Eric Kaz. One could easily fill an entire Raitt playlist with such superior, soul-baring heartbreakers, on which she seems to bare her very soul. Listen for the magnificent string and horn arrangement by Nick De Caro, and the dream-team harmonies of Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther. It’s Raitt’s supremely supple and evocative lead vocals that make this a focal point of her fifth studio release.

‘Home’ (Sweet Forgiveness – 1977)

Two years after, an album arrived that first made me aware of such a singular talent, especially when I bought the single from it – a slinky remake of Del Shannon’s pop classic ‘Runaway’. Even the label, the famous old artwork announcing “Burbank, Home Of Warner Bros. Records,” was alluring. Flipping the 45, you found a bonus feature, in the shape of this beguiling love letter to the joys of home. It was written by yet another underrated singer-songwriter of the day, Californian soft-rock songbird Karla Bonoff, who was also much favoured by Linda Ronstadt.

‘The Glow’ (The Glow – 1979)

Our heroine moved out of the 1970s and into the era of digital recording with her seventh album. It was full of sexy soul, starting with two Isaac Hayes & David Porter tunes – Sam & Dave’s ‘I Thank You’ and Mabel John’s ‘Your Good Thing (Is About To End)’. The single was a rocking version of Robert Palmer’s ‘You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming’, but we make no apology for choosing another stunning slow number. ‘The Glow’, written by Veyler Hildebrand, is one of the countless precious stones embedded deep in Raitt’s awesome inventory, featuring a superb vocal performance of a sophisticated, late-night jazz delicacy.

‘Keep This Heart In Mind’ (Green Light – 1982)

Disappointed by the lukewarm response to The Glow, Raitt changed gear for Green Light, her first album of the 1980s. Here, she teamed with rock producer Rob Fraboni, on a record she remembers with more fondness than many of her other studio endeavours. Still working largely from outside material, she tried Bob Dylan’s ‘Let’s Keep This Between Us’ and even Eddy Grant’s ‘Baby Come Back’. Fred Marrone and Steve Holsapple’s spirited ‘Keep This Heart in Mind’ again had Jackson Browne hands across it, alongside the featured saxophone of David Woodford.

‘Nick Of Time’ (Nick of Time – 1989)

Rarely has an album been so aptly titled. Masterfully overseen by Don Was, Nick of Time reset Raitt’s creative compass just as she was disappearing into the long grass, having been dropped by Warner Brothers and mired in personal problems. Admirer Prince had set up what became an ill-starred dalliance with Paisley Park Records, but that uncertain road eventually led to Capitol Records, three Grammys and five million sales. Was, superb at divining the very core of an artist’s talent, took the production back to basics, and outstanding song choices (John Hiatt, Bonnie Hayes, David & Julia Lasley and others) were complemented by his confidence in her own songwriting. Hence a wonderful title track in which an older, wiser Bonnie reflects with autobiographical humility on the passing years, ending up with a prize she never dreamed of.

‘Something To Talk About’ (Luck of the Draw – 1991)

Far from being a flash in the pan comeback, Nick Of Time completely redrew the map of Raitt’s national and international appeal. When the follow-up album emerged two years later, this time listing her as co-producer with Was, it was even more successful, and was seven-times platinum in America alone before the end of the 1990s. Reborn as a writer, she contributed four songs of her own to sit with Paul Brady’s title-track, Hiatt’s ‘No Business’, Womack & Womack’s ‘Good Man, Good Woman’ (featuring Delbert McClinton) and others. Canadian Shirley Eikhard’s whip-smart ‘Something To Talk About’ was a worthy first single; a fabulous showcase for Bonnie’s peerless slide guitar, it was the biggest US hit she ever had, reaching No. 5.

‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ (Luck of the Draw – 1991)

Also on Luck Of The Draw was this stunning ballad and second single, an adult song of love and loss that cuts to the centre of a broken romance like open-heart surgery. It was composed by country songwriters Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin and cast Raitt’s aching vocals against the piano and additional keyboards of Bruce Hornsby. Anyone who doesn’t shiver at lines like “You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t” needs to check their pulse.

‘Longing In Their Hearts’ (Longing In Their Hearts – 1994)

Raitt’s next album came striding into view with another US pop hit in the ’Something To Talk About’ vein – Tom Snow and Jimmy Scott’s ‘Love Sneakin’ Up On You’. At this time, Bonnie was favouring British and Irish writers such as Richard Thompson, Terry Britten and Paul Brady, but crucially her own pen was now in full flow. One of her four credits was this co-write with her husband of the time, actor Michael O’Keefe, an everyday story of yearning that combined the best elements of rock and folk, heightened by George Marinelli’s Stonesy guitar and his supporting mandolin. Throw in a we-are-not-worthy harmony vocal by Levon Helm, and you’re in business.

‘I Can’t Help You Now’ (Silver Lining – 2002)

Her multi-platinum status may have ebbed away by the turn of the century, but by now Raitt’s place among the recording and performing elite was inviolable. For the second album in a row, after 1998’s Fundamental, Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom joined her on the production couch, and there was another smart nod to the big writer-artists of the day, in her cover of David Gray’s title track. Billboard marvelled at how she “deftly remains relevant in today’s youth-centric contemporary pop scene.” This pleasing lead single was penned by Tommy Sims, Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick, the team behind Eric Clapton’s ‘Change the World’, and you can hear the echoes.

‘Used To Rule The World’ (Slipstream – 2012)

Slipstream had Raitt co-producing with Joe Henry on a complete album of interpretations, on which she turned to favoured writers Dylan and Brady. Hailed as one of her best releases in many years, it went on to win a Grammy as Best Americana Album, acknowledging a latter-day genre name for a sound that she fundamentally helped to invent. This supremely funky opening track was an inspired choice, written by the seemingly effortless style of Randall Bramblett and perfectly suited to a sixty-something kindred spirit. It has her cutting electric and slide shapes for fun alongside road band guitarists Johnny Lee Schell and George Marinelli, with extra glide stemming from Mike Finnigan’s Hammond B3 stride.

‘All Alone With Something To Say’ (Dig in Deep – 2016)

Bonnie’s most recent, 17th studio set welcomed her back as a contributing writer, on no fewer than five of its 12 titles. The album and its ensuing tour, including a triumphant night at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, saw her at the pinnacle of her form, in fantastic voice and having the time of her life. Intelligent writers of grown-up material are drawn to her like bees to pollen, as on Steven Dale Jones and Gordon Kennedy’s wondrous and wistful ‘All Alone with Something To Say’. It sees life through the prism of experience with all its ups and downs, by an artist who has never been anything but true to her inspiring spirit. As she told me back in that 1994 interview: “There are people that love you for life and they’re going to get you. So, I’m never going to have to do something else for a living so long as, God willing, my voice and my guitar playing holds up”.

Subscribe and listen to Holler’s Guide To: Bonnie Raitt playlist below.

Source: © Copyright Holler.


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First Steps: Bonnie Raitt ‘Bonnie Raitt’: Roots Music in the Making

on May 27, 2015 No comments

by Brian Miller

Bonnie Raitt’s self-titled 1971 debut album showed more than promise: why she’s now one of the top female blues/roots artists was evident in every track.

She’s been called the best slide guitar player alive today. She’s been hailed as one of the top 25 blues artists of the past fifty years and she’s still going strong today. Folk singer, blues/roots performer, rock and roller, ballad weeper: Bonnie Raitt has seen it all and done it all. She put out several great records in the 1970s and became a critic’s darling (this means, folks, she barely sold any albums at all). She fell into alcoholism as well as drug abuse and then resurrected herself with political activism and a series of stunning albums beginning with Nick of Time in 1989 which she has called “my first sober album”.

She has received ten Grammy Awards. She is also listed as number 50 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and number 89 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. In a few weeks time (on November 8th) she will be 64 years old. She was twenty-one when she released her first record in 1971. It was a rather quiet affair, considering her musical heritage, but Bonnie was going her own way: the way of the blues. In retrospect, her first album showed us everything she was going to be. We, the record-buying audience, were damned slow on the uptake.

Bonnie was born into one of the most eminent musical households in America: her father was the famous Broadway singer/actor John Raitt, who had starred as the original Billy Bigelow in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel and as Curly in Oklahama!. Her mother, Marjorie Haydock, was an accomplished pianist. The marriage didn’t last. John Raitt went on to bigger fame as the singer of the hit ballad ‘Hey There’ from the perennially revived The Pyjama Game. He possessed both extraordinary good looks and a smashing baritone that stayed on the beat, as Broadway material is wont to do. He had a voice that lasted and it led him to perform with his daughter Bonnie in his later years. His final recording, John Raitt Broadway Legend, earned him a 1996 Grammy Award nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal.

I was always drawn to the blues. Alberta Hunter at the Cookery was
a life-changing experience. I only wanted to get enriched as a performer
as I got older, to have an audience which got older, too, and would come
to see me when I’m 80. And I didn’t have a legit trained voice.
My love was Bob Dylan. But as I got older I realized a good ballad
was a good ballad.

~ Bonnie Raitt

Their vocal styles couldn’t have been farther apart: she constantly plays with the beat, and is capable of delivering nasty blues as well as shimmering tearjerkers whereas her father was kind of a square singer, the kind in which Broadway revels. What they had in common was talent: loads of musical talent that has always been evident, even when Bonnie indulged in substances that, well, loosened her performances. Blues became the most natural thing in the world for her. She had to fight her way back to sobriety and to straight singing. Check out her duet below with Richard Thompson on his brilliant song ‘The Dimming of The Day’.

Which brings us back to 1971 and Bonnie’s first record. Bonnie grew up in California in a Quaker household, but graduated from Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1967. She entered Radcliffe College majoring in social relations and African studies. While there she became a serious fan of folk music, and of jug bands, particularly Jim Kweskin. She also fell in love with the music of blues artists such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and began a fierce regimen of practicing slide guitar. Remember, if you will, that at the time very few white women performed the blues, and almost no band employed a young white girl as a lead guitar player. White female folk singers were a dime a dozen, among them of course Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, the incomparable Joni Mitchell, the well-established Judy Collins and Joan Baez, and Sylvia Tyson who had split from her husband Ian. But the blues? No one, nada, considering that Janis Joplin had already passed on. Even Janis’s success was based primarily on the fact that her record sales came from Woodstock-type rock fans.

Bonnie Raitt had almost no choice but to forge a solo career. She was talented enough to open for McDowell in 1970 and came to the attention of Warner Brothers, who arranged to record her first record, “done live on four tracks because we wanted a more spontaneous and natural feeling in the music (Raitt wrote in the album’s liner note), “a feeling often sacrificed when the musicians know they can overdub their part on a separate track until it’s perfect.”


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New book celebrates Mill Valley’s ‘Legendary Locals’

on May 22, 2014 No comments

By Paul Liberatore

After 20 years in Mill Valley, journalist Joyce Kleiner knew her idyllic little village in the redwoods was special, the hometown of rock stars and writers, artists and eccentrics, poets and politicians, activists, actors and famous folks of every stripe.
But until she wrote the new book, “Legendary Locals of Mill Valley” ($21.99, Arcadia Publishing), she hadn’t really appreciated the rich traditions and culture these celebrated people, both past and present, have woven into the fabric of life in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais.

“Researching this book was really good for me,” she said. “It gave me a fresh perspective. I’ve always been very grateful that I live here, but I realized all over again what an extraordinary and unique place this is. I got to see the quirkiness, the variety of lifestyles in Mill Valley. I met so many really cool, positive people who helped me re-fall in love with Mill Valley.”

She is not alone in her infatuation. Mill Valley, population about 14,000, was listed as one of the 20 best small towns in America last year by Smithsonian magazine. A guest columnist for the Mill Valley Herald and a former member of the town’s parks and recreation commission, she was approached last year by Arcadia Publishing, a company specializing in regional history titles, to help launch its “Legendary Locals” imprint with a book about Mill Valley, so far the only Marin town to be featured in the series. This is the third book Arcadia has published about the town, following “Images of America: Early Mill Valley” and “Then and Now: Mill Valley.”

“The success of our previous books led us to take a third look at the town,” said Legendary Locals Manager Kris McDonagh. “We began looking for a Legendary Locals author in Mill Valley based on a few factors: it seems to be a thriving community with great local businesses and very interesting residents and former residents.”

Very interesting residents indeed. After accepting the assignment, Kleiner was faced with a daunting challenge: How do you get a town full of fascinating people into one book?

“I could write three more books from the material I wasn’t able to include in this one,” she said.

Musicians alone could have filled the paperback’s 127 pages. As it was, she included Huey Lewis, Sammy Hagar, Bob Weir, Austin de Lone, Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, former Sweetwater owner Jeanie Patterson, toilet seat guitar maker Charlie Deal, Dan Hicks and Dave and Jon Fromer. Kleiner sought out Village Music’s John Goddard for his expertise on Mill Valley’s musical history.

“He helped me understand the legacy of Mill Valley’s musicians,” she said. “When it comes to musicians, it was really hard to decide who to include, but he told me people he personally felt had to be in book.”

To organize such a stellar cast of characters, Kleiner divided the book into seven chapters. “Bohemia in the Redwoods,” for example, featured, among others, lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow, a founder of the alternative community Druid Heights: artist Tom Killion, whose images of Mount Tamalpais are iconic, and Jack Finney, author of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a sci-fi classic about aliens replacing a small town’s residents with emotionless beings that emerge from pods.

“Finney’s choice to place the story in his hometown of Mill Valley makes the book particularly creepy for those who live there,” Kleiner wrote.

In the chapter “Visionaries and Quiet Champions,” she shines a light on environmental activists like former state Senator Peter Behr, Trust for Public Land founder Huey Johnson and Marin Agricultural Land Trust co-founder Phyllis Faber, who helped save woodsy Mill Valley and environs from proposed planned developments like Marincello, originally conceived to house up to 30,000 people in 50 apartment towers, hundreds of homes and townhouses on the Marin Headlands, now preserved in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.


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