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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Bonnie Raitt: Red Hot Mama
Bonnie Raitt reps for ol’ skool blues

on March 8, 2006 No comments
Jason Gross, Creative Loafing

ARE THERE ANY active old-school divas that we can still look up to? Cher? Retired. Tina Turner? Retired. Barbara Streisand? Her too. Joni Mitchell? Yep. Linda Ronstadt? Almost M.I.A. Diana Ross? A sad joke by now. Carly Simon or Carole King? Debatable.

Well, there is one big exception. Other than mid-’80s and mid-’90s lulls, Bonnie Raitt has been proudly engaged in her craft since her 1971 debut. Rather than letting age slow her down, her last two decades have proved her to be a provocative late bloomer, racking up Grammys, best-selling albums and hit singles. Not too shabby for a woman pushing 60.

So what’s Bonnie Raitt’s secret to staying in the music game so long? Call it spunk, chutzpah, guts… But it’s more than sheer determination. Raitt’s managed to carve herself out a singular niche as a performer.

It helped that Raitt had a strong background in music. Not only was her father a Broadway showman, but she also spent part of the ’60s playing alongside blues legends like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. All of which doubtless rubbed off on her, something especially apparent on her first album. Tellingly, she took up a languid, relaxed approach to the blues that recalled Jimmy Reed rather than gruff Chicago shouters like Howlin’ Wolf. That same style would carry over to her next album, 1972’s Give It Up, where she would apply that same ease and laidback style to create quintessential California rock. Unlike peers such as James Taylor or Jackson Browne, though, Raitt knew the difference between easy-rolling fun and catatonic depression. As such, she also created a template for adult contemporary rock a few decades before it was ready to be fully exploited as a market. And mind you, Raitt was accomplishing this when she herself was still in her early 20s.

For the rest of the ’70s, she shored up her critical, if not commercial, support by maintaining a run of quality albums and creating a distinct persona for herself. Records like 1973’s Takin’ My Time, 1975’s Home Plate and 1977’s Sweet Forgiveness weren’t exactly out-on-a-limb risk-taking exercises but solidified her reputation as a prime song interpreter. While Ronstadt was tearing up the charts, Raitt was her rootsy counterpart, also plucking quality material from lesser known singer-songwriters, including Eric Kaz, Chris Smithers – not to mention Browne and Taylor, whose songs improved with her care. Though Ronstadt had a better voice (despite overusing her range sometimes), Raitt was a good singer in her own right (a touch of gospel inflection here and there) and played a mean slide guitar to boot.

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