Bonnie Raitt: blues, the bottle, and the long hard road to success

on July 21, 2004 No comments
by Jerry Ewing

After debuting in ’71, it took years for Bonnie Raitt to gain mass acclaim, despite alcoholism and a bitter split with her first label, she’s now the elder stateswoman of rock and blues

“You should have spoken to me when I was in my twenties,” Bonnie Raitt giggles, running her hand through a shock of red hair, before adding coquettishly: “talk about a Cinderella story.”

I’m talking to her on the eve of an all too rare visit to the UK that will see the rootsy rocker play a string of live dates, including an appearance at this year’s Glastonbury Festival. What better time to cast an eye back over an intriguing career that stretches back well over 30 years? Raitt’s career is steeped in the very history of contemporary American rock music, and is as unique as it is enduring.

Long before Raitt released her debut album, the self-titled Bonnie Raitt, in 1971, she had already become involved in the kind of vibrant music scene that most would-be musicians could only dream about. Typically for someone who has enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, such a lengthy career, Raitt has had her fair share of highs and lows. The lows include alcohol abuse, as well as a messy, soul-destroying split with original label Warner Brothers in the 80s. But those lows have been more than offset by many positive moments, most notably the new sense of artistic freedom and commercial wealth that Raitt achieved when she signed to Capitol Records for 1989’s Nick Of Time. It marked the beginning of a second, rewarding, phase of her career that has earned her an armful of richly deserved Grammy awards.


In the past she has worked with the likes of Taj Mahal, John Lee Hooker, Little Feat, Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson and Prince. In the near future she is set to link up with Toots (from reggae stars Toots & The Maytals) and soul legend Al Green. It’s not difficult to see why Raitt remains an artist with whom many others wish to collaborate.

It’s a far cry from the early 50s – Bonnie was born in Los Angeles on November 8, 1949 – when the young Raitt first found music infiltrating her life.

“I was raised in a musical family; my folks were part of the Broadway music scene,” she begins. “My dad [John] was the original leading man in Carousel, and he was in a show called The Pajama Game, which was big in the fifties. I had a musician mom who played great piano, and a father who became a musical director; he sang all the time. My two brothers and I grew up in a musical household. My grandparents were also musical, which set me off in that direction.

“And then I used to go off to summer camp when my dad would be on tour; this would have been in the late fifties or early sixties, when I was nine or ten. A lot of the camp counsellors were caught up in the folk music revival that was sweeping the East Coast, things like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary, plus The Weavers and Pete Seeger. Also, we were Quakers, and were involved in civil rights and in the folk music ban-the-bomb protest movement. That tweaked my interest in playing the guitar. I wanted to be like Joan Baez. But I had no designs on being a professional musician, it was just a hobby while I was in college. I was always musical and I loved lots of musical styles – rhythm and blues, rock’n’roll and ballads. The same mix that you’ll find on my albums is what I was into back then.”

Bonnie Raitt - backstage at The Whisky A Go Go - September 12 1972 © Michael Ochs Archives /Getty Images
Bonnie Raitt – backstage at The Whisky A Go Go – September 12 1972 
© Michael Ochs Archives /Getty Images
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Striking a political chord

on March 28, 2003 No comments

Jim Doyle, Chronicle Staff Writer

The flaming redhead with the saucy mouth logs more time at San Francisco City Hall than your average citizen. She doesn’t draw a government paycheck. But now and then, she takes the stage in front of the Civic Center Plaza and lets it rip.

You might say it’s her day job.

Bonnie Raitt takes a break on the steps to the band room at Sweetwater in Mill Valley, one of her favorite Northern California hangouts. © Kurt Rogers

For 33 years, Bonnie Raitt has pursued a career in political activism as passionately as her longtime gig as a recording artist. Lady Six String has thrown hundreds of fund-raisers for environmental, social justice and peace groups.

Raitt, a fixture in the Bay Area counterculture, has lived on and off in Marin County and the North Coast for the past decade while touring the world, recording and overseeing her business interests in Los Angeles.

The singer carefully safeguards her privacy and security, having lived in various houses in southern Marin and Mendocino County. She is often sighted in Mill Valley dropping by the Sweetwater nightclub and Village Music record shop.

She also volunteers her services for Bread & Roses, a Corte Madera nonprofit that presents free concerts in prisons, hospitals and rehabilitation centers.

When the folk-blues rocker speaks out, she chooses her words with the precision and pedantic air of a precinct captain. Her heated words have lit fires under elected officials, bureaucrats and corporate power brokers.

“It’s an ongoing fight,” said Raitt, a self-styled ambassador for that curious nexus between blues and politics. “Roe vs. Wade is not secure. The environment. . . . For the issues I care about, this is the worst time that’s ever occurred since I’ve been alive. So I wouldn’t say it’s too positive a time.”

Citizen Bonnie has performed for inmates at San Quentin State Prison, fought to save the ancient Headwaters Forest, promoted the use of solar power, sponsored a program to help inner-city kids learn to play guitar, helped persuade major record labels to raise their royalty rates to 10 percent, and awarded grants to America’s aging blues pioneers.

So it was no surprise at the Grammy Awards show last month that Raitt took advantage of her momentary pulpit to sling a sharply honed, politically inspired arrow at CBS’ huge, worldwide television audience.

“Enough about building a mystery; let’s build some peace,” she said, eyeballing the camera in a brief aside. Then she went about her business, awarding the Record of the Year award to Norah Jones.

Raitt has avoided the firestorm of criticism that engulfed other anti-war celebrities who spoke out. Natalie Maines, the lead singer for the Dixie Chicks, has drawn flak for telling a London concert audience last week that she was ashamed that President Bush was from Texas. Maines apologized for her remark, but dozens of country radio stations, as well as Top 40 (KEZR-FM in San Jose) and adult contemporary stations have dropped the Chicks’ new single, “Landslide,” from their play lists. The record has lost some 10,000 spins nationwide in the last few days.

True to form, Raitt joined Hollywood actor Danny Glover, author Alice Walker and folksinger Joan Baez at the front lines of a recent peace march in San Francisco to hold a banner that read, “The World Says No To War On Iraq!”

“I feel that we should not be acting unilaterally, that we need support of the international community,” Raitt said after the war had begun. “To act unilaterally is folly and will only increase the suffering and terrorism in the world.”

The singer has been arrested twice in recent years for anti-logging protests, but she disagrees with anti-war protesters who blocked traffic last week in San Francisco. Raitt said that she supports nonviolent disobedience in certain instances when there is a clear purpose, but not when these tactics are used indiscriminately. She said that tying up traffic probably just infuriated motorists.

Raitt has sold more than 15 million albums and won nine Grammy awards. She has a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But she eschews the trappings of a superstar. She doesn’t live in mansions. She refuses to do TV commercials, buys shade-grown coffee to help save rain forests, and at times gives her frequent-flier miles to activists so they can attend meetings.

Raitt’s activism can be traced to her Quaker upbringing and her coming of age in the 1960s. But she has other sides. We’re talking here about a Radcliffe graduate, a shrewd businesswoman, a maverick recording artist with 16 albums under her belt. In short: a salty, middle-aged vamp who swaggers onto the stage with supreme confidence.

Raitt’s latest album, “Silver Lining,” sports a frisky photograph of her on the cover and a rowdy, salacious tune called “Gnawin’ On it.”

A longtime activist

Her longevity as a political activist is indisputable. Other celebrity activists have come and gone, but Raitt has stayed true to her causes. Only a handful can match her track record of sustained involvement.

So what drives this fiery soul to stick her neck out on issues of the day? Why can’t she just march along silently?

“Healthy debate is what America and what democracy is about,” Raitt said in an interview. “All sides need to be represented and the discussion over the dinner table should extend to the classrooms and the workplace and the water cooler. We have lives at stake here and our planet at stake and our civil liberties at stake. And our health care, our future and our economy. Everything is at stake.

“And in order to have democracy, you have to have an informed, participating populace. And for 30 or 40 percent to vote because they are so disenchanted that they can’t make a difference is a travesty and a misuse of why this country was established in the first place. So I’m for anything that increases information, education, debate and participation, so that people control their own future instead of letting other people and corporations decide what their policies are going to be.”

Along the way, Raitt has inspired others to take a stand.

“I tell Bonnie to point me in the right direction: where I should send money and where to volunteer my concerts,” blues singer Maria Muldaur said. “My heart’s in the right direction, but she’s more actively engaged.”

Some pundits insist that celebrities should confine their remarks to nonpolitical matters. Jewish Press editor Jason Maos accused Raitt and others of ignorance and hypocrisy.

“On the one hand, you have the absolute silence of the Hollywood left on all manner of atrocities committed by any brutal despot who considers himself an enemy of America,” Maos said. “On the other hand, you see the Hollywood left’s fierce and aggressive outspokenness whenever the U.S. takes any measure of military action – an outspokenness magnified a hundred-fold when the president taking such action is a Republican.”

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Bonnie Lynn Raitt was born into a decidedly musical family.
She took up the guitar at a young age and always thought of it as a hobby.

on August 1, 2002 No comments
by David Hodge

“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.”

Bonnie Lynn Raitt was born into a decidedly musical family. Her father, John, was one of the leading lights of the Broadway musicals, with roles in Oklahoma! Carousel and The Pajama Game (he also played the lead, alongside Doris Day in the film adaptation). Her mother was a pianist. But although Bonnie took up the guitar at a young age and played at school and for family and friends, she always thought of it as a hobby.

She was actually more interested in political and social issues, which was certainly the case of many young people of her day. In 1967, as a freshman at Harvard’s Radcliffe College, she majored in African studies with the intention on moving to Tanzania after graduating.

At school, she met and became friends with Dick Waterman, founder of Avalon Productions, which was probably the first booking agency created to represent blues artists. His clients and acquaintances included such legendary blues performers as Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightning Hopkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Howling Wolf and Junior Wells. Bonnie (who was playing guitar at folk clubs and other venues in and around Boston) got to meet, play with and become friends with many of these iconic blues musicians. When Waterman moved to Philadelphia during Bonnie’s sophomore year, she took a semester off in order to take part in “an opportunity that young white girls just don’t get.”

Opening for Mississippi Fred McDowell at New York’s Gaslight Café during the fall of 1970, she began to attract the attention of A&R people from recording companies. She signed with Warner Brothers and her self-titled debut album was released in 1971 to good reviews from the music publications, most of which praised her bottleneck guitar playing. To many music critics, her first three albums – Bonnie Raitt, Give It Up (1972) and 1973’s Takin’ My Time – still stand as her best work, rich with blues roots and Americana music sensibilities.

But for all the good press she was getting (she was a cover story of Rolling Stone in 1975), and for all the acclaim from her peers, her record sales were modest at best. This led her to experiment with her sound, trying to incorporate more mainstream styles. One result, a heavy R&B take on Del Shannon’s “Runaway” (from her 1977 album Sweet Forgiveness) turned into enough of a commercial hit for Warner Brothers and Columbia Records to have a bidding war on her upcoming contract. She stuck with Warner Brothers but her following albums in the late 1970s still fared modestly.

Her political and social consciousness came again to her musical aid in 1979 when she co-founded Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), along with Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and John Hall. Five MUSE concerts took place in Madison Square Garden, featuring the founding artists as well as luminaries such as James Taylor, Carly Simon, Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers), Bruce Springsteen and the Doobie Brothers were very successful, spawning a three-record album (that went gold) as well as the film No Nukes (a Warner Brothers film, naturally!) .

Throughout the 1980s she would take part in more and more social and political music movements. She sang in Steve Van Zandt’s anti-apartheid “Sun City” in 1985, participated in numerous Farm Aid and Amnesty International shows and was in Moscow as part of the first Soviet / American Peace Concerts in 1987. In that same year she organized a benefit in Los Angeles, along with Herbie Hancock, Don Henly and others, to stop aid to the Contras.

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