Biography

The WWWomen Quilt Pages

on August 19, 1997 No comments

Bonnie Raitt

by Debra

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“The thread of justice, of treating each other right, is something I find in both human rights issues and the blues. The relationship between men and women — a basis of most blues — is the first place you learn about morality. About how to listen and how to stand up.”

Bonnie Raitt

My first aquaintance with Bonnie Raitt came from her contribution to the 1978 “No Nukes Concert,” a John Prine song called “Angel from Montgomery.” Since then, my appreciation of her soulful singing, mean bottleneck, flaming red hair and sincere commitment to giving back to the world have only deepened.

Bonnie was born on November 8, 1949, the daughter of Broadway star John and accomplished pianist Marjorie Raitt. She grew up in Los Angeles, and received her first guitar (a Stella) at age 8, a Christmas gift. Her career began after dropping out of Radcliffe in the late 1960’s. She played acoustic slide and sang the blues in coffeehouses and on college campuses around the country. By age 21, she landed a major-label deal. “No one was more surprised than I to get a record contract at 21,” she says. “Suddenly my hobby was my career.”

Bonnie had also joined a growing group of artists concerned about issues such as nuclear power, the war in central America, apartheid (the “Sun City” project), environmental protection, Native American, women’s and human rights.

Though always a critical success, she remained largely unknown to mainstream audiences. By 1988, she had no record label, no band, and was seriously contemplating going back to the acoustic circuit. But a series of of lucky breaks that year brought a new contract with Capitol Records and an alliance with producer Don Was for Bonnie’s breakthrough album, the hugely successful “Nick of Time.” As well as being a financial success, the album garnered four Grammy Awards, including Best Album. “It was like winning the lottery,” she said.

Over the years, Bonnie has also kept pace in her “day job” — fundraising, benefits and activism in service to the causes she holds dear. “For the last nine years, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation has been a labor of love,” she said of the organization she helped found to improve the financial condition, recognition and royalty rates of a whole generation of R&B pioneers to whom she feels we owe so much.

In 1995, she initiated the Bonnie Raitt Fender Guitar Project with Fender and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to encourage inner city girls to learn to play guitar. Proceeds from the sales of her Signature Guitar help underwrite the effort.

Also active in promoting anti-nuke awareness, specifically the issue of dumping nuclear waste on Native American lands, she continues to do concerts to support those causes, as well as in support of protecting our ancient growth forests and a woman’s right to choose.


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Bonnie Raitt: The Rolling Stone Interview
After losing her label and beating the bottle, the singer-guitarist returns to record ‘Nick of Time’ and win four Grammys

on May 3, 1990 No comments
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By James Henke

“It’s the Grammy lady! It’s the Grammy lady!”

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Bonnie Raitt hadn’t even made it out of the parking lot and into the terminal at the San Francisco International Airport when one of her nightmares suddenly became real. Like most performers, Raitt suffers from a couple of recurring anxiety dreams. In one, she’s being pushed onto a stage with her father, actor and singer John Raitt, and she doesn’t know the words to any of the songs she’s supposed to perform. In another, she finds herself in the middle of a crowd of people who recognize her and won’t leave her alone, and there’s no one around to help her: no road manager, no security people. And that’s exactly what happened on a recent night when Raitt went to the airport to pick up her new paramour, Michael O’Keefe.

“People were running up to me and yelling,” Raitt says the next day. “Even little kids.” She’s curled up on a couch in the living room of a small, Hobbit-like house, filled with candles, crystals and carved trolls, that she’s renting in the Northern California redwoods. “I panicked,” she continues, “because Michael’s plane was late, and I didn’t have any place to go and I didn’t have anybody with me. I really got scared.”

Raitt finally ducked into one of the gift shops, bought a huge hat to conceal her familiar mane of red hair and managed to survive intact until actor O’Keefe (The Great Santini, Caddyshack) arrived. “I didn’t realize I was going to have to start wearing disguises,” Raitt says with a sigh.

The need for disguises is about the only negative side effect of the sudden fame that has befallen Raitt after 20 years in the music business. To the surprise — and delight — of music fans everywhere, Raitt dominated this year’s Grammy Awards, winning in four categories: Album of the Year; Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female; Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female; and Best Traditional Blues Recording (with John Lee Hooker). Three of the awards honored Nick of Time, Raitt’s latest album, which is made up of her usual mix of blues, R&B and pop ballads. The LP makes no ostensible concessions to current popular tastes, and it addresses such grown-up concerns as having children and coming to terms with old age. Nonetheless, the album, produced by Don Was, managed to sell a million copies by the time the Grammy ceremonies were held in Los Angeles on February 21st. Since then, more than 700,000 additional copies have been sold, and at press time the album had skyrocketed to Number Three on the Billboard chart. (The fourth Grammy was for “I’m in the Mood,” a duet on Hooker’s new album, The Healer.)

Born 40 years ago in Burbank, California, Bonnie Lynn Raitt is the antithesis of the overnight sensation. Her father became a major Broadway star in the Forties and Fifties as a result of his roles in such musicals as Oklahoma!Carousel, The Pajama GameAnnie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me Kate. Her family (including her mother, Marjorie Haydock, and two brothers) 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. Despite his popularity, the Raitts, who were practicing Quakers, kept a fairly low profile on the Hollywood scene (one of their only celebrity friends was Hugh Beaumont, who played the father on Leave It to Beaver).

When she was eight, Bonnie got her first guitar, a $25 Stella, as a Christmas present. At the time, her instrument of choice was piano, but within a few years she changed her mind. Her maternal grandfather, a Methodist missionary who also played Hawaiian lap steel guitar, taught her a few chords on the guitar, and her counselors at a Quaker summer camp in the Adirondacks turned her on to the emerging folk and protest music. In addition, Raitt was exposed to the blues via an album recorded at the 1963 Newport festival and a batch of Ray Charles recordings a family friend had given her.

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How Sweet It Is….

on March 15, 1977 No comments
by Don Snowden

On the eve of the release of her sixth album, Sweet Forgiveness, Bonnie Raitt still remains something of an anomaly in a music biz that usually relegates women to the role of backup “chick” singers. There simply aren’t many women fronting their own bands and playing badass guitar to boot–not to mention the nastiest Delta-styled bottleneck work this side of Muddy Waters–around these days. Add her staunch feminism and socialist political stance–though she doesn’t advertise them in her music save for the implications of an assertive woman telling her man what she wants from him in song–and you have one unusually serious, talented performer in the midst of the “That’s Entertainment” music world mentality.

If you turn the clock back about a decade or so, one of the burning questions in the rock world at the time was, “Can a blue man sing the whites?”–or, more prosaically, “Can a white man sing the blues?” Prompted by the Stones’ frequent use of old blues standards on their early albums and the influence of The Butterfield Blues Band, Blues Project and a host of British bands spearheaded by Cream, there was a full-fledged blues boom going on in the late ’60’s. Many of the veteran bluesmen, Muddy Waters Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. and Albert King among them, found the audiences expanding beyond what B.B. termed “the chitlin circuit” to include crowds of white, middle-class kids at rock auditoriums like the Fillmores.

It’s not surprising that the inspiration for most of the blues-rock of that period came from the gritty urban blues born on Chicago’s South Side. The electric energy and instrumentation of those bands matched the lineups and inclinations of most rock groups and lent itself perfectly to the extended jamming and guitar heroics so beloved of that era. And the macho bravado of songs like “I’m Ready” was custom made for the arrogant outlaw stance cultivated by most rockers.

But, save for the staunch folkic crowd who had been into the music all along, two facets of the blues tradition were largely passed over at the time—the acoustic bottleneck guitar stylings of the country bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta and the legacy of the blueswomen. Though Cream may have made the names of Robert Johnson and Skip James familiar to many by recording versions of “Crossroads” and I’m So Glad”, their high energy, high decibel interpretations bear little resemblance to the original versions. Likewise, Janis Joplin became the symbol of the blueswoman for most rock fans but her music seemed to rise more from the need to be accepted and loved than the inner strength one senses in the original ladies who sang the blues.

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