Bonnie Raitt: Red, hot and blues

on September 24, 2006 No comments
By Cori Bolger (Special to the

In the black and white photo, Bonnie Raitt stands alone by a pond, her hands stuffed casually into the pockets of her trench coat. She smiles slightly for the camera, her face framed by waves of long hair.
At the time, nothing in particular stood out in the Parisian scene, documented by Dick Waterman in the fall of 1970.

Yet, the photo offers a rare glimpse of Raitt at 20 years old, a year before she began a professional music career that would, in time, propel her to stardom. “People who remember Bonnie like that (photo), because she’s so young and it’s a very different photo of the Bonnie Raitt they know from recent fame,” Waterman said.

Waterman, a blues photographer, keeps in his Oxford home dozens of candid photos he shot of Raitt. They span several decades, from the start of their friendship in 1968 through the years he acted as her manager. “She’d be a professor in an English department right now if it wasn’t for Dick,” said legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson with a chuckle.

Bonnie Raitt and Keb’ Mo’ – Memphis Botanic Gardens, Memphis, TN – 9/29/2006 © Dick Waterman

The nine-time Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee will perform with Keb’ Mo’ at Thalia Mara Hall on Tuesday. While many fans know Raitt as an American musical tour de force, Waterman simply knows her as his one-time girlfriend and still close friend, Bonnie.

“My relationship with Bonnie is cordial and tight,” Waterman said. They met through a mutual friend when she was 18 and attending Radcliff at Harvard University. She was already deeply immersed in folk and blues music. “She came over and then we started to hang out together and a couple of months later, I moved to Philadelphia (Pa.) and she moved with me,” Waterman said.

In addition to her talent on guitar, Raitt’s Quaker background, Waterman said, “made her predisposed to like (blues) music before she was ever surrounded by it. “She was politically receptive to it. It’s not like she suddenly looked around and said ‘I want to do this.’ ” In Waterman’s company, Raitt found herself surrounded by blues giants from Muddy Waters to John Lee Hooker and Son House.

“They were always eager to pass it on,” said Dickinson, referring to their knowledge. “They were pleased enough when it was a boy, but imagine what it was like for this 19-year-old girl from Harvard to pick up a bottle-neck guitar and play the Catfish Blues! It opened a lot of doors for her.” Even Raitt has again and again acknowledged the legends’ influence on her style.

Dick Waterman and Bonnie Raitt – Memphis Botanic Garden 2006 © Cinda Waterman

“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,” Raitt said on her official Web site. “I was especially lucky as so many of them are no longer with us.”

Raitt took a special liking to legendary bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell and began opening his shows at clubs around the Northeast. It wasn’t long before record labels began catching wind of Raitt’s talent. “As soon as Warner Brothers expressed an interest in her, she knew that’s where she wanted to be,” Waterman said.

Raitt kept her self-titled debut album blues-heavy, but began to move into a more contemporary folk rock sound soon after. During the next seven years, she would record six more albums, with Waterman manning the helm of her schedule. “I found her dates and things like that,” Waterman said. “We always made sure she could do benefits and play on other people’s albums.” After managing the careers of Raitt and many other performers, Waterman retired to Oxford in 1986 and left his business relationship with Raitt behind.

By that time, Raitt had had notable commercial success, but it wasn’t until years later, when she signed with Capitol Records that she achieved new levels of critical acclaim and popularity. Fan-favorite singles such as Something to Talk About, I Can’t Make You Love Me and Love Sneakin’ Up on You only helped Raitt’s sound evolve into the pop-rock genre it fits today.

“Largely due to the fact that she’s female, she’s been able to transcend the genre and get across to the pop music community,” Dickinson said. “Believe me, it’s not easy. Few people have ever done that. That separates the men from the boys, so to speak.” Still, the shift Raitt made from gritty blues to a more mainstream sound never affected her relationship with her fan base or the longevity of her career, much like that of James Taylor or Paul Simon, Waterman said. “She’s carried those fans with her,” Waterman said.

Raitt also has remained true to her roots by working with various blues artists and inviting some of them to open tour dates or share the spotlight with her. “As you get bigger, you develop an entourage, and layers of people between you and the public,” Waterman said. “Well, Bonnie has remained … constant and consistent. Of all the intentions and goals and promises a musician makes earlier on, she is one of few who has remained true.”

Source: © Copyright The Clarion Ledger Archives

But wait, there's more!

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.

But wait, there's more!

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

on July 21, 2004 No comments
Classic Rock #70 Sept. 2004

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
But wait, there's more!