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Blues legend Bonnie Raitt’s Minnesota-made debut album turns 50

on November 16, 2021 No comments
by Cecilia Johnson

Here’s something to talk about: Before becoming one of the best blues guitarists in the biz, winning 10 Grammys, and entering the Rock and Roll of Fame, Bonnie Raitt began her recording career right here in Minnesota.

In 1971, Raitt was a rookie artist with a Warner Bros. contract, and she flew to Minnesota to record her self-titled debut album. Backed by members of West Bank band Willie and the Bumblebees, Raitt and a few other friends spent a lazy August swimming, playing volleyball, and recording a free-spirited, self-titled debut. (An episode of The Current Rewind podcast provides an oral history of those days, featuring interviews with Raitt and her collaborators.)

Here’s a track-by-track look at the enduring power of Bonnie Raitt around its 50th anniversary.

Bluebird

“I fell in love with R&B and rock and roll at the same time as a little kid,” Bonnie Raitt told Ann Powers in 2012. As a 21-year-old, Raitt mashed up both genres in this bluesy Buffalo Springfield cover, which boosts the original’s energy with a piano glissando, a gang vocal breakdown, and saxophone hoots.

Mighty Tight Woman

Raitt covered two Sippie Wallace songs on this album: “Mighty Tight Woman” and “Women Be Wise.” Wallace was a blues singer and pianist known as “The Texas Nightingale.” Most active in secular music in the 1920s, Wallace earned Raitt’s admiration and several invitations to perform with her on stage. In “Mighty Tight Woman,” Raitt uses her clear-as-a-bird voice to sing sultry lyrics, staying true to her own style while paying homage to a fantastic singer and songwriter.

Thank You

This song is Bonnie Raitt’s most popular nowadays; its 16 million Spotify plays dwarf the rest of the album’s play counts, which hover around 1 million per song. “Thank You” is one of the few tunes that Bonnie herself wrote for the album, and it’s a gentle love song featuring flute and gorgeous vocals.

Finest Lovin’ Man

“Finest Lovin’ Man” reeks of blues stank, thanks to a wailing harmonica and piano twirls. Raitt and producer Willie Murphy let the band simmer this one out — it’s the album’s longest song at nearly five minutes.

Any Day Woman

Willie Murphy takes the microphone in this sweet song, backing Raitt up with quiet harmonies. Drum brushes wisp behind the duo, and piano is the trellis for their intertwining vocals.

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Big Road

It’s not every day you hear tuba belching out the blues, but Daniel “Freebo” Friedberg went for it on “Big Road” and ended up performing on Raitt’s next six albums. “Big Road” is a busy cover of a composition by Tommy Johnson, the Delta bluesman who inspired the character of the same name in O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Walking Blues

Raitt’s guitar playing stands out on “Walking Blues,” a version of the old song by Delta blues icon Robert Johnson. It’s a quick tune — just two minutes and 40 seconds — and resets the mood after the antics of “Big Road.”

Danger Heartbreak Ahead

Bonnie Raitt was remastered in 2008, but “Danger Heartbreak Ahead” still betrays the album’s poor recording quality. When you record live to a four-track in a quasi-shed, things are bound to happen. And on this song, Bonnie’s vocals on the verse are quiet, nearly drowned out by the drums. Luckily, she and the other singers amp it up on the boisterous chorus.

Since I Fell For You

Raitt’s vocals are much more intelligible on this track — they’re lovely and clear, set against a mellow piano-and-saxophone backdrop. Raitt isn’t the only one to have sung this standard; Ella Johnson popularized “Since I Fell For You” after her brother Buddy Johnson wrote it in the 1940s, and Lenny Welch, Al Jarreau, Laura Lee, and others have sung it since.

I Ain’t Blue

Bonnie Raitt’s producer Willie Murphy and engineer Dave Ray both collaborated with Spider John Koerner, a Dylan contemporary who still kicks it on the West Bank. Although he didn’t join the crew out on Lake Minnetonka, Koerner did contribute to the album, in a sense, by having co-written “I Ain’t Blue” with Murphy. The duo released the song on their 1969 album Running, Jumping, Standing Still. In Raitt’s version, percussion equals soft handclaps and the sound of a badminton shuttlecock being run against a beer cup.

Women Be Wise

Bonnie Raitt closes with another sultry Sippie Wallace number, which saunters up and down the scale.


Source: © Copyright The Current

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