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.
In the meantime she was dropped by Warner Brothers. As luck would have it, though, she was asked by Hal Willner to take part in Stay Awake, his tribute album to Disney films which included artists from NRBQ to Harry Nilsson to Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe to the Replacements. Bonnie sang a Don Was arrangement of “Baby Mine” from the movie Dumbo. She and Was hit it off together quite well in the studio and she asked him to produce her next album.
That next album, Nick of Time, sold over five million copies and won three Grammys, including “Album of the Year.” She also picked up a fourth album that year for her duet with John Lee Hooker on his album The Healer. Her next two albums, Luck of the Draw and Longing in Their Hearts were also produced by Don Was and also picked up multiple Grammy awards and both went multi-platinum in sales. Her “modest” sales days were behind her, for a time at least.
Bonnie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. She continues to work for numerous causes, particularly those involving the environment. And she is an honorary board member of Little Kids Rock, an organization that provides free musical instruments and free music lessons to public school children throughout America.
And, at the request of old friend Dick Waterman, her work with the Mount Zion Memorial Fund provided memorial headstones for blues legends of the past. She has personally financed headstones for Memphis Minnie, Tom Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
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