Posted: August 06, 1987
Personal to the diehard fan who will inevitably call out for “Blender Blues” tonight when Bonnie Raitt plays the Valley Forge Music Fair: Forget it.
“When I’m of Sippie Wallace’s generation, I’ll whip it out again,” says Raitt with a laugh, referring to the blues singer who died last year at the age of 88 and whose “Women Be Wise” was the last track on Raitt’s 1971 debut album.
“Blender Blues” was born in Philadelphia. “I did it as a joke at the Second Fret and the Main Point: ‘Let me be your blender. I can whip, chop and puree.’ Well, tapes of that got on the radio, and wherever I’d go, there’d be somebody wanting the song. They started billing me as Bonnie ‘Blender’ Raitt.”
Hubba, hubba. Maybe it’s not so peculiar that the long-reigning queen of folkie blues-and-roll is recording with Prince. After all, the woman does get around. That long-ago first album, Bonnie Raitt, was recorded on the shores of Minnesota’s Lake Minnetonka, the same body of water to which Apollonia thought she’d been whisked by Prince in Purple Rain. And just this Fourth of July, Raitt was in Moscow with a troupe that included James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, Santana and a slew of Soviet performers for a concert to celebrate the end of an international peace march.
“I had to keep pinching myself backstage,” she recalls, “because it kept feeling like one of those all-day benefits, like Farm Aid or something. But every once in a while, we’d look over and see these musicians in Cossack uniforms.
“There’d never been a woman playing electric guitar in Russia,” continues the woman who’s proud to call herself a political activist, “so when I came out and played ‘Three Time Loser,’ they just stood up with their mouths open.”
Glasnost may have made the Soviet Union relatively more open to Western musical influences, but one suspects that the Soviets are glad not to be negotiating arms treaties with promoter Bill Graham, who pulled together the American portion of the program in a matter of weeks.
“Graham threatened to pull the show five minutes before it went on,” says Raitt, “because they wanted to put the crowd 200 yards from the stage. One of the great anecdotes I heard was that the Soviet officials realized that as long as Bill Graham was between the stage and the audience, nothing would happen.”
The result sounds downright revolutionary: “It was the first time they could run out on the field, throw Frisbees and act like a crowd at a Grateful Dead concert.”
At home, Raitt’s politics are considerably more partisan. She was an organizing member of the Musicians United for Safe Energy, which staged a 1979 benefit concert and film to fund grassroots anti-nuclear groups. In June, she and pal Jackson Browne staged a series of California benefits designed to focus attention on Central American issues. Claims Raitt: “The boys who brought you the Tower Commission are really involved in trading cocaine for arms.”
Raitt’s mixture of music and politics is nothing new. She dropped out of Radcliffe to sing the blues and work briefly for the American Friends Service Committee. The daughter of musical-comedy actor John Raitt has been singing for her supper ever since. Raitt retains an extremely supportive baby-boom audience that generally discovered her in college. She typically sells a couple of hundred thousand records, and hit gold in 1977 when Sweet Forgiveness spun off a hit remake of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.”
Still, it’s a continuing struggle for her to keep a band on the road. These days, she and guitarist Johnny Lee Schell perform periodic acoustic concerts to subsidize her band. And while Raitt says she has occasionally earned money from recording (she’s released nine albums), and adds that records add credibility and promotional push to her tours, live shows are what earn her a living.
In the superstar ’80s, when record labels are generally guided by a best- seller mentality, medium-selling acts are feeling the squeeze. Raitt, who had recorded with Warner Bros. throughout her career, has recently weathered hard times with the company and is now without a contract.
“I made an album Tongue in Groove that was never released,” reveals Raitt, “because they wanted to renegotiate the terms of my contract. When that was done, we updated the album with new tracks produced by Bill Payne, and released it as Nine Lives. After all that, they didn’t promote the record or even release a compact disc. So I went through my savings to keep the band on the road, and ended up thinking, ‘Thanks a lot, guys – 14 years of loyalties apparently don’t mean much.’ “
Nobody doubts that Raitt has the vocal and instrumental talent to have a hit, but true to her bohemian background, she wants it her way. Her resolve was strengthened earlier this year when, during an acoustic tour of Colorado, she fell during a skiing lesson, ripped a ligament in her right thumb and was forced to take a two-month break.
“Vacations are a great way to reorient your priorities,” she says of the respite during which she bought a bicycle, maintained a healthy diet and reacquainted herself with life off the road. “As you get into your late 30s,” sighs the 38-year-old singer, “things that were fun in your 20s begin to take a harder toll on your body.”
It was at this point, reportedly at the urging of an old girlfriend, that Prince called to say that he’d like to work with Raitt. Though recording was delayed by Raitt’s recuperation, she finally flew to Minneapolis and the duo recorded three tracks in as many days, producing what Raitt describes as ”good, funky R&B and a reggae ballad.”
“He’s very attuned to women musicians,” deadpans Raitt, aware that some might be shocked at her unlikely collaborator. “He’s also smart enough to know that I won’t sing, ‘Let me be your sex dog.’ Obviously, I won’t turn into anything completely different than what I’ve been for the last 20 years.
“The common ground, however, is that we’re both musicians, and have a common respect for each other’s chops (technical abilities). There’s also an attitude of asking somebody to treat you right that goes through both our music.”
Due to his impending tour, Prince may not be able to complete an entire album with her, but Raitt is not overly concerned. “America uses up culture like tissue paper,” she says, recalling an early-’70s cover of Time where singer-songwriter James Taylor was proclaimed as a harbinger of things to come. But, she says, “there will always be women in rock and singer- songwriters. Fads don’t always come and go. Sometimes, they stick around.”
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