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Bonnie Raitt: Mistress of the Blues

on December 3, 2019 No comments
By Steven P. Wheeler

Call her the Queen of Interpretation, Madame Grammy or even Mistress of the Blues. Back in 1995, I had a chance to sit down with Bonnie Raitt, the redheaded California native when she was at the very top of her commercial success. She had just released her first live album, Road Tested, a beautifully raucous two-CD collection that covered her stellar early years right on through her Grammy fame.

One of rock’s greatest slide guitarists with a voice from heaven that can switch from gravelly blues to angelic pop perfection, Raitt, who celebrated her 70th birthday just last month, is one of only two females to make it on both Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Singers of All-Time” and “100 Greatest Guitarists of All-Time” lists (Joni Mitchell being the other). In fact, only 12 males were even able to make both lists, putting Raitt in rarified historic company.

Beginning with her classic 1989 Nick of Time album for which she won three Grammy Awards, Raitt has garnered ten Grammys in all over the years (along with 16 other nominations), selling millions of albums and topping the Billboard Album Charts twice, not to mention her ongoing success on Billboard’s Blues, Americana and Folk Charts.

Her most recent album, 2016’s Dig in Deep, topped all three of those charts while hitting #11 on the Top 200 Album Chart and #3 on the Rock Chart. In short, Bonnie Raitt is still as much with us today as she ever was, whether on the road or in the studio every few years.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s latest recording, “Everybody’s Crying Mercy,” was just released last week as part of the If You’re Going to the City: Tribute to Mose Allison album. All proceeds from this all-star tribute to Raitt’s late friend benefits the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, which helps musicians who need financial assistance to cover medical bills.


Raitt’s live recording of Mose Allison’s “Everybody’s Crying Mercy” has just been released for the new charity album, If You’re Going to the City: Tribute to Mose Allison.

As we sat down in 1995, Bonnie was eager to talk about all things, from her new album and her sobriety to her activism on behalf of the aging blues performers who she was so inspired by. As she said, “I’ve been stuck in the studio lately, and I’ve been dying to talk about this new record, so I’m excited to talk to you.”

A Personal Story

But before we started, I just had to share a personal turning point in my life with her. After all, it was a song she had written that hit me in the gut when I was vulnerable and open to the universe. It was one of those personal moments that all of us music fan have had at one time or another. When a song speaks directly to your soul.

I still remember that one spring night in 1989. I was driving home from a part-time job I was doing while trying to get some sort of writing career going. It had been a long day and I was feeling mentally exhausted, spent, and still in the midst of a months-long decision of when to give my notice and pursue a writing career full-time.

I had been writing for various magazines and local papers for a few years by that time, but I had kept side jobs to keep myself housed, fed and off the streets. But I knew deep down that if I was ever going to turn my writing into a career, I had to give myself over to it completely and follow the muse without a net.

In other words, suck it up, bite the bullet, and be content to live on mac & cheese for the foreseeable future.

As this subtle yet bouncy keyboard intro came on my car radio, I began to ease up inside. Then came this angelic voice, beaten with experience and age, singing of making difficult choices before its too late. It was the title track of an album that would soon become a global phenomenon for a down-and-out veteran artist named Bonnie Raitt.

And when I heard these lines from “Nick of Time” that she wrote and sang, my decision was made. It was the power of music coming home to roost. When we are fortunate enough to feel that spiritual guidance through song:

When did the choices get so hard?
With so much more at stake
Life gets mighty precious
When there’s less of it to waste
Scared to run out of time


I remember that moment like yesterday. It was time to put up or shut up, and I gave notice the next day and embarked on a writing career in music that would last a few decades. When I relayed that story to the Southern California resident herself—and definitely not the only such story she has heard over the years. But she seemingly took it to heart, smiled, put her hands to her chest, and said, “Wow, thanks for saying that. You just made my day, Steve. I really appreciate that.”

And with that we were off…

Them Burbank Blues

So just how does a white girl, raised in a Quaker family, in the city of Burbank in Southern California grow up to become one of the most successful blues musicians of all-time, while mixing in folk, rock and pop along the way?

The daughter of noted Broadway star, the late John Raitt, Bonnie grew up with music in the household but it wasn’t until she discovered the blues that her musical light was lit.

“When I was 12 or 13, a lot of it came from folk music and folk/blues,” she explained. “Then the Rolling Stones turned me on to Howlin’ Wolf, my brother turned me on to John Lee Hooker, and once you get a taste for it, you just can’t get enough of the blues. I don’t know about you, but I just went for it and still love it to this day.”


Bonnie and blues legend John Lee Hooker perform in 1991.

A Real Education

It was during the Summer of Love in 1967 that Raitt attended Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts—the women’s liberal arts institution that was the sister university to Harvard. Raitt, who had begun playing guitar and performing for family and friends while at prep school and summer camp, met noted blues historian and promoter Dick Waterman during her first year at Radcliffe.

Following her muse Raitt and other Cambridge musicians moved with Waterman to Philadelphia, where she became ensconced in the world of the blues. It was an education that changed her life forever.

By 1970, she was opening for one of her early mentors Mississippi Fred McDowell at the Gaslight in New York. A reporter from Newsweek saw her perform and soon enough record label talent scouts were coming to hear the talented 20-year-old guitarist and vocalist.

Twenty-year-old Bonnie Raitt with her early influence and mentor Mississippi Fred McDowell at the 1970 Philadelphia Folk Festival. © David Gahr

Warner Bros. Records signed Raitt and her self-titled debut album was released the following year. A critical smash, the blues album was only a modest seller. All in all, Raitt would record nine albums with Warner Bros. over the next 15 years. And while she did score some chart success during that era with hits like her cover of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” and Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” Raitt was officially dropped by the label in 1983, and would release one final album three years later, Nine Lives, which was one of her worst selling.

“The Warner Bros. situation got a little askew in the ‘80s,” she told me.
Warner Bros. had been behind me, but by the early ‘80s, FM progressive radio had kind of gone off the map, and there wasn’t a lot of things they could do with me.”

Nick of Time

Having been dumped by her record label, Raitt had to stay on the road just trying to keep her name in public view and during that period, she also found herself succumbing to the dark side of the blues: booze.

At the suggestion of her friend Stevie Ray Vaughan, who had recently gotten sober, Raitt followed suit in 1987. “I never jeopardized my work really or anything, but there comes a time where you look in the mirror and you just don’t like what you see; both inside and out. It’s a lifestyle when you’re working nights in clubs and things like that, it was easy to fall into. I had my butt kicked, but I’m just happy that I made it through.

“It’s been eight years now and looking back on it,” she told me in 1995, “I’d say that what I missed is all those hours when I could have just been more awake [laughs].”

“The trick is not to fill whatever void you’re feeling at any given time with something just to shift your mood or bury things. And that’s not just drugs or alcohol. It can be work or sex or exercise or relationships, anything that distracts you from dealing with whatever issue comes up at any given time.”

As for the transition to sobriety, Raitt is candid in pointing out that living the sober life isn’t like some Hollywood movie where you just live happily ever after. “It’s hard to feel things, those emotions and all that stuff,” she said with a laugh. “Nowadays the good times are fantastic, but the bad times can be tougher because I feel things much more intensely now.

“Hey, it’s life and you have to deal with things on a real level,” Raitt continued. “That’s the biggest change. The trick is not to fill whatever void you’re feeling at any given time with something just to shift your mood or bury things. And that’s not just drugs or alcohol. It can be work or sex or exercise or relationships, anything that distracts you from dealing with whatever issue comes up at any given time.”

And while Raitt is best known for covering the songs of others, she is a formidable songwriter herself and has been throughout her lengthy career. One song, “Feeling of Falling,” from her #1 1994 album, Longing in Their Hearts, is a personal favorite of mine and seems to sum up this feeling of missing the darker side of life.


When I bring up that song in our discussion and how it seems to echo exactly what we’re talking about, she is taken aback but happily so: “Wow, thank you so much. I really appreciate the compliment. Yeah, it’s all laid out there specifically in that tune. I don’t write very often, but I try to go deep into myself when I do. With that song, I meant that just because you lay off some bad things doesn’t mean that you’re not nuts about other things. We humans are just nuts,” she concludes with a throaty laugh.

Cult Hero to Superstar

Following her decision to get sober, Raitt teamed up with fledgling producer Don Was of Was (Not Was) fame. They demoed new material in search of a new record deal, but more than a dozen labels turned them down feeling that Raitt’s time had come and gone.

Finally, Capitol Records took a chance on the veteran artist and her new producer, but they hedged their bets by offering up a minuscule recording budget. The resulting album, Nick of Time, was recorded quickly with most of the final tracks never exceeding more than three takes.

The album sold slowly as Bonnie toured relentlessly, and then FM radio started playing her cover of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” and the simmering blues of “Love Letter.” Then she scored two Top Ten A/C hits with “Have a Heart” and the title track. By the following year, the album topped the charts and went on to win three Grammys, including Album of the Year.


Raitt quickly followed up that phenomenal success with two more multi-platinum blockbusters Luck of the Draw in 1991 and Longing in Their Hearts in ’94, and by the time of our meeting it was time to try and encapsulate her past and present with a live album that her fans had wanted to see for years.

Road Tested

Released in 1995, Raitt’s live opus, Road Tested, is a vastly underrated concert collection as it belongs up there with Frampton Comes Alive or Bob Seger’s Live Bullet, two other live albums that effectively bridged the gap between the fans of the artist’s lesser known earlier recordings and new devotees of the new and more commercially successful material.

“I’ve been wanting to put out a live album for a really long time,” Raitt said. “Even though I didn’t really have any greatest hits during those Warner Bros. years, there are songs from that period that are important to me and have been real popular with the fans, like ‘Louise’ and ‘Kokomo’ and ‘Love Me Like A Man’ and ‘Angel From Montgomery,’ and ‘Three Time Loser’ has been kind of a staple in my set for a long time.


“One of the reasons I wanted to make a double album was so I could do a kind of career retrospective,” she said enthusiastically. “I wanted to get around to some of the older folk and blues material I started out with—that my longtime fans have been waiting for—but I also wanted to do some new songs, so there’s even six new songs on this thing.


Bonnie teamed up with Bryan Adams for “Rock Steady,” a song Adams wrote specifically for her. The rockin’ duet is featured on the 1995 live album, Road Tested.

“I also wanted to wait until I had some records that had some commercial success so that I could include some songs that people were familiar with. Otherwise, it would have been a cult bootleg album,” she said with a laugh. “And I think we played a lot of the songs from the last three albums in a way that is substantially different from the way the studio versions are—either the tempo was changed or the arrangements were stretched out and the feel was changed. I mean songs like ‘Nick of Time’ and ‘Not the Only One’ sound very similar to the recorded versions so I didn’t want to just duplicate that, so they weren’t included.

“I’m pretty good at putting set lists together after all these years. I even tend to sequence my studio albums the way that I sequence sets, although on a record you can’t really have a four-song acoustic section because you only have 12 songs to play with. So I really had more to play with because I had 22 songs on this live album, and the only thing that was different than usual was having all the special guests sitting in.”

Ah yes, the special guests. Featured throughout this stellar album is everybody from her longtime friend Jackson Browne to Bruce Hornsby and blues greats Ruth Brown and Charles Brown (no relation).


Bonnie with two of the jewels in her crown performing on the Road Tested album. Charles Brown passed away in 1999 at the age of 76 and Ruth passed in 2006 at the age of 78.

“I love to turn my audience on to other artists,” Raitt explained. “Whether it’s Richard Thompson or Paul Brady or those old great blues artists like Charles Brown and Ruth Brown.”

Burning Down the House

For me, one of the highlights of Road Tested is Raitt’s brilliant cover of the Talking Heads’ classic “Burning Down the House.” She somehow managed to take that quirky ‘80s hit and turn it into a blues-rock powerhouse. When asked about that seemingly bizarre choice, Raitt proved just why she remains one of our greatest song interpreters.

“I just have always loved that song. I thought about doing the song for this tour, but only as a medley with ‘Love’s Sneakin’ Up On You’ for the record. I never expected to do the whole tune. I was just gonna do half of it and then go into ‘Love’s Sneakin’ Up On You,’ but it ended up getting such a good response, that we not only flip-flopped the order, we also ended up doing the whole song.

“It’s just one of many, many songs that I’ve really loved over the years. There’s Rufus tunes and Aretha tunes and Wilson Pickett tunes that we throw in at soundchecks, and that’s what’s cool about concerts is you can do covers that are kind of off-the-wall. I mean if you’ve paid to see me perform, you probably like me at least a little bit so you probably are open to things like that.


Bonnie’s raucous take on the Talking Heads’ classic, featured on Road Tested.

“I think the choice of that song was a surprise to the audience. I mean everybody—including me—loves that tune, and it has a lot of great memories of a certain time in our lives. I think it was a combination of the surprise element and the fact that it was played great by the band that got everybody out of their seat—even those 45-year-olds were dancing around.”

Twenty years later, in 2016, for her massively successful Dig In Deep album, Raitt once again dipped back into the classic ‘80s and put her undeniable spin on an INXS classic.


Bonnie’s cover of the INXS classic “Need You Tonight” from her hit 2016 album, Dig in Deep, which topped Billboard’s Blues, Folk and Americana Charts, hitting #3 on the Rock Chart and rising to #11 on the Top 200.

Interpreter Extraordinaire

Having written her own hits over the years, including “Nick of Time” and “Come to Me” as well as deep album cuts like the simmering “Tangled and Dark,” it begs the question of why she has made a name for herself by interpreting the songs of others throughout her lengthy career. “I’m on the road a lot playing gigs, and I do a lot of political activities, so I just don’t find the time to do much songwriting. And when I’m choosing material for my albums from other writers that’s like a full-time job, so I basically write when I’m inspired to and when I can find the opportunity to, and touring and promotional things keep me from focusing on it as much as I would like.


Raitt penned this hit from 1991’s Luck of the Draw album.

“But I don’t quantify it,” she explained. “I don’t have an ego attachment to whether I have one or two or ten of my own songs on a record, it just comes down to the ones that I think are the best. I’m just not that prolific of a writer.

Bonnie Raitt winningly kicks off Wavelength

“During my career before Nick of Time, I was always on the road or making a record in order to make a living. I was just never economically stable enough to sit at home and try and write a bunch of songs, and I’ve never really been able to write songs on the road like some people can. I think it’s just a question of opportunity and time.”


Raitt also wrote the seductive simmering blues of “Tangled and Dark” on her 1991 album, Luck of the Draw.

So what is it that she looks for in songs that chooses to record? “I have to respond to the lyrics and the music obviously, but it’s not really something that I can analyze,” she said, before putting the onus on me. “Somebody like yourself would have to find that thread, because I am the thread [laughs]. It’s like trying to describe why you like one movie over another. It’s one of those intangible things where you just relate to it.


One of Bonnie’s greatest interpretations is this John Prine classic that she made her own.

“And I’m not the only interpreter out there. There are quite a few of us skating on that rock and soul or blues continuum, like Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart or myself, we’re all going to like the same Jerry Williams song.

“So it becomes hard to find an original voice and that’s why when I find a real jewel, like Gary Nicholson’s ‘Shadow of Doubt’ or a song called ‘You’ on the last record that are just really unusual and I appreciate them more obviously. It’s really instinctive. You just know which ones work and which ones don’t.”


Raitt’s Top Five hit, written by songwriter Shirley Eikhard.

With so much competition for songs, Raitt is careful not to tread on the toes of other artists, no matter how much she may love a song. “If someone who is a peer of mine or a similar singer has already cut a song, I wouldn’t do it just out of respect. If Etta James was known for ‘Sugar on the Floor,’ I wouldn’t put it on my record. I think it’s important for us all to give each other space.”

Interestingly enough, many of the songs she has covered come from the male perspective to which she simply replied: “When I’m singing a song that was written and/or recorded by a man, because I also play slide guitar which brings kind of an R&B thing to what I’m doing, I think it will change a song enough that it makes for a valid interpretation. That’s what I used to do with Jackson Browne’s tunes.


Bonnie performing Jackson Browne’s “Under the Falling Sky” in 1976.

“I think that’s one of the things I know how to do,” she said modestly. “I may not be a great songwriter or very prolific, but I do know how to arrange stuff so that it’s sometimes given a new angle. I hear it in my head when I’m gonna do a tune, like with ‘Runaway’ [her cover of the classic Del Shannon song was her first big hit in 1977]. I didn’t know it was gonna be that popular, but I just really loved the song and I heard myself singing it, and I couldn’t wait to play slide on it.


“Any song that I really love a lot usually means that I can do it. It’s like picking a John Hiatt song off one of his records. I can always tell which one is gonna be the one that fits my voice.”

Bonnie & Johnny

The careers of Bonnie Raitt and John Hiatt have been intertwined since Raitt recorded Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” on her breakthrough album Nick of Time in 1989. While the song wasn’t a big chart-burner, it did become a rock radio staple and was a key early single in helping Raitt finally gain the commercial mainstream acceptance she has enjoyed ever since. Raitt also recorded Hiatt’s “No Business” on her multi-platinum follow-up Luck of the Draw and “Lover’s Will on 1998’s Fundamental.


The official video for Bonnie’s 1989 cover of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love,” featuring actor Dennis Quaid.

As for what makes Hiatt one of her favorite writers, she said: “I think he’s gifted and twisted at the same time. He’s twistedly gifted and giftedly twisted. To me, he’s a lot like Randy Newman, in that he’s got a real skewed view of human emotions, love, and the world.

“I went nuts when I first heard ‘Thing Called Love.’ I mean John’s Bring the Family album is one of my all-time favorite records. Most of the time when I play something, it’s because I just love it so much, I want to sing it every night, and that’s the purest form of inspiration and that’s what happened with that song.

“John’s songs are really very original. They’re wry, biting, hilarious and very moving and touching at the same time. He’s all those things that make great artists unique and original. Plus, he’s one of the baddest singers and guitar players I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Bonnie Raitt and John Hiatt at The Americana Music Honors & Awards Show 2012

When I spoke with Hiatt a few days before my interview with Bonnie, he related how the two met: “We met in New Orleans at the time she was recording Nick of Time, and she told me that she had just recorded my song, ‘Thing Called Love’. So when I was recording ‘I Can’t Wait’ for this album, I couldn’t even sing the song initially. In fact, I was almost gonna chuck it, and then I figured it out.

“I sang it in a falsetto, and it worked. So when we were figuring out background vocals later on, it became obvious that since I was singing in that Pop Staples mode we felt that Bonnie could do the Mavis Staples thing.”

Bonnie jokingly concurred, telling me, “I was so honored to get to sing on ‘I Can’t Wait’ on his new record. Isn’t that the most interesting track? It’s like a little miniature Marvin Gaye masterpiece or something. It’s really cool. I felt like I was in The Impressions, ya know. It’s funny, because he’s singing the high parts and I’m singing the low parts.”


The sublime “I Can’t Wait” featuring Bonnie on backing vocals, from John Hiatt’s 1995 album, Walk On.

The Selection Process

As she alluded to earlier, the song selection process for Raitt is a lengthy one once she’s ready to go back in the studio and record a new album. “I always call up my favorite songwriters to see if they have anything extra laying around, but since the success of Nick of Time, publishing companies—who stand to make money—have been targeting me. However, it’s still hard to find something that appeals to me. Whatever songwriters are out there, they all seem to find me [laughs].


Written by ex-NFL Pro Bowl defensive lineman Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, this passionate ballad of unrequited love remains one of Raitt’s finest moments. Superstar producer Don Was, who since teaming up with Bonnie for Nick of Time in 1989 has gone on to produce everyone from the Rolling Stones and Elton John to Bob Seger and Iggy Pop, told me in a separate interview that this one-take vocal performance from Bonnie remains his most memorable moment in a recording studio.

“My A&R guy at Capitol Records [Tim Devine] will forward me tapes of songs occasionally, but basically it’s me just listening to tapes that people send me. Nobody knows what my taste is gonna be except me. There’s no way for anyone to tell what I’m feeling at a given time, it’s just too specific of a taste.

“I might change the gender in the song or maybe get the words wrong because I hear it wrong on the tape and I’ll be too lazy to call Jackson [Browne] or whichever writer it is and ask what the words are,” she said, laughing. “It’s kind of like when you’re singing in the car and you think you’re singing the right lyrics. It’s kind of embarrassing actually, but I don’t really tinker much with these songs. I mean I chose them because I love them.”

One of the more unethical things some recording artists might do is make a slight change to a song and then demand a lucrative co-writing credit before they record a song. It’s the age-old cliché of “change a word, get a third.”

Raitt is taken aback by such a dirty scheme, saying with a hint of anger: “I may change the arrangement a bit or accidentally get a word wrong here and there. But I would never try and get a co-writing credit for god sakes, that’s crazy.”


Bonnie and Delbert McClinton perform their Grammy-winning duet from her Luck of the Draw album.

Ironically, with her sudden explosion of fame, Raitt is now receiving songs that are too tailored to her, something that just doesn’t work. “People get close, but a lot of the songs that get sent to me seem to be formulaic, in the sense that somebody’s sitting down and trying to write what they think I want to hear, and that’s really not what I’m about. I’m not criticizing the quality of the writing. It’s just that sometimes I’ll get demos with slide guitar on them, and I’ll be like, ‘Gee, I think I know where to put the slide in’ [laughs].

“But I am flattered that my influence is now showing up in the songs that I am being sent by other songwriters, but when I hear ‘Have a Heart’ or ‘Love Letter,’ I know that Bonnie Hayes didn’t sit around and write those songs for me—she’s an artist herself.”


Bonnie performing the Bonnie Hayes song, “Love Letter,” at the time of its release in 1989.

Once the selection process is completed, Raitt noted: “We only go in the studio when we have enough songs for a record. There might be one or two extras, but there’s usually not even that. There just aren’t a lot of truly great songs floating around that I feel really attached to. And I when I hear about these artists who cut 40 songs in the studio and then choose 16, I think to myself: ‘In my dreams’ [laughs].”

The Blues Revival

As her star reached the stratosphere in the ‘90s, Raitt used this newfound success to promote the blues pioneers who came before her. Many of whom she called friends. In keeping with her humble nature, she thanked me for bringing the blues history to a new audience, but said: “Thank you for that, but I think a person like Eric Clapton has had something to do with that. I think Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan in the late ‘80s had a lot to do with bringing the blues to white audiences again.

“Even before Eric Clapton released his blues album last year [From the Cradle], there was an appreciation with Eric speaking out about people like Buddy Guy, which really helped Buddy’s career. A lot of my favorite blues artists had passed away like ten or 15 years ago, so it’s great to introduce the ones that are still with us to a new generation.


Bonnie performs for blues legend Buddy Guy at the Kennedy Center Honors.

“My generation really appreciated the blues, whether we got it from the Rolling Stones or folk music or Chicago blues from people like Paul Butterfield. It was in our culture in those days, and now it’s come back in a big way to this new audience. I think it swings like a pendulum and I also think you see it on tv commercials [laughs]. I laugh at how many times I hear harmonica or slide guitar on beer and truck commercials now. I even hear slide guitar on taco commercials [laughs].


Bonnie performs one of her early concert staples in 1976.

“It’s part of the culture more than ever before and I just hope people want to see the authentic blues artists, those pioneers who are still with us. It’s great that people like white people like myself are playing blues-influenced things, but let’s pay respect to the people who invented it.”

Rhythm & Blues Foundation

As Bonnie Raitt has always been one to put her money and time where her mouth is, she has used her personal fame to help those who came before her with her outspoken involvement with the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.

“I didn’t personally start it, but I was in on the ground floor,” she explained. “The objective of it is to try and get health insurance and medical and financial assistance for the great blues pioneers. But, more importantly, we want to let people know that none of these blues greats got royalties from their record sales before 1970.

“So much for slavery being over. There’s still 40 years of royalties that these people never got. So we’re just trying to blow the whistle on it. I think that my success came at a good time in terms of being able to publicize this.”

“So every time you buy one of these reissues or bootlegs, you’re getting great music but you’re also ripping off the people who made that music. We’re trying to lobby the public to tell the record companies that they need to pay these people, either through back-royalties or by readjusting them.


“The standard royalty rate was so miniscule before 1970 when I started recording that I had no idea the artists whose faces were on 75 percent of my record collection had never made a penny from those album sales. And then we went ahead and bought them again on CD, so not only did they not get paid for vinyl, they didn’t get paid for CDs.

“So much for slavery being over,” she said without a hint of hyperbole. “There’s still 40 years of royalties that these people never got. So we’re just trying to blow the whistle on it. I think that my success came at a good time in terms of being able to publicize this.

“We’ve actually gotten five of the major record companies to update the current royalty rate of the records that they’re selling. I’d also like to see the artists who have been influenced by these great blues and R&B artists—which is probably everybody in rock—to make donations so the money can get out to these people while they’re still alive.

A lot of them are in their Sixties and Seventies now, and they don’t have health insurance, and now they’re suffering from some very catastrophic financial and medical problems. The Musicians Unions just haven’t gone to bat for these artists, and it wasn’t common practice to share in the profits back then. It’s really about undoing something that was done wrong a long time ago.”


Bonnie performing The Band’s immortal “The Weight” in 2012 with an all-star group of Americana stars, including John Hiatt, Emmylou Harris and Richard Thompson.

For Raitt, it’s not about throwing money at well-meaning institutions, but actually helping those artist who had such a major influence on music around the world and are still alive. “There’s obviously a tremendous interest in the blues now than there may have been ten years ago. Sadly, a lot of these great blues artists have passed on and weren’t able to enjoy the fruits of this new popularity but I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many Blues Festivals as I see out there today.

“I think that’s great, and I’ve certainly been a huge fan of these older artists that we owe so much to. And for the ones that are still with us, I don’t think we need millions of dollars being spent on museums, we should be spending that money on getting them gigs and health insurance.

“I’m all for honoring our blues pioneers, but let’s get them jobs and not just be white people playing their music or copying their songs for television commercials. These people need the money and they never got their royalties back in the day.”

Dad & Daughter

Besides her own career, at the time of our interview, Bonnie happily spoke about teaming up with her Broadway star father, John Raitt, on his own album [1995’s John Raitt: Broadway Legend, which received a Grammy nomination the following year]. “Next week I’m going on David Letterman to sing with my dad to promote his new record.” Ultimately, Bonnie sang on three of the album’s tracks. John Raitt passed away in 2005 at the age of 88.


Daughter and Dad performing with the Boston Pops in 1992.

Happy Holidays…

And, finally, since we’re in the holiday season now, thought I’d wrap this up with this bluesy rendition of “Merry Christmas Baby” from Bonnie and her spiritual grandfather Charles Brown.


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