Back during the height of her career — shortly after she swept the 1990 Grammys with her breakthrough album “Nick of Time” — Bonnie Raitt found herself inundated with demo tapes from aspiring songwriters.
So much so, that Raitt used to position boxes of tapes throughout various places in her house, always near a portable cassette deck.
She had a box in her kitchen, another in her bathroom, each one containing dozens of tapes. Perhaps one would be her next hit.
One day she picked up a cassette from a Canadian singer-songwriter by the name of Shirley Eikhard. Raitt had never heard the name before. She thinks it could have been sitting in the box for a couple of years.
Nonetheless, Raitt plugged the tape into the player.
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There were four songs on it. One of them was called “Something to Talk About.” It would not only be Raitt’s next hit. It would be her biggest, winning her another Grammy for best female vocal performance in 1992.
“All four of the songs just knocked me out,” Raitt says on the phone from her northern California home. “I loved her voice and I thought it was so far and above anybody else’s tape.”
There was no Internet back then, so Raitt had to start making inquiries about this Eikhard person through her record label. Coincidently, Eikhard was signed to the same label as Raitt, Capitol. Eikhard had had some success in Canada, but was an unknown in the United States.
Eikhard had written her phone number on the tape. Raitt decided to call her up and give her a surprise.
“I waited until I recorded the song, to call up the number on the cassette,” Raitt recalls. ‘I said ‘Hey, Shirley, it’s Bonnie Raitt, listen to this.’ I pushed play and played her own song back and hung up the phone. It went over to voice messaging.
“She called us back and couldn’t have been more delighted. The rest is history. That song is the gift that keeps on giving.”
Not long after, Eikhard and Raitt met face to face at a concert. The two have maintained ties since. She would love to see Eikhard at one of her shows on her upcoming cross-Canada tour, which stops at Hamilton’s FirstOntario Concert Hall on Tuesday, June 6.
“I think she’s made an album almost every year or two and she sends me a copy of them,” Raitt, 67, says about Eikhard. “Sometimes she’s free and is able to come to our shows, sometimes she’s off touring. I’m hoping our paths cross in Canada.”
Interestingly enough, the two may cross paths when Raitt’s tour comes to London on June 3. Reached at her home near Orangeville, Eikhard said she plans attending that show.
Eikhard remembers well the voice-mail message Raitt left for her. Eikhard said she wrote “Something to Talk About” in the mid-’80s in Nashville and that Canadian singer Anne Murray had expressed interest in it.
Ironically, Murray borrowed the song’s name for her 1986 “Something to Talk About” album but never included the song. After Murray turned it down, the song eventually made its way to Raitt’s box of cassettes.
“I was living in Harriston, Ont., at the time, about two hours north of Toronto,” Eikhard says about the night she found Raitt on her answering machine. “There was a blizzard and I was driving home from (actress/singer) Dinah Christie’s home in Mount Forest through all this snow. I got home and there was this thing on my machine. There was Bonnie … I was numb. I was a fan of Bonnie since my teens.”
Although Raitt has written her share of songs over the years — she has five writing credits on her new album “Dig in Deep” — Raitt is best known for her soaring vocals and blistering slide guitar.
It was that slide guitar that drew her to the attention of Warner Records in the early ’70s. Raitt, daughter of legendary Broadway singer John Raitt, had started out playing folk guitar in high school, learning finger picking from Joan Baez records.
Born in California and raised in the Quaker tradition in New York state, she became entranced by Delta blues after hearing a Robert Johnson record and taught herself how to play slide in a rather unorthodox style.
“I never saw anybody do it, I just figured it out,” Raitt says. “I was in my room, I soaked the label off of a Coricidin pill bottle out of my parent’s medicine cabinet and put it on my middle finger. By the time I actually saw somebody play slide and noticed it was on their little finger or ring finger, it was too late. I had already taught myself how to play on my middle finger.”
While in college, Raitt began playing coffee houses and hanging out with blues legends like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House. She was signed by Warner before she graduated.
At that time, a woman playing slide guitar was something of a rarity. It still is.
“It is what set me apart and got my foot in the door because I wasn’t an original singer or songwriter,” she says. “But my mix of material was compelling enough that Warner Brothers offered me a record deal in my junior year of college. I’m sure that part of the reason that I’ve lasted this long is that my slide guitar sets me apart.”
While she nods to slide guitarists such as Lowell George, Ry Cooder and Derek Trucks as influences, the artist who had the most impact on Raitt was her father John, who continued performing well into his 80s. He died at the age of 88 in 2005.
Raitt still talks with fondness about touring with her father and the great blues singer John Lee Hooker in the mid-’90s. She would sing a duet with Hooker and then a couple of songs later another with her dad.
“He was an absolute delight and gave everything at every performance,” Raitt says about her father. “I miss him a lot. When I get feeling a little hoarse and I don’t know if I can hit that note on ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me,’ I always summon him and, all of a sudden, I’ve got a Broadway legend’s voice coming out of me.
“I like to feel that he gives me strength every day.”
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Graham Rockingham is the Hamilton Spectator’s music editor.
What: Bonnie Raitt in concert, with Royal Wood
When: Tuesday, June 6, 8 p.m.
Where: FirstOntario Concert Hall (formerly Hamilton Place)
Tickets: $71 to $100.50, plus fees at FirstOntario Centre box office or through ticketmaster.ca.