In her debut years, Bonnie Raitt rarely showed up in the Netherlands, but when she finally arrived in 1976, she took all the time to discuss her life and work with OOR. The blues heroine in conversation with OOR’s then editor-in-chief Jan-Maarten de Winter, whose collection of Bonnie LPs had just been stolen from his car. It didn’t get in the way of a good conversation about the blues, the bottle, talented men and even more talented women.
The Pop Archive is realized in collaboration with the National Pop Institute Collection, part of the Allard Pierson – The Collections of the University of Amsterdam.
When I want to start the article about Bonnie Raitt, the five records she made have just disappeared from my possession. Somewhere in the Netherlands there’s someone who thought it was worth breaking open a car to steal the complete oeuvre of a 26-year-old American singer from a fairly expensive suitcase full of other stuff. Something must be going on here… For weeks I dragged the set of albums behind me in preparation for her first visit to this country, but mainly from a spatial planning point of view. Wherever you were, leave a few numbers or a complete side everywhere and not to the annoyance of the opponent.
The results of this door-to-door campaign confirmed my suspicions: Bonnie Raitt is living proof of someone who has built up an identity of her own with the repertoire of third parties. Her clear voice is also suitable to cover multiple genres. She can alternate the most beautiful, slow-worn songs with blues classics by immortals such as Sippie Wallace and Fred McDowell. Perhaps that is why it hardly arouses irritation even with people who have not understood it primarily on singers. Her popularity is increasing at a time when some of her colleagues are also doing well: we can even observe a small cult for the singer of contemporary material. However, there is a danger that the girl with the guitar syndrome will resurface. The singers, who now enjoy a growing popularity, have been working for years under varying circumstances. “It took two weeks to master Mississippi John Hurt’s Candy Man.”
Bonnie Raitt grew up in a reasonably protected environment in Burbank near L.A. on the American west coast. Her father is the musical star John Raitt, and both her mother and grandfather were decidedly musical. Without being forced on her, she had piano lessons for five years. By the age of ten, she had taken her grandfather’s Hawaiian slide guitar and listened to her older brother’s R&B records. In the summer, everyone among the transistor tones of Jan & Dean strayed to the beach; Bonnie, on the other hand, often stayed in summer camps.
The Raitt family consisted of Quakers, whose main philosophy is charity. In the old-world atmosphere of the summer camps, and also because of the recurring meetings and collections, Bonnie was always quite wise for her age. It was therefore not surprising that she initially took her studies very seriously. Her political ideas motivated her enough to broaden her knowledge at the University of Radcliffe. She played some folk-like music without obligation until she met one of the greatest blues connoisseurs in the country. An enigma, Dick Waterman, expressed her latent preference for the blues again. Waterman had rediscovered Son House in 1964 and further became the manager of Skip James, Junior Wells & Buddy Guy, Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup and Fred McDowell, among others.
The management extended to the feeding and housing of the often disorganized men. Waterman and Raitt spent a lot of time together and visited local blues clubs in Cambridge. In 1968 the blues scene was hit hard and Dick Waterman sought refuge in Philadelphia. Bonnie left for Europe with two friends and discovered an album in England, which would kick-start her own career; an album report of a bluestour through Europe with people like Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery and… Sippie Wallace. “I’d never heard a voice like that in my life,” she said later. The raw voice inspired Bonnie in her attempts to perform herself after returning to America. In those attempts, she was supported by Waterman, who occasionally tucked her into an engagement.
She was in the favorable position to ask the originals about their origin, structure and mood. Soon she gained the respect of Muddy, Wolf, Junior & Buddy. The Bonnie Raitt case escalates when she comes into contact with songwriters and other musicians. Her studies had already faded into the background and her temporary jobs became superfluous because she managed to provide for her subsistence by performing. Her repertoire included songs from Steve Stills, James Taylor… even Elton John and especially Sippie Wallace, songs like Women Be Wise and You Got To Know How.
When Raitt had already worked herself up in the club scene (both her voice and guitar playing matured quickly) she met a certain Dan Friedberg… a head with hair with a big body underneath. It played bass and was out of work since the Edison Electric Band group had disbanded. For more than two and a half years, Bonnie Raitt and fluff head “Freebo” (as his new, better-covering name was called) were inseparable. Freebo would play on all her records and is still part of her backing band today.
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Through her association with Waterman, she was able to join Guy & Wells on a European tour with the Stones. Her “date with the blues” had become a matter of course. She did not wonder if she was the right figure to propagate the twelve-time kind of music, instinctively felt related to a woman like Sippie Wallace: their mutual interest resulted in a few joint performances. Bonnie’s debut album was recorded in a garage in Minneapolis. In an atmospheric atmosphere with many friends, music was made in an elementary way. Freebo played tuba and everyone had a great time. The material revealed a deliberate choice from work by Wallace, Paul Siebel, Robert Johnson and the Motown-team Hunter/Paul/Stevenson.
Because the process limited her possibilities too much, for the second album she called in the assistance of Michael Cuscuna, who also produced her beloved songwriter Chris Smither. Michael suggested recording the record in Woodstock with members of the brand new Orleans group accompanying them. Give It Up has become one of the best records in recent years. Everything about the record is equally high, from cover information to repertoire choice. Give It Up opens with two compositions of her own and it will be the last she writes for the time being. Between oldies-but-goldies as I Know and If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody are silver-threads such as Under The Falling Sky (Jackson Browne), Love Has No Pride (Eric Kaz) and Stayed Too Long At The Fair, a song by Joel Zoss, featuring John Hall playing an incomparable solo.
Bonnie was initially supposed to duet on Give It Up with Fred McDowell; the old singer / guitarist died just before the moment of the session. Bonnie decided to sing the medley Write Me A Few Of Your Lines / Kokomo Blues for her next record. The record Takin’ My Time was laboriously released in an end production of Orleans guitarist John Hall. However, the result was again excellent. The best West Coast musicians, including the Little Feat core, helped her mix Randy Newman’s Guilty, Jackson Browne’s I Thought I Was A Child, songs from Kaz, Zoss and Smither with the old Sensations hit Let Me In, the soul shot You’ve Been In Love Too Long, the Jamaica souvenir Wah She Go Do (watched by Van Dyke Parks) and the Mose Allison classic Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy.
Drum veteran from New Orleans Earl Palmer and bluesman from the new Taj Mahal group make a valuable contribution. Before her fourth album, Bonnie was seduced into a project she had no control over. The New York production Streetlights is more superficial than her older records, but contains the beautiful ‘ballad’ by ex-New York Rock & Roll Michael Kamen: Everything That Touches You and other mainly uptempo work. Her backing band is taking shape, but when she finally comes to the Netherlands after her beautiful album Home Plate, recently discussed in this newspaper, it is as if nothing has changed in five years.
With her inseparable buddy Freebo, she came over from London, where she gave a fabulous concert and a TV special. She makes a disarming impression when her historically grown toughness gives way to an almost childlike perception. Lately she can afford that more often: her first childhood seems to have begun. A performance in the VPRO studio (the circumstances are far from ideal due to a mild flu from Bonnie and Freebo) contrasts with her show at London’s New Victoria Theater, where she is assured of the support of her entire band. Guitarist Will McFarlane, drummer Dennis Whitted, Freebo and pianist Alan Hand form the beautiful backdrop for Bonnie’s lyrical presentation. Half of her repertoire is featured in those two gigs and there are unexpected extras such as Steve Winwood’s Can’t Find My Way Home and Pickett’s Don’t Fight It.
“I’ve been playing since I was nineteen, in 1969. I made the first album in the summer of ’71.”
Why did you go to Dave Ray for your first LP?
“I don’t know if you heard from the group, but one of the first influences when I learned to play blues guitar was a combination of Koerner, Ray & Glover:” Spider “John Koerner,” Snaker “Dave Ray and Tony” Littleson “Glover. They recorded records for Elektra and were just like e.g. John Hammond Jr. young, white interpreters of different blues styles. Ray was a twelve-string guitarist and leadbelly-style “slide” player; Spider John had his own… er… “rinky tink” style and Tony Glover, who is now a very good journalist, played harmonica. I listened a lot to their records and I fell completely in love with them, especially because they wore their hair back… just like John Hammond… a bit like greased quiffs… “
“I met John Koerner when I lived in Cambridge; there is a bar called Jack’s there, where all the musicians from the city hang out. Chris Smither, James Montgomery, Peter Bell… Peter Johnson… We always came to see when Koerner played. At that time I got my record deal, which gave me room for total artistic control. The agreement was that they would give me the money and I would give them the tapes. Even if I recorded it on a tape recorder at home, they would still have to release it. Are you saying no to such a deal? “
Yeah, but how did you get to Minnesota?
“John Koerner had made a record for Elektra “Running, Jumping, Standing Still”, a fantastic, very underrated record, which is probably now hard to get. That record was made with Willy Murphy and John Kerr, who are from Minneapolis. Look, there’s a pretty developed blues scene out there. There, after some disappointing experiences with record companies, Dave Ray had the idea to set up his own label. They would then press their own LP’s and have them distributed at low prices via ‘head shops’. That was in line with my political ideas on how records should get closer to the “street people”. I thought: this is the chance to invest the money of the Warner Brothers Company in a small business, which I would join later on. I already saw myself as a headliner for people like Ray and Koerner, if I would become more famous. Willy Murphy had a group, the Bumblebees, who played a lot of southern R&B, James Carr… Junior Parker… and a lot of Memphis, Pickett and so on. I called Dave and suggested using his four-track recorder and Willy as a producer with the Bumblebees as the base backing band. By now I had met Freebo in May ’71 when his group Edison Electric Band broke up. I went to Minneapolis with him, Peter Bell and my brother Steve and his wife Joyce. I called Buddy Guy and A.C. Reed. I knew from the Buddy Guy – Junior Wells Band and with all that help we recorded my first album under pleasant, but primitive circumstances. “
ANY DAY WOMAN
That record features Any Day Woman by Paul Siebel. Why didn’t you record a song like Louise?
“I believe Chris Smither had that in his repertoire. I don’t play songs that others have just discovered: I have too much respect for others… after I recorded Love Has No Pride, there were versions by Rita Coolidge and Tracy Nelson… if someone finds a ‘song’, you should leave the material alone. Any Day Woman is one of my favorite songs…. I’ve even played it every set for the past five years, all the more so because it’s the best political statement for Man and Woman. “
GIVE IT UP
The second album was Give It Up.
“That is the album that sells best in the States. It’s a great collection of songs; it had the same funky feeling of the first album, only much better recorded, on six tracks. “
You weren’t able to write some more songs yourself?
“I’m not a songwriter … and besides, that I didn’t write a song like Love Has No Pride myself, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like I wrote it myself. There is no difference whether I spread it using other people’s words or my own songs. There are of course reasons why I hardly or not at all write: firstly, I have been on tour almost continuously for three or four years since Give It Up, and I did not want to describe the relationships I maintained, because it does not concern anyone and there is also there was a good chance that relationships would be completely broken if I wrote something negative about it. I became fairly well known at the time and had a strong feeling that my private life should be kept separate from everything else. “
“During performances I was able to fully express my feelings and there were always friends who came up with songs, who exactly matched what I had to say at the time. A song like Guilty, with which my producer Michael Cuscuna arrived or I Gave My Love A Candle… “
Are there also fluctuations in your repertoire to match the mood of the day?
“I sometimes change, but the more material you have available, the more difficult it is to fit it in responsibly. Around this second album, the choice of repertoire was not so difficult; there were only some technical difficulties because I only played with Freebo. Therefore we couldn’t play I Know and If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody because those songs are based on a piano. After the third album, a backing band became inevitable… there were too many songs that we couldn’t do with the two of us. When the band was together I was free to choose from 20, 25 songs and then the sets changed significantly. Now, with five albums, the situation has changed again: there is too wide a choice… it happened that I varied the order and the song choice so much that it all went wrong. I now have a permanent place for almost everything, if you want to alternate slow and melancholic material with faster swing work. There is a block of “slide” work that floats, and there is a block within which I can vary material. “
How did you get those songs?
“I have my circle of music-making friends, of which I follow the transactions closely … sometimes I get a tip from a deejay or from a journalist; when I’m not touring, I initially listen to people like Jr. Walker, Wolf, Al Green or Ann Peebles. “
Do your favorite songwriters (except the royalties) now benefit from recording those songs?
“Both Eric Kaz and Joel Zoss owe their record deal to the fact that I have those songs in my repertoire; however, they are getting screwed on all sides by the record companies. “
I think it took quite a long time before Takin My Time was finished?
“That’s because I recorded it once with Lowell George and once with John Hall. There were six songs with Lowell, but we didn’t get along very well in the studio. I went against his advice and that should get out of hand in the end. John Hall was in L.A. to mix the first Orleans album and he was ready to finish the record. I never could have done it on my own. My whole private life was upside down when we had to finish the record; I called Taj Mahal and bit by bit it still worked out. All in all, I was over 30% over budget and it wasn’t the first time, so Warner Brothers strongly advised me to work for the next album with an experienced producer, preferably someone who knew what a smooth, solid -popular production. If I had taken a strong stance I would have been able to work with John again; the result would have been that they had not promoted the album, or badly, because Takin’ My Time wasn’t an instant hit either.”
The LP Streetlights?
“It’s my least favorite; it’s not really me at all. “
Freebo has said that working under strictly professional conditions did you good.
“Look, I usually know everyone I work with. When I come in with a hangover they say; “Oh, let’s skip for today …” There in New York, I was left with a team of “professionals” I didn’t know. There was no excuse. The cover photo shows well how I think about that album. I look like a deer that has ended up on the highway. “
Those old men on the backcover with whom you sit on a park bench…
“I walked with the photographer through Central Park, and saw those men who had their place there. Warner Brothers refused to use that photo on the cover unless we had written permission from those three old men. If a nephew would sue on the grounds that his uncle’s photo would have boosted sales of the album. That photographer still had to hang out in “Needle Park” for about three days … I am very proud of three sheets of paper with their signatures and assignments such as “Good luck … Bonnie”. “
Do you have control over the artwork of the covers?
“Hardly so far. That’s because when they’re working on it, you’re performing somewhere 2000 miles away. You cannot always walk in and see how you they’re doing. The cover of my first album was complete sabotage. A “boyfriend” of mine had taken that picture, but he was fired by the company before completing this assignment. I had picked out a contact print but out of anger at his resignation, he took the next one in the series, so I looked incredibly bitchy. When I saw the cover, I cried. You also need a manager for that; someone who acts as a link between the artist and, among others, the company. “
Is the producer also such a link?
“A producer is also necessary for me, because I often play with friends and it is very difficult to put yourself into musical disagreements without affecting the personal relationship. That’s what killed me with Lowell George. Later at Home Plate it became difficult to make clear to my permanent backing band that the recordings with them did not go so smoothly. Paul Rothchild, who used to do the Doors, has made that clear to everyone. Without a good producer I would have had to choose between a lesser record or the risk of losing my band. A producer is very useful as a buffer; without striving for supremacy, he should relieve you a little. Now I can put all the energy into the song selection and its interpretation. “
How did you get to producer Jerry Ragovoy for Streetlights?
“I’m a big fan of his productions with Lorraine Allison and Howard Tate and he also produced one of my favorite records; Piece Of My Heart by Irma Franklin. Have you ever heard that? It is an absolute “killer”. I wanted to work with Ragovoy because I thought he would let me do a lot of R&B stuff. I thought…. commercial? … Ok… uh… Lenny Waronkel is busy with something else… didn’t really feel like Toussaint… so on to New York… I already do a lot of soul music. Says that man, “I once listened to your records and I don’t believe you can sing R&B … what could I do?”
Bonnie Raitt – Streetlights (Remastered 2008)
Do you feel like making a record with only “ballads”, something you are absolutely good at?
“No, that would be something like just recording songs that are in C. It would not be indicative of what I do … “
You have completely rediscovered the correct direction on your last LP Home Plate.
“Yes, that album is representative of myself … it is a little bit of everything, so that when put together it is almost an original kind of music. It’s got a little Billy Payne, a bit of John Hall, some of myself … some Freebo … Fred Tackett. All people who wrote songs of this album participated. Either they wrote the song, or they arranged … Freebo gave me his buddy Mark Jordan’s song; my friend suggested What Do You Want The Boy To Do? Eric Kaz wrote I’m Blowing Away: It was incredible. Nan O’Byrne sent me the last song … “
Who is Nan O’Byrne?
“A woman in her thirties from Texas and an old friend of Bobby Neuwirth. She writes songs, and you can best describe the way she works with ‘primitive art’. It is very effective what she does, and luckily she can make a demo of the money she has earned with this song. Based on that, maybe more people will perform her songs. “
The beautiful song My First Night Alone Without You was written by a certain Kin Vassey.
“Oooooh … Michael Cuscuna played a Ray Charles album, Through The Eyes Of Love, and the song was on it. Vassey is in a group … Kenny Rogers & The First Edition or something … “
Bonnie Raitt – My First Night Alone Without You (Remastered)
What does such a tastemaker like Fred Tackett do?
“Tackett is an obscure, brilliant background figure. I first met him when I heard Little Feat’s Fool Yourself. He plays on Rod Stewart records and works on Cher’s shows, and is a good friend of Jim Webb. “
Webb could be a good song supplier for you. He has written some beautiful songs…
“I don’t really like his lifestyle; there you have something like that again: if someone lives a “plastic” rock star-like life, I don’t feel like sponsoring him. That’s why I still struggle to do even Bluebird: the philosophy of that Steve Stills is reprehensible … it is a “statement” to do songs by writers, which you also consider high as people. There are dozens of songs delivered by commercial writers that I wouldn’t want to do. They don’t need the money and I don’t want to have much to do with them. Stills with his watchdogs, Mercedes Stationwagon and 532 guitars … too much dope …
“I have to like the melody of a song, the lyrics and the man behind it. Sometimes I associate myself with people who sing bad, at least not gain a foothold commercially. What does it matter to me: they are my friends! Jim Webb is also completely wasted on me already because he is one of the L.A. writers from before I came back. That Tim Buckley, Steve Gilette, Van Dyke Parks club. Lowell knows them well from the wild days … Linda also knows them all. I have more to do with Jackson Browne and John David Souther. “
They are all cores …
“Yes, you have the Jo Mama group, which does a lot with Carole King and James Taylor. The Eagles, J.D. Souther and Dan Fogelberg; the Elektra / Asylum Mafia and the Warner Bros club with Ry, Randy, Little Feat, myself… When someone does a session with another section, the word spreads quickly. “
So where does a boy like Terry Reid fit in?
“Oooh, he belongs to the walk-ins. It’s a friend of Jackson Browne, and the studio was right by Asylum’s office. I knew Terry Reid from the Rolling Stones tour and thought he was a great English rock star. “
He also writes great material, made an LP River for Atlantic a few years ago and has been waiting for the next one to be produced by Graham Nash.
“I should go after that … I got along really well with him. We got very drunk, but we continued to deliver quality work well into the night. “
Are you already working on the next album?
‘Are you crazy? It takes me three months and this one has yet to be brought to the people. That means that I still have to do 40 cities to let people hear what I have done. That is why I also do interviews, look, there is still written about you, and in this way I can provide a lot of clarification. During the tour with Jackson Browne, when I had Streetlights released, I didn’t feel like insulting people because I disagreed with the song choice, with the arrangements, with the production … “
“I should actually be supporting them in my opening act, but you see … I can’t do that, because now I’m ready to include Sippie on the show. Smither, Zoss and Kaz can use the work very well, but I have to put blues people there because they are about to die out. Smither will not die, he can still play in a club. Sometimes it is difficult, especially with the people who think they have a right to work, because they helped me as in the case of Orleans. The group had almost no work because they did not have a good selling record and were poorly managed. Still, I felt that someone like Mose Allison or Buddy Guy & Junior Wells were more entitled to it. Allison played for half-empty clubs; after he toured with me and we did some TV together, at least his pay has doubled … quite rightly of course! “
Bonnie Raitt – Any Day Woman (Remastered)
Your records don’t have that many blues songs anymore?
“Yes, how many shuffle songs in E can you do? How many “cute” Sippie Wallace songs? I wanted to move on to my own, more original music. I still do them on stage. “
What is your blues outfit?
“A 1959 Stratocaster guitar, for which I use heavy strings. An acoustic guitar cannot be properly heard on the stage. Furthermore, it is difficult to combine the open D and open G tunings with a high female voice and, for example, an acoustic National guitar. My National only has 14 frets and the capo has to be raised too much; a Stratocaster and a Gibson have much longer necks. “
You use a real bottle neck as a “bottleneck” … what brand of drink?
“Wine … they don’t make whiskey bottles with those straight necks. John Hammond and Son House both use metal, and Fred had a short gin bottle neck so he can play some strings instead of rowing across the entire width of the neck [screams “nanananananaaanaaah” to echo the classic Elmore James intro …]. I wear the bottleneck on my middle finger. That sometimes resulted in a nice incident, when someone asked me on the Dick Cavett Show what I had on my finger, on which I bent my fingers in front of the camera and thus half the American people and only the middle finger with the bottleneck held straight up… I made the infamous ‘fuck you’ sign in the States… haha…’
“That wine bottle is illustrative… I no longer drink as heavily and regularly as I used to. If you hang out with those “bluescats” and now again with a band of “heavy boys”, then the pace of those boys is difficult to maintain. “
Why are you so afraid of your privacy?
“Because it is dear to me. I consider a relationship more important to myself than that I have to spread it out. My “old man” also works in the trade; in order not to get crooked faces and protect ourselves a bit, I don’t always talk about my private life … he worked at my record company … it made it all very difficult; now he manages Maria Muldaur … “
Later, after a discussion about her appearance (she starts herself and we reject the excuses with a laugh), an exchange of extreme expressions on the record such as the extravaganza of Todd R. and the inscriptions on the Dark Horse records (‘I dreamed last night that Harrison was dead, “she says in the midst of a treatise on musicals and middle-of-the-road music:” Would Tom Waits do well here? “We’re not hiding having trust in him. “He’s absolutely terrific …” she sighs.
When she remembers, both we and the VPRO folks were talking about Freebo’s old band Edison Electric: “Ooh, God … you people are so obscure … Not even Freebo has a proper copy of that record. I want to do that song again… er [sings some confusing sentences; we recognize it as Royal Fool]… Mark Jordan wrote it, he now has something [singing]: ‘You said I do / And I did / Why didn’t you?’, that I would like to do: ‘I forgive you if you want me to ‘. There is another one [sings slow and worn]: “I was so in live with you / then I got to know you well.
At the last sentence she bursts out laughing. Her face darkens when she realizes that many of the people who design those beautiful melodies and matching lyrics can barely make a living from it. “It’s a shame. The record that Joel Zoss made for Arista is not promoted. Chris Smither wrote new songs for his third album for nothing… they don’t release him, because the previous records only sold 15,000 copies. That’s the number what was pressed of it… how do they know it couldn’t have been more? It was the same with Orleans. They had their second album finished and were then canceled by the company… they could do it again for their new label… it is all so frustrating. Smither had better never made records, because now every company says he only sells 15,000. Esther Phillips has following a blindfold test in Downbeat, where she heard my version of I Feel The Same, also recorded the song”.
Which female singers do you like?
“Emmylou… er… Mavis Staples kills me… listen how she does Jesus I Just Wanna Thank You… aaaa ccchhhh… er, Dusty Springfield, Ann Peebles, Denise Lasalle, songs by Ann Murray… oh… this girl is gonna kill you: Diana Brooks, a black singer in her thirties. I sing on her LP. “
They may also be singers …
Oh… er… William Smith… a well-known session boy and the record of Mike Finnigan, the keyboard player of Maria Muldaur… he used to play with Dave Mason and Jerry Wrexler produced the record. Just before I came here, I heard him … fantastic … I was pretty drunk … “unless I was completely out to lunch, that album’s gotta be … oohhh“.
Translated from Dutch. Apologies for any grammatical errors.
OOR is a Dutch (pop) music magazine. It was titled Muziekkrant OOR until 1984. OOR is the largest and oldest existing music magazine on the Dutch market. (wikipedia)Source: © Copyright OOR
Barry Schultz Photography
Gijsbert Hanekroot Photography