Bonnie Raitt is best known for her hits “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” But back in 1971, she was a 21-year-old kid with a friendly streak, guitar chops, and her first record deal. That summer, she recorded her debut album on Lake Minnetonka with a motley crew of Minneapolis musicians, making music and commotion in a wild recording experience that she calls “not Animal House, but […] just a blast.”
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Bonnie Raitt: In Memory of Willie Murphy
I am so shocked and heartbroken to hear of my longtime friend Willie Murphy’s sudden passing. Although we’d spoken during his recent illness, and he was getting better, very excited about his new album, I don’t think many of us knew how serious his condition may have been. Along with producing my first album in 1971, he was one of the most brilliant, unique and prolific musicians I’ve ever known. His enduring contribution to one of America’s funkiest and most flavorful music scenes, the West Bank of Minneapolis, where I first fell in love with his band, Willie and and the Bees, will be treasured by all of us who can appreciate the incredible breadth, soul and inventiveness of the music he made. He lived to play and remained a defiant maverick, preferring to spend time creating music and friendships rather than get sucked into the trap of social media. He was my friend, a great inspiration and I will miss him terribly. I’m so grateful he was able to leave us with another amazing record before his untimely passing. Another bright light, gone way too soon.
-Bonnie Raitt, January 15, 2019
Transcript of Episode 5 — Bonnie Raitt’s Lake Minnetonka Beginnings
[“I Ain’t Blue” by Bonnie Raitt]
Bonnie Raitt: Enchanted Island—yeah, I remember it like it was yesterday. I’m always reminiscing with Willie and the Bees.
Andrea Swensson: That’s folk and blues icon Bonnie Raitt, and this is The Current Rewind, the podcast that puts unsung music stories on the map. I’m Andrea Swensson, back with Side B of our first season. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take you to a Great Lakes industry town with a dark side and back to the ’80s with a wild story of anti-rock crusaders. But today, we’re zooming in on the early years of Bonnie Raitt.
[“I Ain’t Blue” crescendos, then fades. “Winging It” by Lazerbeak begins to play]
Andrea Swensson: Few performers over the last fifty years of rock have been more widely beloved than singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt. Writing and covering a wide variety of styles, from folk to blues to rock, she has, as much as anybody, defined the roots-oriented sound of Americana. She’s known for the hits “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Something to Talk About.” In 1990, her album Nick of Time swept the Grammy Awards and made her a household name. But the story of Bonnie Raitt’s recording career began way back in 1971. And it began in Minnesota.
[Rewind sound effect]
Andrea Swensson: For this episode of The Current Rewind, we spoke with several of the musicians who played on Bonnie Raitt’s self-titled album from 1971, as well as a couple of writers and Raitt’s bass player from the seventies.
One person we didn’t get to talk to, unfortunately, was Bonnie herself, whose schedule didn’t allow her time. So we’ve relied on a couple of old interviews—one with NPR’s Ann Powers in 2012 and one with The Current’s Bill DeVille in 2013—to get her side of the story.
While it isn’t the best-known of her albums, Bonnie Raitt’s self-titled debut was a clear statement of purpose from a soon-to-be-major artist. She was only twenty-one, but her song choices drew deep from the wells of blues, folk, rock, and R&B music. Her singing and stage presence had turned heads since she began performing. By the summer of 1971, Warner Bros. Records, who specialized in singer-songwriters like her, was ready to put her out in the world.
And that’s how Bonnie Raitt came to the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis, also known as Cedar-Riverside—because that’s where she could go to find other musicians who were in the habit of ignoring genre rules and going for the gut, just like she did.
Bonnie Raitt was born into showbiz—her father was the Broadway musical leading man John Raitt, star of “Oklahoma!” and other fifties hits from the Great White Way. But as she told The Current’s Bill DeVille, Raitt was looking for something else when it came time to make her first album.
Bonnie Raitt: It’s Austin and New Orleans and Minneapolis-St. Paul that are the three cities that have been multiracial in their music scene for all this time. That’s why I wanted to make my first record there.
Maurice Jacox: John Koerner and Dave Ray were playing out on the East Coast folk circuit, and Bonnie was playing out there too.
Andrea Swensson: Maurice Jacox was the saxophonist for Willie and the Bees, the band who backed Bonnie Raitt on her first album.
Maurice Jacox: And so she got a Warner Bros. contract, and the contract was for $40,000. She asked people she trusted—Koerner and Dave Ray—and said, “I’ve got this contract. What do you think I should do? I’m supposed to make an album. I want to make a blues album. Got any suggestions, and the way I should go about doing this?”
They both said, “We’ve got some friends back in Minneapolis that might be right up your alley. You ought to come out there and see what’s happening out there.” So Bonnie actually flew out here and hung around the West Bank for about a week or so and shot pool, drank beer, drank liquor, played pinball for about four or five days and did a lot of talking.
Cyn Collins: She was known to hang out with people at the various West Bank hotspots.
Andrea Swensson: Cyn Collins is the author of “West Bank Boogie,” a history of the Cedar-Riverside folk and blues scene.
Cyn Collins: She would hang out at Palmer’s Bar doing New York Times crossword puzzles with Spider John Koerner on a daily basis while Flo tended bar.
Andrea Swensson: In fact, an autographed photo of Bonnie still hangs at Palmer’s to this day.
The Current Rewind’s Bonnie Raitt crossword puzzle
Cyn Collins: Willie Murphy would say that she was seen regularly at various places around the West Bank—the New Riverside Cafe, the Firehouse, which is now the Mixed Blood Theatre, and she performed at the New Riverside Cafe and Firehouse and other places.
Willie Murphy: She came out here and stayed at my house—we actually slept together in the same bed and went out every morning looking for a good place to put the studio to make the record.
Andrea Swensson: That’s the late Willie Murphy, speaking to me in 2014. He produced Bonnie’s debut album, and was the notoriously strong-willed, gruff, but beloved leader of Willie and the Bumblebees. Fans often called them the Bees.
[“Honey From The Bee” by Willie and the Bees]
Maurice Jacox: After that Bonnie just went, “This is the band. These are the guys I want to work with.”
Andrea Swensson: At first, the group wanted to record in the countryside. But they hit a snag.
Bonnie Raitt: Nobody would rent us a farm because we were a mixed-race bunch of raggly hippies and blues guys. Dave Ray and Sylvia, his wife at the time, found this guy who had a remedial reading summer camp, and it was isolated enough that they let us just take it over. So it was about—not Animal House, but it was very much like a summer camp. It was just a blast.
Andrea Swensson: The West Bank had been considered “blighted” during the forties, and had become part of skid row during the fifties, thanks partly to the freeway system intruding on the area, cutting it off from downtown. This relative isolation, and its proximity to the University of Minnesota campus, made the West Bank perfect for the burgeoning counterculture—first beatniks, then hippies began moving to the area. By the early seventies, the Electric Fetus, a record store and head shop catering to a hippie crowd, had opened up there; in 1972, it would stage a so-called “naked sale.” (Don’t ask.)
Spider John Koerner: I think I probably had my first drink in Palmer’s Bar in 1963 or 1964, so it’s been well over five decades that I’ve been watching the West Bank.
Andrea Swensson: The blues and folk singer Spider John Koerner has been one of the West Bank’s most visible musicians ever since.
Spider John Koerner: My first time on the West Bank, it was kind of working people. There was lots of bars. There was like probably a half a dozen up and down the avenue there, and there were some black bars up around Seven Corners up there. There was the Key Club and South of the Border, and you could go down there and see some of the top blues performers coming through Chicago and like that. It was a good mixture. Then came along the hippie era. If you left your wallet on the bar there was a 50/50 chance somebody would bring it back to you rather than getting picked up by somebody.
Eugene Hoffman: We were not hippies.
Andrea Swensson: Saxophonist Eugene Hoffman had dropped out of the University of Minnesota, and began playing with all sorts of musicians on the West Bank in the mid-sixties.
Eugene Hoffman: Even though Willie in one of his last interviews said at heart he was a hippie really, we were all in between the beatniks and the hippies. The neighborhood had been blown wide open because it was the Haight-Ashbury of Minnesota. Fourth and Cedar—there was a place above—Richter Drug Store. This Richter pharmacist was very lenient on the hippies, and people were always coming in there. They were dealing drugs on the corner—all kinds of people. What the West Bank had quickly become in about ’66 was just a lot of houses of university students.
Andrea Swensson: “West Bank Boogie” author Cyn Collins recalled how eclectic audiences could be.
Cyn Collins: It was a very diverse crowd. People would say that at any given night at the Triangle Bar you would have Black Panthers, AIM activists and bikers and hippies all in the same place. Of course, fights would break out. It was a wild scene. Very, very vibrant and busy and active.
Andrea Swensson: Maurice Jacox chimed in on the bar scene, too.
Maurice Jacox: In the old days back in the sixties there had always been the Triangle Bar. And up on Seven Corners there was a bar called the Mixers, and all the intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals and rabble rousers got together at the Mixers and talked and drank and talked and drank and politicized and plotted and did everything radicals were supposed to do back on those days.
I had known Willie Murphy since high school and didn’t like him a whole lot. A hard man to work with and a hard man to know—a very complex man. He could be incredibly thoughtless and overly critical of everything and everybody and an absolute control freak and had to run everything that he did. It was your job to figure out that he loved you, and that you wouldn’t be there if he didn’t specifically want you, personally, there.
I moved to San Francisco in ’67 and came back here. And while I’d been gone in San Francisco, Willie Murphy teamed up with Spider John Koerner and they had their record, Running, Jumping, Standing Still, for Elektra Records. It’s a fantastic, groundbreaking album, and I’d always loved John Koerner’s music.
People were having a lot of fun. Most of the people were fairly well educated and kindred spirits, open in their musical tastes, and open to different ideas and different music. That’s why John Koerner and Willie Murphy’s album was so great. Running, Jumping, Standing Still had elements of Murphy’s funk and R&B background, and John Koerner’s kind of country foot stomping things, and blending them together is pretty amazing.
In fact, one of John Koerner’s songs is one of my favorite songs on Bonnie’s album that we did, called “I Ain’t Blue,” and I used to love to hear John at the Triangle Bar, just singing and playing the song by himself.
[“I Ain’t Blue” by Spider John Koerner and Willie Murphy]
Andrea Swensson: Following the success of Running, Jumping, Standing Still, Willie Murphy was offered a house producer job with Elektra Records, but he turned it down to stay in Minneapolis. He had begun leading jam sessions, both in Cedar-Riverside and at his home near 26th Street and Nicollet Avenue, and in 1970, he convened a meeting.
Eugene Hoffman: Willie just looked at all of us and said, “I’m starting a band here. If you want to make money with this you might as well leave right now, because we’re going to just play kick-ass dance music and originals and like James Brown.”
Maurice Jacox: We weren’t trying to specifically be a mixed band. He just reached out to the people he wanted to have in a band, and the fact that it was an integrated band didn’t matter to him. There was a time in Minneapolis right into the mid-to-late sixties when no black band could get work in Minneapolis, and no black could be in a band in downtown Minneapolis. And then that started to change around ’67 or ’68. There was a band called the Amazers that had a black and had a white drummer, and they billed him as an albino—the drummer that went on to play with Sly & the Family Stone and Robin Trower—Bill Lordan was his name.
Murphy played in some of these bands playing bass—the only white guy in a black band. And that’s how they got into some of these clubs—at least having one white guy in the band.
Andrea Swensson: The musicians were doing it for love, because the money wasn’t especially good.
Eugene Hoffman: We were making almost nothing. I have my old calendars here and I look at them occasionally; probably less than $12 a night. Willie never took a leader’s fee, ever. When we opened up all of these bars, the reason we got $12 a night is they had us over a barrel. These bar owners would say, “We’re used to paying a 3-piece.”
Maurice Jacox: In the early days, you could have a seven or eight piece band playing for $200. Period. For the whole band. And that went on for decades.
Andrea Swensson: Spider John Koerner and Willie Murphy both recalled that they were playing out east when they first met Bonnie Raitt.
Spider John Koerner: The reason she got hooked up with Dave Ray’s outfit, and so with Willie, might’ve been at my suggestion, because I don’t think she knew the scene out here particularly before she met me.
Willie Murphy: I met Bonnie Raitt—Koerner and I, when we played together in the ’60s. We played a lot in Boston, that was sort of our second home. So she had gone to school, or was going to school at Radcliffe, one of those big schools. So she was a fan of ours, and she was an aspiring player and singer herself.
Andrea Swensson: Bonnie Raitt was born in Burbank, California, but she moved east while her father sang his way through a slate of hit musicals: “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” and “Kiss Me Kate.” The Raitt family were practicing Quakers, and as Eugene Hoffman saw firsthand, social activism has remained a bedrock part of Bonnie’s life.
Eugene Hoffman: I quickly saw that no matter where she went, she always knew and still does what’s going on in that town or that neighborhood politically. She would read the New York Times before she even had breakfast. I’m sure she still does that.
Andrea Swensson: Bonnie got her first guitar at age eight, as a Christmas gift. She was playing her grandfather’s slide guitar by age ten, and owned a red Guild gut-string acoustic. While her parents were away on tour, the family’s maid would bring over her family and their records, turning Bonnie and her brothers on to the music of Jimmy Reed and Ike & Tina Turner. At fourteen, she became a blues devotee, and as a teenager she got involved with folk music. At the 2012 Americana Music Conference, Bonnie told writer Ann Powers that her eclectic tastes were deeply rooted.
Bonnie Raitt: It’s second nature to me. Part of it is being raised in a musical family that had a broad range of tastes. We were exposed to Mahalia Jackson and Louis Armstrong and Art Tatum, as well as my dad’s entire Broadway world.
There was a cultural upheaval between beat music and beatniks and the counterculture that was happening. I’m a child of my time, so I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that I liked Lenny Welch’s “Since I Fell For You” next to “Bluebird” by the Buffalo Springfield next to Sippie Wallace. I loved folk music. I came out of summer camp with the counselors leading us and emulating Joan Baez. Of course, I wanted to be like both of them. I fell in love with R&B and rock and roll at the same time as a little kid. I could tell the difference between Little Richard’s version and Pat Boone’s.
Andrea Swensson: We’ll have more from Bonnie Raitt on the making of her first album after this break.
[Music fades up, then out]
Andrea Swensson: So far, we’ve talked about the West Bank music scene that was cultivated in the late ’60s, which would provide inspiration and a musical backbone for Bonnie Raitt’s debut album.
While Willie Murphy was finding his voice in Minneapolis, Bonnie Raitt was enrolled at Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, majoring in African Studies. But soon she was spending time in Philadelphia with Dick Waterman, the manager of a number of bluesmen whose careers had been revived in the sixties, such as Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the duo of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.
Soon Waterman, who was 33, was dating eighteen-year-old Raitt, and she was picking up playing tips from his roster. She began performing as an opening act. And while she was learning from the masters, as critic Jewly Hight notes, she was also proving she belonged in their world.
Jewly Hight: I several years ago interviewed the singer/songwriter and guitarist Chris Smither, who knew her in those early years. He said he was just blown away one day. He had no idea that she was a guitarist, much less a serious guitarist, and then heard her play bottleneck and was really impressed and instantly took her seriously.
Andrea Swensson: In 1970, Bonnie took a semester off from school to go along with Waterman on a European Rolling Stones tour, which Buddy Guy and Junior Wells were opening. That meant she missed the deadline to register for her next semester, and Bonnie’s parents cut her off financially. She would later say that if she had registered for school in time, her entire musical career might not have happened.
Right away, Bonnie’s repertoire came together—her first night onstage, at Philadelphia’s Second Fret, she played nearly everything that would make her debut album. Two of the songs were from the sly, sexy blueswoman Sippie Wallace.
[“I’m A Mighty Tight Woman” by Sippie Wallace]
[“Mighty Tight Woman” by Bonnie Raitt]
Jewly Hight: She did a couple of Sippie Wallace songs on that first album, and would eventually go on to befriend Sippie Wallace and bring her on tour and draw more attention to her work. She was really thrilled to find a blues diva who had this repertoire of songs that were very sexually liberated and were very forward, and also very wry and tongue-in-cheek. That really appealed to her feminist sensibilities and the songs she wanted to be doing.
Andrea Swensson: Raitt was definitely in control, even as her stage presence was unapologetically raunchy. The first time the singer-songwriter Jackson Browne saw Bonnie, he compared her to a “teenage Mae West.”
Soon she was doing well enough to hire a bassist who called himself Freebo. He’d previously played with the Philadelphia rockers the Edison Electric Band, who were also managed by Dick Waterman.
Freebo: I remember seeing her solo acoustic, and of course she was wonderful. She’d get up—super cute, and she had that incredible voice—beautiful voice. It was about a year after that when she called me. We probably did a month or two worth of gigs in May and June before we came out to Minneapolis and made that record.
Eugene Hoffman: I became friends with Freebo throughout those first ten years. He would come to town with Bonnie, and he always had a pouch of the strongest weed on his belt, and he and I would always do that with a few other people.
Andrea Swensson: Soon, Raitt was attracting critical attention. In February of 1971, she was flown to Los Angeles to play the Troubadour, an industry hangout where Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, and Joni Mitchell were regulars. Afterward, she fielded offers from five different record labels. Bonnie went with Warner Bros. As she told Dave Ray, the contract meant that, quote, “she could record an album of bullfrogs croaking and they would’ve had to take it. They gave her complete artistic control.”
Bonnie Raitt: When they offered me a record deal, I said, “As long as I don’t have to make hit singles or change the way I look or record what you want me to record—you can’t tell me when, with whom, or what to record. And I don’t care about being a star if you’re okay with that.”
Ann Powers: And they said?
Bonnie Raitt: And Warner Bros. said, “You know what? We make our living with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. They pay for Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, you, and Little Feat.” You know what I mean? [audience laughs, applauds]
Ann Powers:Those were the days.
Bonnie Raitt: And that’s why—I said, “If you really want to give me the keys to the car, I don’t care about an advance. I’ll make good money.” For the first record they gave me forty grand. I bought a Volvo—whoo! And the rest of it went to, you know, Snaker Dave Ray’s record label and spread out among the musicians in Minneapolis, where I did it.
Andrea Swensson: Dave and Sylvia Ray had purchased their equipment only a few months prior to Bonnie Raitt’s arrival in town. Rather than the kind of high-end, sixteen-track recording gear that was the norm by 1971, the Rays bought a simple four-track recorder.
Maurice Jacox: Jane Truax—Sylvia’s aunt—loaned Dave the money to buy the Crown recording machine that we used. With the money we made of the album he paid Jane off and started his own record company, which he called Sweet Jane Records, named after her.
Andrea Swensson: Where the band recorded is a story of its own. The album credits the recording location as “Sweet Jane Ltd. Studios,” but the actual site was a garage on Enchanted Island, a small patch of land in Lake Minnetonka—twenty-five miles west of Minneapolis in the town of Minnetrista. The island gets its name from its history as a Dakota holy ground. These days, it’s home to private residences and a yacht club.
Freebo: It was rustic, funky, lot of woods. What became the studio was like a bunkhouse. There were no bunks. It was like an empty room, and we just created it with baffles and microphones and had the piano in there—a tack upright piano, and amplifiers and drums, and created a studio out of it.
Eugene Hoffman: Everybody brought all their friends. It was a big free-for-all every night. Bonnie sat up in her room, which is on the cover of the album. We kept coming out every night. It was a long drive—bringing more and more friends.
Maurice Jacox: People brought whoever they were seeing at that time. They brought them out there. I brought someone out once or twice, that’s true. There were these cabins. You could find a cabin of your own for the night, and a lot of good food cooked in the communal kitchen at the lodge house. Twenty pounds of fried chicken—a lot of food. They had big long tables. It was a great place to come and hang.
Bonnie brought her brother, Steve, and Steve’s wife, Joyce, and Joyce did all the cooking. We lived in the cabins there at the camp, and we waterskied and played volleyball and ate great food.
Willie Murphy: I think we were out there probably at least a month. It was like people would get up in the morning and fish off the dock. After a couple of weeks of more or less horsing around—but I was actually kind of getting the music together—Bonnie said, “Don’t you think we should start recording?” And we did. And that was it. I think it’s a really good album.
Maurice Jacox: We did most of the recording between the hours of midnight or 1:00 in the morning and 6:00 in the morning because the lake was really quiet then. And also staying up drinking and playing all night, people kind of slept ’till summertime in the afternoon before they started moving for the day.
We recorded in the garage and outside the garage, and the Crown recording machines that Dave Ray bought were upstairs. If a microphone had to be adjusted, Dave had to come down the stairs and into the garage and adjust the microphone and go back upstairs and listen to it, sometimes he’d go up and down 30 times in a session. There were quite a few times of, “‘Finest Lovin’ Man,’ take fifteen.”
Eugene Hoffman: Dave Ray went into the garage and then put a Crown four-track together on a loft in the garage, and then the horns would play out in the parking lot, and since it was a four-track, it was live. There was no overdubbing. A plane would go over and we’d have to stop playing.
Andrea Swensson: Bonnie, Willie, and the Bees left a strong impression on area residents.
Bonnie Raitt: I have a lot of people that actually live out on the lake that come backstage and say hi to me in different places. The other night we just played down here in San Diego County, and somebody came up and said, “I used to live down the street from where you made your first album.” So it’s an indelible part of my history.
Andrea Swensson: We talked to the Westonka Historical Society—our friends from the Andrews Sisters episode we shared earlier this season—and they gave us a typed-up copy of this story, from Minnetrista resident John Maxwell, which we’ve edited slightly. Here’s what he remembered about living next door to Bonnie and the Bees, as read by our colleague Jay Gabler:
Jay Gabler: “It was the summer of 1971 and Bonnie Raitt and many musicians were holed up in a tiny two story white garage next door to us, at 4000 Enchanted Lane. It was an abandoned summer ‘reading’ camp, if I recall. My dad used to mow our grass weekly on a rather loud John Deere riding lawn mower that would come very close to that white garage.
Then, one August afternoon, a red-haired gal strolled up to my dad and flagged him down to chat. She explained that her and her band were trying to record music onto audio tape and that his mowing sounds kept getting onto the audio tape! They had a friendly diplomatic talk and he agreed to mow on certain days, or hours of the week (I can’t remember the exact details) if she would reciprocate by not producing very loud music in the middle of the night because it was affecting our family and our sleep. He had to get up for work at 3:30 a.m. every morning and they would be over there next door jamming till dawn. I personally can still remember the shrieks of a harmonica piercing through my bedroom walls at night.”
Andrea Swensson: One of the songs that the band was jamming on was “Big Road,” originally recorded in 1928 by the Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson, who later inspired the character of the same name in the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? For the recording of Johnson’s “Big Road,” Freebo played his original instrument, the tuba.
[“Big Road” by Bonnie Raitt]
Freebo: It was her suggestion to play tuba on that, and so somehow—I don’t remember who had the tuba, but I borrowed it from somebody and wound up playing tuba on each of her first six records.
Andrea Swensson: The arrangements of other songs were equally experimental.
Maurice Jacox: On that song, “I Ain’t Blue,” the John Koerner song, we were trying to come up with something for percussion. We didn’t want to use drums. Congas didn’t sound good. Bongos didn’t sound good. Clave didn’t sound good. We just wanted this little laid back thing to the guitar and Bonnie’s singing.
We tried to do “I Ain’t Blue” and come up with a sound that would be appropriate percussion, and we ended up taking—since we’d been playing badminton—taking the shuttlecock from badminton, and a 16 oz. beer cup, and people went [soft clapping] like that quietly, and then [imitating a soft shushing noise] running the shuttlecock around the cup and holding it up to the mike, and that’s the percussion on that.
[“I Ain’t Blue” by Bonnie Raitt]
Andrea Swensson: Soon, Bonnie and the Bees were joined by some out-of-town guests. Eugene Hoffman remembers playing with a couple of classic Chicago bluesmen.
Eugene Hoffman: Junior Wells came up with his chauffeur, Bob, who was the big heavy-set guy on the back of the album, way on the right picture—big Cadillac—he sat out there on that dock while we were making the record, fishing for little crappies and sunnies for a whole month.
I sat on the porch with A.C. Reed—Jimmy Reed’s brother. He was really not that well known, but he was a staple in Chicago—sax player. He put out some of his own records later—blues records. Everybody was blown away because we were sitting on the front porch when Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” came out. That was some kind of landmark moment.
Andrea Swensson:Trumpeter Voyle Harris went an… extra step for his solo on “Women Be Wise.”
Eugene Hoffman: If you look at the back of the record—which I did today—for some unknown reason he played this tune naked in front of her. I don’t know why he did this, but it’s even written on here.
Andrea Swensson: The album took four weeks to record.
Maurice Jacox: We’d stay there during the week, and we’d come in and do our gig. We were playing at The Joint Bar, which was before the Cabooze, on Fridays and Saturdays. We used to play at the Triangle where the horn section would walk down the bar playing and doing kicks. We were famous for that. When we first played there half the band stood up on a cover over the pool table. The other half of the band stood on the floor, and then eventually they ended up building a stage that you had to climb up a ladder to get to, with a railing around it.
And so we tried to drink the guy out of business with our free drinks. And so for that three weeks we’d come and do the gig on Friday and Saturday, and for that time, Bonnie was one of our guitar players. And then when we brought A.C. Reed and Junior Wells out to play on the album, they came into town with us on the weekends and played.
Bonnie loved playing our stuff too—damn good guitar player. She knew her music and she knew a lot of R&B tunes too. So she wasn’t just coasting or loafing. She was an integral part of the band.
Andrea Swensson: Not everybody loved Willie and the Bees’ hard-partying style, though. Dick Waterman, Bonnie’s manager, was one of them.
Maurice Jacox: He wanted to get Bonnie away from us as fast as he could. Jesus Christ, he could see things going up in smoke. He could see what a bad influence we were on her. Bonnie was drinking with us. Bonnie could throw down some liquor. Bonnie eventually had to go into treatment, as did almost all the Bees. Bonnie had a whole lot of fun with us, and that didn’t suit Dick Waterman very well.
Most of the band seriously abused alcohol. We were said to be the drunkest band in America, and everybody knew it. People would come to the Bees gigs to see if we could make it through the night on our feet. There was a music magazine back then, around 1971, called Connie’s Insider, and they’d have caricatures on the cover of the magazine, and a caricature of the Bees has us standing onstage—probably someplace like the Cabooze Bar or the Joint Bar—us standing onstage in bottles and glasses and beer cans all at our feet. That was pretty much accurate.
Andrea Swensson: The album’s back cover features a group shot of the full troupe of musicians, friends, and pals—eighteen people in total, seated and standing in two loose rows in front of the Chicago bluesmen’s snazzy cars, parked bumper to bumper.
Maurice Jacox: Both A.C. Reed and Junior Wells came up from Chicago. He’s driving a Cadillac, and A.C. Reed drove himself, and Junior had a driver, Bob, and so whoever’s idea it was, was to put the Cadillacs like that in a V, and for everybody to stand in the V of the Cadillacs. He posed the shot. We spent half the afternoon out there to get the shot exactly the way they wanted it.
Freebo: With a bunch of musicians it’s like herding cats, so it’s a question of everybody talking and some people looking to the camera, some people not. You can see the spontaneity of that photo, and kind of fooling with taking the tire off, and the tuba and all these different things. I look at that picture and it takes me right back to that day.
At that point we had more or less finished the record, and everybody was real happy. It was a family—you can hear it on the record, and it all goes back to Bonnie in terms of saying, “I want to have a party. I want to create this. I’ve got $40,000 from Warner Bros. I can make any record I want anywhere I want any way I want, and this is what I want to do.”
Andrea Swensson: It wasn’t necessarily what Warner Bros. wanted her to do, though.
Freebo: I don’t think they liked it. I don’t think they liked it at all. I think they were really disappointed. They were disappointed in the sound quality of it, the mixes, the whole thing. It is literally garage band, and it’s very odd sounding. Other people would listen to it and be like, “Oh my God, that is so poorly recorded. Why didn’t they do it like this?”
When you record on four-track there’s all these little tracks and it was all recorded at the same time, and unless you save a track, there’s nothing to bounce to. So you can’t record over something that’s already recorded or you’ll erase it. So when you’re recording, especially if it’s going to be the whole band, you have drums, bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, horns, piano, lead vocal, background vocal.
Everybody has to be organized at a time, and this is really the first time that Dave had ever done that, so really, when you listen to the record, it’s beautiful in its imperfection, and it essentially captures what Bonnie wanted to do.
Andrea Swensson: What struck listeners of the album, just the way Raitt had when she’d started playing clubs, was how preternaturally mature an artist she was. Reviewing the album, the music trade magazine Cash Box pointed to “her mean slide guitar” and concluded, “This is not a simple, categorical debut. It’s a most pleasant, eclectic reflection of herself.” The Village Voice recommended her “Easy, adult interpretations from an eclectic country blues based repertoire, supported by a nice rolling back-up.”
That December, Raitt returned to Minneapolis, as the opening act for Randy Newman at the Guthrie Theater. In a review of the show, The Minneapolis Star mentioned “Miss Raitt[‘s] eight accompanists who wandered in and out at her suggestion.” They were, of course, the Bumblebees, accompanied by A. C. Reed on sax.
Maurice Jacox: We went to St. Cloud and played an outdoors show on the athletic field at 90 degrees in July or something. It was Bonnie, the Bees, Charlie Musselwhite, Big Mama Thornton, and a couple other people all on that show.
Andrea Swensson: The Bees would sit in with Bonnie again when she played the Marigold Ballroom, a former big-band ballroom on Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, in October of 1973. It was a “cramped and sweaty audience of 1,700,” the Star reported. And Bonnie liked the Cabooze, which she played in August of 1974, even more. The Bees opened for her at that show, too.
Eventually, Bonnie Raitt became an American icon, thanks to the Grammy-winning success of her 1989 album, Nick of Time. Her brother Steve, who’d accompanied her to the Twin Cities to make her debut album, liked the place so much he stuck around, founding a state-of-the-art sound system company, Pro Line, and working as a sound engineer for the Lamont Cranston Band and others.
Maurice Jacox: He and Dave Ray bonded pretty seriously, and when Dave Ray bought a piece of land up in Cushing, MN, Steve and Dave were partners by that time, and they built a recording studio in Cushing, MN—literally built it, like, pouring slab in November.
People didn’t know—Both Bonnie and Steve were championship water skiers, and Steve was such a motor head that a jeep that he had built out was on the cover of Hot Rod magazine. He was an engine builder. He had a ski boat that had like 350 horsepower—a plywood ski boat—amazing, 70 mph.
Andrea Swensson: Bonnie also kept local ties, through her brother and her old colleagues.
Maurice Jacox: She bought property here. Bonnie bought land out on Bald Eagle Lake in White Bear Lake. She bought land there and a house that was on the property. She had it for maybe twenty years. First thing they did when they got the house was Steven put in a slalom course on the lake, brought his ski boat out, and then we had a two-story houseboat called Ship of Fools—we had barbecue grills and things in the boat. We towed the boat and anchored it out in the middle of the lake and towed out his ski boat to the Ship of Fools and we’d go out waterskiing runs on the slalom course.
Andrea Swensson: After a long battle with brain cancer, Steve Raitt passed away in 2009. Minneapolis also lost Willie Murphy in January 2019. When Bonnie heard about Willie’s passing, she wrote a message for the crowd at his memorial concert. Our producer Cecilia Johnson was at that show at the Cabooze in February 2019, and she watched host Bobby Vandell read that message for the crowd.
Bobby Vandell: I promised you that I would read to you what Bonnie Raitt wrote. So I’m going to read it to you, this is from Bonnie Raitt:
“Hello from Tulsa, here out on tour. I’m sorry I’m couldn’t be there with you to celebrate Willie in person, but I’m there with you in spirit. What an incredible lineup, and how perfect that you’re right there at the Cabooze. I still can’t believe that he’s gone. Willie really changed my life in so many ways. Producing my first album back in 1971 he taught me how to make records, work with a band, and most importantly, how to stay absolutely true to what I knew sounded right for me alone. It’s how he lived and played his music all his life.
I also shared with him, along with John, Dave, and Tony, an aversion to bending any part of myself to fit the norms of what the music business might think would sell. It’s that same fierce maverick streak that kept him criminally under-appreciated outside the Twin Cities. But his influence and appreciation by those who really know, will be his lasting legacy. He was a musical genius, a virtuoso trailblazer as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, horn arranger, and producer, and truly one of the most badass singers any of us will ever be lucky to hear.
Some of my favorite memories will always be of Willie and the Bees’ gigs right there at the Cabooze and the Joint, with my brother Steve at the soundboard and hanging with some of the best musicians. Many of you are there tonight. Still one of the finest, funkiest music scenes in America. I’m so grateful to have known Willie. May we continue to celebrate him in the music we play, the shit we don’t take, and the promises to keep the music as funky as it is real. We’ll miss you, Will. Have a great party today in his honor and play one for me. I send my love to all of you.”
[“Winging It” by Lazerbeak]
Andrea Swensson: The Current Rewind is produced by Cecilia Johnson. Michaelangelo Matos is our writer, Marisa Gonzalez Morseth is our research assistant, and Brett Baldwin is our managing producer. Our theme music is “Winging It” by Lazerbeak from the album Luther. Johnny Vince Evans mastered this episode.
Thanks to our guests: Eugene Hoffman, Maurice Jacox, Cyn Collins, Spider John Koerner, Jewly Hight, and Freebo. Thanks to Folk Alley and Bonnie Raitt for giving us permission to use archived interview audio, and thanks to Willie Murphy for all the music. Blues musician Paul Metsa and the team at the Westonka Historical Society also provided valuable insight for this episode.
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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current.