by Brian Miller
Bonnie Raitt’s self-titled 1971 debut album showed more than promise: why she’s now one of the top female blues/roots artists was evident in every track.
She’s been called the best slide guitar player alive today. She’s been hailed as one of the top 25 blues artists of the past fifty years and she’s still going strong today. Folk singer, blues/roots performer, rock and roller, ballad weeper: Bonnie Raitt has seen it all and done it all. She put out several great records in the 1970s and became a critic’s darling (this means, folks, she barely sold any albums at all). She fell into alcoholism as well as drug abuse and then resurrected herself with political activism and a series of stunning albums beginning with Nick of Time in 1989 which she has called “my first sober album”.
She has received ten Grammy Awards. She is also listed as number 50 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and number 89 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. In a few weeks time (on November 8th) she will be 64 years old. She was twenty-one when she released her first record in 1971. It was a rather quiet affair, considering her musical heritage, but Bonnie was going her own way: the way of the blues. In retrospect, her first album showed us everything she was going to be. We, the record-buying audience, were damned slow on the uptake.
Bonnie was born into one of the most eminent musical households in America: her father was the famous Broadway singer/actor John Raitt, who had starred as the original Billy Bigelow in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel and as Curly in Oklahama!. Her mother, Marjorie Haydock, was an accomplished pianist. The marriage didn’t last. John Raitt went on to bigger fame as the singer of the hit ballad ‘Hey There’ from the perennially revived The Pyjama Game. He possessed both extraordinary good looks and a smashing baritone that stayed on the beat, as Broadway material is wont to do. He had a voice that lasted and it led him to perform with his daughter Bonnie in his later years. His final recording, John Raitt Broadway Legend, earned him a 1996 Grammy Award nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal.
Their vocal styles couldn’t have been farther apart: she constantly plays with the beat, and is capable of delivering nasty blues as well as shimmering tearjerkers whereas her father was kind of a square singer, the kind in which Broadway revels. What they had in common was talent: loads of musical talent that has always been evident, even when Bonnie indulged in substances that, well, loosened her performances. Blues became the most natural thing in the world for her. She had to fight her way back to sobriety and to straight singing. Check out her duet below with Richard Thompson on his brilliant song ‘The Dimming of The Day’.
“I was always drawn to the blues. Alberta Hunter at the Cookery was a life-changing experience. I only wanted to get enriched as a performer as I got older, to have an audience which got older, too, and would come to see me when I’m 80. And I didn’t have a legit trained voice. My love was Bob Dylan. But as I got older I realized a good ballad was a good ballad.” ~ Bonnie Raitt
Which brings us back to 1971 and Bonnie’s first record. Bonnie grew up in California in a Quaker household, but graduated from Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1967. She entered Radcliffe College majoring in social relations and African studies. While there she became a serious fan of folk music, and of jug bands, particularly Jim Kweskin. She also fell in love with the music of blues artists such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and began a fierce regimen of practicing slide guitar. Remember, if you will, that at the time very few white women performed the blues, and almost no band employed a young white girl as a lead guitar player. White female folk singers were a dime a dozen, among them of course Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, the incomparable Joni Mitchell, the well-established Judy Collins and Joan Baez, and Sylvia Tyson who had split from her husband Ian. But the blues? No one, nada, considering that Janis Joplin had already passed on. Even Janis’s success was based primarily on the fact that her record sales came from Woodstock-type rock fans.But wait, there's more!