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Classic Tracks: Bonnie Raitt’s “Thing Called Love”

on April 1, 2011 No comments

By Blair Jackson

When I call engineer extraordinaire Ed Cherney about the recording of Bonnie Raitt’s commercial breakthrough, “Thing Called Love,” the first thing he says is, “Isn’t that a little recent for a ‘Classic Track’?”

“Dude,” I said, “it was recorded 22 years ago!” He got a laugh out of that; it does seem like it was just yesterday in some ways. But it was cut in 1989 and was a keystone of her album Nick of Time, which won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1990 and sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. alone.

Bonnie Raitt and Ed Cherney discussing the album’s direction with producer Don Was (far-right) © Mr. Bonzai

Raitt’s success was a long time coming. The daughter of Broadway singer John Raitt, Bonnie Raitt started playing guitar at an early age, but didn’t turn serious about music until she was living in Cambridge, Mass., and going to Radcliffe College (Harvard’s all-girl “sister” school) in the late ’60s. It was in Boston that she met and befriended Dick Waterman, who had been deeply involved in the early ’60s Cambridge folk scene and “blues revival,” putting on shows by recently rediscovered bluesmen like Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt, personally “finding” the long-retired Delta singer Son House (in Rochester, N.Y., of all places) and later starting a booking agency that handled those three and such greats as Skip James, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Boy Crudup. Raitt immersed herself in the blues, learning what she could from these living legends, and soon was opening for them on occasion. With a powerful voice that could be gritty one second, delicate the next, and serious guitar chops (especially on slide), the beautiful redhead was a striking and different artist, interpreting traditional blues and folk in her own way.

She dropped out of college to devote herself to music full-time, and by 1970 had been signed by Warner Bros. Records. Her self-titled debut came out in 1971 and was a critical success, if not a commercial triumph. It, and her next album, Give It Up, established a formula of sorts, offering a mixture of blues by the likes of Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace; tunes by up-and-coming songwriters such as Jackson Browne, Chris Smither and Eric Kaz; and a sprinkling of a couple of her own compositions in the mix. Later albums championed writers like John Prine (“Angel From Montgomery” was an FM favorite), J.D. Souther, Karla Bonoff and many others, and she earned a reputation as a truly dynamic and personable live performer, as well. From her earliest days, she was politically active, giving her time and energy to many causes. Her first minor hit was a bluesy reading of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” in 1977 (on Sweet Forgiveness), but she was unable to follow it up to Warner’s satisfaction, and in late 1983, Warner Bros. abruptly dropped her (along with several other “prestige” acts), even though she had recently completed an album at tremendous expense.

Raitt says this was a particularly low time for her and that both her health and personal life were in bad shape, but during the next couple of years, she managed to pull everything together, and she continued to tour successfully and play a number of major benefits. Raitt signed with Capitol Records in late 1988 and was soon in Ocean Way (L.A.) Studio 2 working with producer Don Was and engineer Cherney on Nick of Time. She had met Was—who was leader of the quirky but cool band Was (Not Was), and branched into production with albums by Carly Simon and The B-52s—when he produced a version of Raitt singing “Baby Mine” from the film Dumbo for the hip 1988 album of Disney film song remakes called Stay Awake. Nick of Time marked the first time Cherney worked with either of them, and it proved to be a turning point in his career.

Cherney had cut his teeth as an assistant engineer for Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien (among others), but by the early ’80s was mostly recording and mixing jingles, which he says gave him invaluable experience working fast and in different music styles. He landed a Delco car-battery spot featuring music by Ry Cooder, which led to recording and mixing Cooder’s entire Get Rhythm album. Cherney followed that with a disc for Cooder’s buddy David Lindley, the superb Linda Ronstadt–produced Very Greasy. “I knew that Bonnie was going to be doing a record,” Cherney recalls. “I’d been a big fan of hers for a long time, and at that point, having done Cooder and Lindley, I was really into slide guitar and also listening to a lot of blues. So I lobbied everyone I knew that knew Bonnie and pleaded with them to tell her that I was the perfect guy for her.” Evidently, Cherney’s plot was successful because he soon got a call from Was and, after a lunch with him and Raitt, landed the gig. “We laughed the whole meeting and I just fell in love with both of them,” Cherney says.

This month’s “Classic Track,” “Thing Called Love,” was written by John Hiatt and originally appeared on one of his most popular album, the 1987 Bring the Family (which featured Cooder on guitar). Joining Raitt at Ocean Way for her version of the driving rocker was her regular touring band at the time: bassist Hutch Hutchinson, drummer Ricky Fataar and guitarist/harmony singer Johnny Lee Schell (augmented by Tony Braunagel on percussion). The Nick of Time album in general is more stripped down and economical than some of Raitt’s previous efforts, which frequently featured dozens of different players and singers, and “Thing Called Love” really feels like a small band just playing—which is what it is, Cherney says.

“It was live in the studio,” he says. “As I listen now, I remember we overdubbed Tony’s percussion. But I’m sure the vocal take was a combination of live and maybe a couple of overdubs from other passes at it. Bonnie liked to sing and play out in the room with the band. I think the first time we set up to cut, I put her in a booth and it just didn’t swing and she wanted to be out there. So that’s when I discovered [Shure] SM7s and [Electro-Voice] RE-20s on her vocal. The RE-20, in particular, was pretty clear-sounding and it resembled a large-diaphragm condenser microphone in a lot of ways, but it’s got incredible rear and side rejection so you could put her in the room with the band and not have to even put baffles around her, though I think I did probably put one up. But she could be with the musicians, and everyone could feed off each other, hear each other, see each other. And when you’re close to the drums, you feel the drums and I think you sing and play a different way, rather than being isolated in a booth somewhere.

“Johnny [Lee Schell] was out in the room, too, and I put some goboes around him because he was playing acoustic guitar. I probably used an [AKG] 452 on him; that’s really directional. He did his harmony vocal right after that and it was easy; he’d been singing with her forever, and that kind of harmony is part of his DNA so it was no problem. But a lot of Bonnie’s vocals on this record were for the most part live.”

For Fataar’s drums, “I had [AKG] C-12s overhead and probably a [Shure] 57 on the snare with a [Sennheiser] 441 underneath. At that time, I’d just gotten these B&K 4011 microphones and I’m sure I had that on the hi-hat. For toms I might have been using C-12As, and the kick drum was probably a [Neumann] FET 47 and a [Sennheiser] 421. I had [Neumann] M50s up in the room fairly wide, and I ended up not using much of them. But I do remember I had a [Neumann] 87 in omni about 10 feet in front of the drums, about six feet high, and I compressed [with a Fairchild] and EQ’d the heck out of that. That was what we used for drum ambience.” Hutch’s bass was recorded with a DI and a FET 47 on the amp, probably without any EQ or compression; Raitt’s slide, which she also played live on that track, had a 57 close on the amp and an AKG 414 “back off it a little.” Nick of Time was recorded analog on an Ampex ATR-124 machine through a 40-channel custom Neve RCA 8028 console, “one of only two built with Class-A discrete electronics.”

The album was mixed at the Record Plant in what was then called Studio 4 (now SSL 4) on a Neve VR. “A bunch of the songs on that record were pretty easy to mix, but I struggled with ‘Thing Called Love’ a bit,” Cherney reflects. “I think I went back to it probably three times. It needed to sound real and organic, but it also needed to stand up and kick you in the ass. Bonnie and Don were patient while I tore my hair out until I felt I had it nailed.” He used minimal effects: “Some slap on Bonnie and on Johnny Lee, and then a couple of the plates at Ocean Way. I probably used two EMT 140s—one short and bright, and one with a 2-second decay with probably 120 ms in front of it.”

The finished track simmers with a rawness and intensity that fits Raitt’s voice and slide guitar perfectly. Though not a smash hit in the sense of being a successful single, “Thing Called Love” was gobbled up by FM radio across the country (it reached Number 11 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks charts) and was an immensely popular video on the still-rising VH-1 network—having Dennis Quaid at his cutest in that video no doubt helped. Buoyed further by the success of Raitt’s moving, self-written ballad “Nick of Time,” the album quickly became the artist’s biggest seller by far and really went into the stratosphere when it won three Grammys (Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Performance Female and Best Rock Vocal Performance Female)—it hit Number One right after that. It was, Cherney says, “life-changing.”

Raitt, Was and Cherney would have even more success with the 1991 album Luck of the Draw (which contained the smash “Something to Talk About”) and enjoy a three-peat with Longing In Their Hearts, which hit Number One in 1994. Was and Cherney won individual production and engineering Grammys, respectively, for their work that year. The duo’s productive partnership also included albums with Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Neil Diamond, Bob Seger and the Rolling Stones. Raitt has reduced her output in recent years and tours less frequently, but still can be counted on to make fine albums, put together a first-rate band and show up when a good cause needs a helping hand.


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Taking the torch from Janis: Bonnie Raitt – Bonnie Raitt, 1971

on June 12, 2009 No comments

by Zach Zwagil
June 12, 2009

Following the 1970 deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, modern blues had suffered immeasurable loss. Furthermore, with the end of Cream in 1969, popularized blues forms were severely lacking, especially amongst the females, who had mostly established themselves in pop soul, the softer side of folk rock, and early a.m. pop. So, in comes a young Bonnie Raitt to keep her beloved blues alive, and to show the white girls how it’s done.

In 1971, Bonnie Raitt released her eponymous debut album, Bonnie Raitt, ensuring her a place amongst the best of the 70s.

This was not the psychedelic electric blues of her aforementioned brethren. This was a return to roots with a hint of the smoothness of the 70s. The wailing of the electric guitar is replaced with honky tonk piano, rustic down home acoustic guitar, swampy harmonica, and sex-infused horn blasts. What you get is the feeling of a late night stroll down Bourbon Street and a chance stumbling into a blues club full of perfectly greasy sleaze and southern fried attitude.

The album begins with “Bluebird”, a song Stephen Stills wrote for his Buffalo Springfield’s Buffalo Springfield Again from 1967. The track’s unpolished blues band intro screams of the 1950s Chess era. Raitt’s vocal is first heard and immediately apparent is how well-studied she is in the blues tradition. Her inflections are appropriate, unpretentious, and deep from the pit of her gut – much unlike the average modern R&B run. At halfway, we are presented with a combo of scat singing and lustful horn drives, perfectly accenting the melody.

Tradition is renewed on the Ray Charles-style “Mighty Tight Woman”, with its 12-bar piano blues shuffle. Written in 1926 by the early feminist blues singer Sippie Wallace, the absolutely sleazy yet heartfelt lyricism of “If you’re a married man/You ain’t got no business here/Cause when you’re out with me/I might make your little wife shed a tear/Cause I’m a mighty tight woman/There ain’t nothing, nothing that I fear” is accompanied by a piano-acoustic guitar interlude later joined by deep Delta-derived harmonica. Raitt’s vocal is pure seduction, leaving little to the imagination; yet, no one’s complaining and no one should.

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Home Plate (Warner Bros.)

on November 10, 1975 No comments

Penny ValentineSounds, November 1975

BONNIE RAITT is an intriguing talent, firmly rooted in the music of men like Otis Rush and Fred McDowell whom she met and worked with in her late teens.

She has an inherent quality in her voice, in her interpretation of a song, not just admirably suited to contemporary blues but ready to give them the kind of fearless personal exposure and involvement that has made me regard her as a walking miracle. Aside from that she is also an excellent musician – playing acoustic, electric and bottleneck with power and fire. You will have noted that where Bonnie Raitt moves I follow lauding – though not, I hope, blinded.

So far she has been an inconsistent album talent, switching producers over five sets – the best still being Taking My Time put together by John Hall with Lowell George’s spirited ear never too far away – yet never hitting the market as a viable commercial entity. After the last minor disaster Streetlights with Jerry Ragavoy, Bonnie Raitt was set to cut this next album in an optimistic mood. She’d just completed a sell-out US tour with her fine band – Freebo, Will McFarlane, Dennis Whitted and Jai Winding; she was going into the studios with Paul Rothchild whose previous struts included Paul Butterfield sessions. So far so good. She felt the album would be ‘nice, bluesy, kind of backyard music.’

Well it ain’t. Unless Ms Raitt’s backyard is a less exciting place than I’d imagined. Home Plate certainly isn’t a bad album in the general sense of the word. I suspect some people will even consider it her best so far and others will put it on as background music and settle in to it quite happily. It may even sell more than the others. But far from giving Raitt the kind of sympathetic kick that Hall gave her for Time, Rothchild seems to have been more concerned with turning her into an all-round attractive vocalist. Now this is what Bonnie isn’t. She is not one of the hundred good LA backup singers. She works best on material that gives her room to manoeuvre and feel her way in, she needs a challenge. Give her a selection of songs she can sing in her bath and she’ll turn in a competent but unstartling performance. Give her arrangements that are heavy with strings, fussy, groaning under the weight of backing vocals mixed to the front – however impressive the list may be, with Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris and Jackson Browne – and she stops bruising herself on the songs. And that’s what Rothchild has done. (If he did it with Ms Raitt’s blessing so much the worse.)

A lot of songs here are lightweight anyway – Toussaint’s ‘What’s The Boy To Do’, simply pleasant when it could have been liberated (she said she’d do a boy’s blues one day); the Halls’ ‘Good Enough’, springy when it could have been chunky; ‘Walk Out The Front Door’, unmemorable. ‘Pleasin’ Each Other’ with Jerry Jumonville’s sax solo and Souther’s ‘Run Like A Thief’, with Will McFarlane’s guitar run only to be ruined by the dreadful intrusion of the backup, come close. But the nearest she comes to getting down are on Nan Byrne’s Rabelaisian ‘Sweet & Shine Eyes’; Kin Vassy’s struggling ‘My First Night Alone Without You’, and ‘Sugar Mama’ where Bonnie plays her one and only guitar break on slide alongside Hall’s lead and the result makes you long for more.

Home Plate is a bland uneventful album – a musical marshmallow tied up with too much blue ribbon. There’s no fine intelligence overseeing it. Raitt is an honest, awkward, sometimes brilliant artist yet to realise her full potential. Rothchild has managed to make her sound bland, has knocked all the black and blue out of her voice, made her a nice white lady. I’m off to play Taking My Time.

 

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