In 1971 The Cellar Door, a nightclub in Washington DC, was on a roll, discovering and booking fresh new musical talent virtually every week. That year alone The Eagles had made their first public appearance at “The Door;” Emmy Lou Harris had been “discovered” at The Door; Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert had written and performed Country Roads with John Denver at The Door and their song was a breakout national hit.
As the year was winding down, all of us working at The Cellar Door were energized. We felt like we were living on the leading edge of the music scene and wondering who Jack Boyle (who owned the club and booked all the talent) would bring in next. It was a heady time, and we were not disappointed when Jack announced that he had booked John Prine for the week of November 8th. John had been recently been discovered by Kris Kristofferson and released his first album to critical acclaim, not to mention ours. Being located in DC had turned us all onto the country and folk music scene, and The Cellar Door was a premier venue for country artists in those days. After Jack had finished briefing us on the schedule for the month one of the waiters, Dave “The Dude” Sless (now a professional sound engineer in Washington DC) pointed out that we had missed the biggest news of all: Bonnie Raitt was opening for John Prine. We all looked at each other and shrugged. The truth is none of us had a clue who she was. Dave stood up, and proclaimed, “Bonnie is going to blow John Prine right off the stage,” waving his arm across the room for emphasis. We’d seen a lot of talented musicians over the year, so Dave’s proclamation set a pretty high expectation. Two weeks later we met Bonnie.
She showed up early Monday afternoon for the stage setup and sound check with a single back up musician, a bass player who went by the name of “Freebo.” None of us ever learned his real name, but he was a very talented musician and had a seemingly endless supply of hashish. He became very popular with the waiters very quickly.
I’ve met musicians with egos, musicians with an attitude and musicians who were just “plain folk.” Bonnie turned out to be something special; probably one of the most sincere, genuine people I’ve ever met. She was sweet, soft spoken and funny. She played a mean guitar and sang with conviction. Her most remarkable trait was simply paying attention to you and making you feel like she really cared about you and what you had to say. I can say this with some conviction, Bonnie is a “real” person, and she cares deeply about the people and world around her.
By the end of the afternoon we’d had a preview of her songbook and were excited and impressed with what we’d heard. Oh, and we were all in love with her, and looking forward to her first show that evening at 7:00 PM, which is when Freebo let it slip that today, the 8th, was her 21st birthday.
After the show that night the waiters, the cook and I conspired with Freebo and planned a surprise party for her the next night. Most of us were working our way through college so we had classes to contend with but we managed to get everything pulled together in time. By four o’clock we were at work in the Cellar Door’s modest kitchen (this was not a club known for its food) whipping up a vegetarian birthday buffet for Bonnie. It was one of those meals where everybody cooked something they loved; for me it was stuffed mushrooms; one of the waiters whipped up some baked zucchini, one of our doormen made a pasta dish and a couple of the waiters actually baked a birthday cake with vanilla frosting. Amazing what a bunch of college boys can do in a pinch.
Freebo somehow delivered Bonnie to the dressing room a couple of hours early where we had assembled most of the waiters, doormen, the assistants, even the club accountant. When Bonnie walked in we all yelled “surprise” and started singing Happy Birthday. She put her hands to her face, bent over a little and then came up with a huge smile. We spent the rest of the afternoon just eating, talking and getting to know this lovely, talented woman. That evening, during the first show she told the crowd what had happened and dedicated a song to us. I think the birthday party may have been the high point of the week for Bonnie. John Prine’s audiences were more folk and country oriented, and Bonnie was singing the blues at that point in her career. The audience was receptive, and sometimes enthusiastic, but they were really there for John. Dude’s prediction wasn’t far from the mark for us though; Bonnie blew us away with her music and her personal warmth.
Harry Viens, a former advertising executive and author of the novel Virgin Logic resides in New Hartford, Connecticut and is currently writing a novel about his years at The Cellar Door. He can reached through www.HarryViens.com.