By MICHAEL GRANBERRY
In the midst of soaring unemployment, an economic meltdown and two wars, there is no better time to sing the blues.
And there is nobody better to sing them than Bonnie Raitt, whose flaming red hair, searing vocals and ferocious slide guitar will fill the stage of Meyerson Symphony Center tonight.
At 59, Raitt remains a political activist and a gifted interpreter of such knockout ballads as “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” But when it comes to the blues, the white girl from California proved long ago that she could groove with the best.
“Rock ‘n’ roll’s roots are in the blues,” says Raitt, a 2000 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a nine-time Grammy winner. “So for me, there was not that big a leap between Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. I got my first taste of the blues on a Vanguard album I was given as a kid that had on it everybody from Mississippi John Hurt to the Rev. Gary Davis to John Hammond to John Lee Hooker to Brownie McGee to Sonny Terry. They were all on that album. I had never heard anything like it.”
Born in Burbank, Calif., Raitt grew up in suburban Los Angeles as the daughter of John Raitt, a musical theater star on Broadway, and Marjorie Haydock, a gifted pianist. But despite being a West Coast child of the 1960s, she was never a devotee of the Beach Boys or any other surf music.
“I dug it, but that wasn’t where I lived,” she says by phone from her home, 15 minutes north of San Francisco. “I loved Motown. I loved soul music. Having said that, I also loved my dad’s music.”
She shared show tunes with her late father on his 1995 album, Broadway Legend. It came at a pivotal moment of Raitt’s career. After being dumped by her original label, Warner Bros., she switched to Capitol Records and recorded Nick of Time, the 1989 breakout album that changed her career. Platinum success continued with Luck of the Draw in 1991 and Longing in Their Hearts in 1994.
It took years to get there, though Raitt had won over music connoisseurs long before that, putting her unique stamp on such songs as Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell.”
Music began to envelop her life after she enrolled in Radcliffe College in 1967 and became a “stone social activist, majoring in social relations and political action.” She soon found herself immersed in the East Coast blues scene, playing folk and R&B clubs in the Boston area, alongside legends such as Howlin’ Wolf, Sippie Wallace and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
“I only did it to make a little money,” she says. “I had no idea how much fun it would be.”
Before long, she was opening for McDowell, John Hammond, Taj Mahal and James Taylor, which meant her days in the shadow of Harvard Square were over.
“Once you’ve seen Paree,” she says, “you can’t go back to the farm.”
Raitt fondly remembers a 1974 concert at McFarlin Auditorium at Southern Methodist University, where she opened for Jackson Browne during his Late for the Sky tour.
“My first national tour,” she says. “Fifty cities. Both bands on one bus. One girl and 13 guys. Oh, yeah, it was great.”
These days, she’s proud of the fact that any new album consists of “the 12 songs that move me the most at the time.” She revels in having “really great collaborators in my songwriter friends and in my band.” She loves mixing styles, from African, reggae and Celtic to heartbreak ballads to, of course, where she really lives – the blues.
“One of my great joys is putting Richard Thompson next to a Jackson Browne song, next to Howlin’ Wolf, next to Sippie Wallace and then one of my own,” she says. “I look hard to find songwriters who are saying something that’s original and fresh that really speaks to whatever direction I want to go in musically.”
Source: © Copyright The Dallas Morning News