What comes to mind when you hear the word “Diva”? We’ve found that it’s a word that can go both ways—as praise for an accomplished and magnetic performer, or as a put-down to someone seen as pompous or high-strung. We’re singing divas’ praises while also exploring the term’s various connotations through music and interviews from high-minded women with conflicting views on the word: Bonnie Raitt, the late Abbey Lincoln, Norah Jones, and New Orleans Gospel Diva, Cynthia Girtley.
Me and My Chauffeur Blues
Four Women Blues, BMG
I’m A Mighty Tight Woman
The Johnny Dodds Collection 1923-29, Acrobat
Sippie Wallace was definitely an inspiration to Bonnie Raitt. In the 1970’s, Bonnie sought out the elderly singer in Detroit, and they sang together at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Back then, Bonnie was just starting out as a guitarist and singer, recording a string of LPs that mixed new tunes with classic blues women’s songs. After 20 years in the biz, Bonnie topped the pop charts in her early 40s with the album “Nick of Time.” Since then, she’s continued to release great records and stay out on the road. It’s a work ethic she inherited from a musical family in southern California.
American Routes - I am (not) a Diva (2002)
American Routes - I am (not) a Diva (2002)
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Bonnie Raitt: Well I come from a very musical family, my mom has a degree–a Master’s in music–and she was my dad’s accompanist and music director. My dad of course is John Raitt, the Broadway star of Carousel and Pajama Game. He toured and did concerts during my whole childhood and is in fact still out on the road at 85. But I really fell in love with Folk music, which was really kind of the music of my day, by going to camp, summer camp. Fell in love with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. And that’s why I picked up the guitar, was folk music.
Nick Spitzer: I wonder in all this world of music you came up through, how did you really get directly exposed to some of the blues performers that influenced you and you appeared with on stage later as time passed? I mean, you don’t necessarily meet Fred McDowell or Junior Wells unless you …
BR: Oh yeah, it was incredible luck. I mean because I was going to Harvard and there was a very terrific radio station, great blues show, and I used to listen to it all the time when I was studying. My friend Jack Fretell, who was also a Blues hound, he called me up and he said “You know, the guy that manages Son House lives in Cambridge, and he hangs out at the Club 47 all the time.” And Son was doing an interview on WHRB, and he says, “If you want, we could go up to Dick’s house and meet him.”
NS: This is Dick Waterman’s house?”
BR: Dick Waterman! And I mean, how lucky is that for somebody that said, “Let’s go hang out.” I went to his house and I met Son, and through Dick I met all of the people he managed – the great Skip James, Big Boy Arthur Crudup, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, then Magic Sam. And then my life kind of escalated because at that point, I just happened to be everybody’s cheapest, most versatile opening act because I could carry my own guitar, I didn’t need a band, didn’t care about being a star, or getting paid a lot. And I just happened to know somebody that booked all these blues acts. Hey, would you have gone back for your senior year when you could have that?
BR: It was actually quite awkward in the mid 70’s when my fame eclipsed theirs. I said, well the person I really want to play with is Muddy Waters. But for me at 25 to have to look into his eyes and say, “Well, I think I have to headline.” That was a painful lesson in sociology when white blues artists become more financially viable in this culture than the originals sometimes.
NS: How about the classic Blues women, on some of the early recordings you did the Sippie Wallace song and a few other things.
BR: Well I didn’t get to know too– most of the old classic blues artists had passed away. And so Sippie, I got to meet Sippie Wallace, and she was the one that I really would have to say I was the closest to. And I really didn’t know she was alive until right before I played the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. I found out that she was living in Detroit, and I said I would play the festival if I can bring Sippie Wallace out. And that’s a great story because she didn’t want to play any more blues because she was in the church. And like a lot of older black blues artists, they feel like if they’re getting health problems they better start getting right with God. And then she heard me practicing “Women Be Wise” from my first album in the trailer before I went on stage and she started to just strut a little, go “Well maybe I’ll do just one tune with you.” And that was it.
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