DON’T LET her looks fool you. Behind that golden-haired, dimpled face lurks a lusty, rowdy blues mama. So what if she went to Radcliffe, her heart is in the Mississippi delta.
Bonnie Raitt, 23, is the living incarnation of the lady blues singers of the ’20s and ’30s; the Memphis Minnies that could play and sing the pants off their male counterparts.
For some reason — no blues scholars can satisfactorily explain why female blues singers have slipped entirely out of the music. Once women like Big Maybelle, Chippie Hill, Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey and, of course, Bessie Smith were staples in the blues world. But since World War II few women even recorded, let alone had much of an impact in the blues market.
“I JUST had a career dumped in my lap,” Miss Raitt said simply. “I fill a vacuum — there aren’t any chicks singing blues.”
Her two Warners albums have met critical acclaim and the second is stealthily climbing the charts. Bonnie, born to a show biz family, is aware and cautious of the pitfalls of stardom.
“I don’t want to be a star,” she said, straightforward. “The music business works to make you a star and I don’t want any part of that. I’ve seen the whole trip.”
Her father, John Raitt, has led a successful career singing in musical comedies as long as she can remember. Her father’s profession, however, had no influence on her blues singing.
Her interest in blues and bottleneck guitar playing began academically and developed into a professional casually. All the time she was at Radcliffe, she thought she would be going into African Studies.
One summer vacation she played a few folk clubs, just for the extra money, and on returning to school, found her interest in studies had met a serious decline. She began working, off and on, as opening act at folk clubs around the eastern seaboard and only decided to record when the clubs told her they needed recording acts to open. Like it or not, she had to record.
She chose Warners because they guaranteed her complete artistic control.
BONNIE CAME to the blues through a route that has to be a modern classic. Raised in Los Angeles, her liberal parents placed her in a semi-Bohemian summer camp while they toured in summer stock circuits. There she discovered folk music of the early sixties: Bob Dylan, John Hammond, Dave Van Ronk.
“I wanted to be a beatnik,” she said of growing up in L A. “and all my friends were going to beach parties.”
Broadway beckoned her father and the whole family moved east. There she attended a progressive private school and went on to Radcliffe. (“I thought Cambridge would be the hippest place to go.”
“In Cambridge,” she said, “everyone had their intellectual pretensions. Mine was my blues record collection and being able to play every single Charlie Patton lick.”
Bonnie seems earnest in her desire to expose the past masters artists she admires and to that effect has jammed at the Philadelphia Folk Festival with Mississippi Fred McDowell and brought aging Sippie Wallace out of retirement to join her at last year’s Ann Arbor Blues Festival. She hopes to use any influence she may gain to get “people on the bill who ordinarily aren’t commercial enough.”
She refers to her “socialist orientation” when explaining she would like to see promoters charge less for concerts.
“I’m not a flaming, uncompromising radical,” she said, “I don’t want to play on bills with some folk singer who plays ‘500 Miles’ all his life.
“I’m sorta hoping I don’t have a hit record. People like Don McLean and even James Taylor get bad reviews now. I want my following based on years and years of live performances.
“I’m not that good. Or rather, I’m not that excited about what I do. But it’s fun. Like getting paid for having a party every night.
“I just want to keep going so I can get messed up every night for the next 20 years.”