As she wins a lifetime achievement Grammy at 72, the US singer who crossed blues with pop is still determined to support artists who never got their dues
Bonnie Raitt’s story begins in a childhood bedroom in Burbank, California. By 16, she had already taught herself the guitar by listening to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Now, the Newport folk scene was turning her on to Muddy Waters, John Hammond Jr and Robert Johnson – and to the bewitching sound of the slide guitar. She soaked the label off a medicine bottle, placed her middle finger inside the glass and started to play.
“I’m just one more kid who learned how to play the blues from being a fan,” the 72-year-old tells me on a video call from her home in northern California. It is a modest statement for the first woman to have a Fender guitar launched in her honour. On Sunday, Raitt will receive a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys – a far cry from her DIY beginnings in the mid-60s, and a long overdue accolade. “My gameplan was just to follow my blues and jazz exemplars. Stay true to your art, do the best shows you can, keep going, don’t worry about commercial success, and when you’re 70 years old people will still want to come and see you,” she says.
This self-determination has come to define Raitt’s life and work. She first dazzled the critics in 1971, when she was just 21.Her self-assured debut album, Bonnie Raitt, was followed by six more before the decade was through. The 80s, however, would challenge the singer, who was tussling not only with her label’s commercial expectations, but also with alcohol and drugs, too. In 1983, she was dropped, her ninth album shelved. In spite of the odds, she toured anyway, scaling the band down to just her and a bass guitarist. A few more years passed. Warner Brothers forced her to release the album they had scrapped in 1986. She called it Nine Lives; it is a deeply painful record that she describes as “a sputter of a bad relationship”.
Raitt joined a recovery programme in 1987: “I recognised that I had been in the grips of an increasing addiction, reliant on drugs and alcohol to numb my feelings.” Her 10th album, Nick of Time, was her first made sober – and her first No 1. Luck of the Draw swiftly followed, featuring the pensive ballad I Can’t Make You Love Me, written by Mike Read and Allen Shamblin and later covered by George Michael and Adele.
The album sold 7m copies in the US alone. It was a turning point that Raitt calls her “Cinderella moment” – not because she courted fame and fortune, but because its success enabled her to invest in social activism causes such as the Rhythm & Blues Foundation (dedicated to assisting artists) and Musicians United for Safe Energy, founded by Raitt, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and John Hall. “When I became a hit artist for a minute, I could really raise money and attention in a way that I couldn’t before,” she says. “It gave me clout and freedom and security – and at 40 that was something, along with sobriety, that were four of the greatest gifts I could’ve gotten.”
Granted, Raitt hasn’t always been a Grammy-winning artist, but that doesn’t negate the years that preceded Nick of Time. “I was never unsuccessful in the 70s and 80s,” she says, reframing the narrative. “When I started out, I didn’t want to come off the road, I didn’t want to marry and have kids, I loved the Gypsy life and I loved playing.”
“Someone like me…can get some health insurance for these legends who populate your record shelves”
Listen to any one of her 17 studio albums and you will hear this devotion in action, from the country croons of Under the Falling Sky, written by Browne, to the storytelling prowess of Angel from Montgomery, a song of longing by John Prine that Raitt transformed adroitly into a soaring anthem. Whether it is songs by Allen Toussaint or Richard Thompson, Calypso Rose or Eddy Grant – no stone is left unturned.
“Thank goodness I come from the generation of Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, where they performed other people’s songs and did it in their own way,” Raitt says. Her unquestionable gift is the way she can interpret and reimagine music intuitively, motivated by a desire to find stories. Searching for the right song is what motivates Raitt, she says. It can make her sleep less, too. “One moment, you’re listening to some obscure Charles Brown recording from the 1949 sessions that you’ve never heard before; the next thing you know, it’s four hours later and you haven’t brushed your teeth,” she says, laughing.
As a girl growing up in the 80s, I say, I used her early records as a conduit to artists I hadn’t yet discovered. Blues musicians such as Mississippi Fred McDowell (a master of the slide guitar, whose playing captivated Raitt as a college student in Cambridge, Massachusetts) and Sippie Wallace, a star of the 20s jazz scene in Chicago. “She wasn’t just a fantastic piano player: most people don’t know she wrote many of her own songs,” Raitt says.
She loved her attitude, especially as a young feminist. Raitt draws my attention to a particular Wallace line, putting on her best drawl. “You can make me do what you wanna do, but you got to know howwwww,”she teases. “That’s such a good way of wagging your finger and talking about what you want sexually.”
When she discovered Wallace in 1968 at Dobells record store on Charing Cross Road in London, she had no idea that by recording three songs – Mighty Tight Woman, Women Be Wise and You Got to Know How – she would reintroduce Wallace to a new audience. She also had no idea that Wallace was still alive and singing gospel in Detroit. “I begged her to come out to the Ann Arbor blues festival in 1972 and we sang Women Be Wise in the backstage trailer.” They toured together for 15 years until Wallace died in 1986.
Raitt’s great mission is to showcase underappreciated artists, she says – and that includes the R&B musicians who never got paid for their original recordings. “Someone like me can bring attention to the fact that recording contracts weren’t fair back then, and ask for contributions to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, so we can get some health insurance for these legends who populate your record shelves,” she says.
Her mastery of the guitar once prompted BB King to call Raitt the “best damn slide player working today”. “There were more people around doing great blues guitar,” Raitt says, with typical humility. Shine a light on her accomplishments and she will be quick to turn to those of others. From the folk greats (“Joan Baez and Odetta were like goddesses to me – they were my Beyoncé”) to her blueswomen contemporaries (“Jo Ann Kelly was a masterof the acoustic blues. And Sister Rosetta Tharpe nailedthe electric guitar. Memphis Minnie was a great role model for me, too”).
As for slide? “I’m glad I got good at it, but it really isn’t that difficult,” she shrugs. “I know I got my foot in the door for being adept at that instrument, but I beg to say I’m not that great at it.” I reply by telling her that I have watched her 1976 Old Grey Whistle Test rendition of McDowell’s Kokomo Blues and I beg to differ.
Next month, Raitt will release Just Like That, her first studio album in six years. As well as continuing to showcase her interpretive skills (Love So Strong is a tribute to Toots and the Maytals’ Toots Hibbert, who died in 2020), it is also a reminder of her songwriting talent, a muscle she flexed from the very beginning, with soulful compositions such as 1971’s Thank You and Finest Lovin’ Man.
There seems to be a lot of love and loss on this record. Living for the Ones is perhaps the most potent example of this, a cruising rock number that belies her grief. “I lost my brother in 2009,” she says. “Every day, when I want to complain about something that didn’t quite work out, I open my eyes and say: I’m living for the ones who didn’t get to make it.” Another “huge loss” for Raitt was the death of Prine from Covid complications in 2020. She had him in mind when she wrote Down the Hall, an introspective acoustic ballad inspired by a New York Times piece she read about a prison hospice programme. It prompts tears as she talks about it. “I just put myself there and created a character, like John Prine did with Angel of Montgomery,” she says.
Her enthusiasm is as boundless as it has ever been, urged onwards by these losses. Next month, she hits the road in the US with the gospel legend Mavis Staples. Suffice to say, she is raring to go after nearly two years of the pandemic. “When I play my first live show, where I hear the audience clap and actually look out there and see real people? I’ve never appreciated doing this more than I do right now.”