CELEBRATING WITH: John and Bonnie Raitt; Like Father, Unlike Daughter

on February 2, 1994 No comments

Published: February 2, 1994

“IS that Bonnie?”

The fan is young, in his mid-20’s, and he looks at Bonnie Raitt, seven-time Grammy winner, as she walks down the street, with love in his eyes and lust in his heart. But who is that with her, that tall, still-dapper white-haired man in the black leather jacket? The fan seems puzzled. It is her father, John Raitt, who was the original Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” on Broadway in 1945 and Sid Sorokin in “The Pajama Game” in 1954, and who last week came to New York to be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. By his daughter.

Jan Clayton (Julie Jordan) and John Raitt (Billy Bigelow) in Carousel (1945)
Jan Clayton (Julie Jordan) and John Raitt (Billy Bigelow) in Carousel (1945)

“I’m partial, but I still think he’s the greatest singer the musical theater ever produced,” Ms. Raitt says, in her father’s suite at the Wyndham Hotel. “He makes the character so believable. To be his daughter and watch him kill himself in ‘Carousel’ was very heavy for me. It was hard to separate. What has stood the test of time is his astounding ability to bring emotion to a song, singing from his soul with this incredible, heroic voice.”

“That’s very nice, Bonnie,” Mr. Raitt says, a little choked up.

“Nobody does it the way you do, Dad. Boohoo, I’m never going to get through this speech tonight,” she says, starting to laugh with nerves over the induction ceremonies at the Gershwin Theater, where the Theater Hall of Fame is housed. “People come up to me all the time who saw Dad in ‘Oklahoma!’ or ‘Pajama Game,’ and they say they’ll never forget it.”

Ms. Raitt’s own career path rarely felt as effortless as her father’s. She dropped out of Radcliffe College in the late 1960’s to pursue her music, and later stubbornly refused to compromise her blues-oriented rock to the industry’s more mainstream standards. And in the mid-1980’s she acknowledged and began to treat an alcohol addiction. Growing up with a dad who epitomized the romantic leading man, squeaky clean and always on the side of right, the two seem a classic in opposites.

But, at 44, Ms. Raitt has found that the world has caught up with her music and then some (her album “Nick of Time” sold four million copies in 1990, and her 1992 “Luck of the Draw” sold five million). She is also happily married to the actor Michael O’Keefe. She has come to celebrate her father today and she means it.

Mr. Raitt, who turned 77 on Saturday, is equally proud of his daughter and seems glad that she can appreciate her old man and his music.

“There’s something great about the intimacy of the legitimate theater,” he says. “I’ve played leading man roles for 54 years — never stopped.”

Ms. Raitt says: “Now he does what we call the white hair roles — ‘Zorba,’ ‘Man of La Mancha,’ ‘Shenandoah.’ Wonderful, philosophical roles that say things right to his age.”

Mr. Raitt has continued to play his larger-than-life characters for the last 25 years or so, primarily in summer stock and touring companies, while Broadway has turned host to Vegas-type spectacles with ensemble casts. He always returns to Southern California, where he has lived all his life and where Bonnie grew up.

“Lunt and Fontanne said if you want longevity, stay off both coasts and play where the people are,” he says. He has been true to his word, even playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” in Ruston, La. Well, that was a stretch, no?

“I wasn’t very good,” he admits.

“I’m sure you sang great,” Ms. Raitt says staunchly. “You did ‘Carousel’ until you were 63.”

Did he ever do ‘The King and I’? He shakes his head.

“The women would have a heart attack if he cut his hair off,” Ms. Raitt says. “My mom packed her suitcase when he cut those curls off for ‘Pajama Game.’ “

“Twenty years ago there were 40 theaters across the country that could afford me,” he says. “Only about 12 are left.” He sighs. “It’s the VCR’s.”

Undaunted, Mr. Raitt still tours a one-man show of his greatest hits and anecdotes, “An Evening With John Raitt,” and this Saturday night he will bring it to the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts.

“At his show,” Ms. Raitt says, “I sit in the audience and watch the women’s necks swooning a little and their husbands all say, ‘It’s not his hair, it’s not his teeth,’ and I say, ‘Oh, yes it is.’ Afterward he’ll sit and sign autographs for anyone who wants them. That lack of a stuck-up attitude has always been inspirational. He’s never snobby about taking theater out to the hinterlands.”

But he’s still competitive. Has he seen the Royal National Theater production of “Carousel,” due to open at the Vivian Beaumont in March, starring Michael Hayden, a 30-year-old actor winning raves for his Billy Bigelow? No, Mr. Raitt says, his eyes as flat as his voice. It seems impossible for him to imagine anyone else in the role. And with good reason.

“When I first came to New York to audition for the national tour of ‘Oklahoma!’ Rodgers and Hammerstein were there,” he says. “I asked to warm up first and sang in English from ‘The Barber of Seville.’ Dick and Oscar later said my doing that prompted the writing of ‘Soliloquy’ in Carousel. They said, ‘He may be our boy for the next show.’ “

Ms. Raitt says: “In the 40’s they made Billy Bigelow bigger than life, but now the reality is that he’s a pretty dysfunctional guy. I could see Al Pacino doing him in the film. I’m waiting for Ziggy Marley to play Billy Bigelow, and then I’ll see it.”

The phone rings. “Flowers coming up,” Mr. Raitt says. “Maybe they’re from the Hall of Fame people.”

“They might be from my husband,” she says.

Actually, they’re from Mary Martin.

“Your star shines bright on this historic day,” the note begins before going on to send love from the actress, who performed a famous television special of “Annie Get Your Gun” with Mr. Raitt in 1957 — and from Gene Kilgore, her secretary. Mr. Raitt doesn’t find it at all remarkable that a woman who died in 1991 has just sent him flowers.

“In my show, I always pay tribute to her,” he says. “An audience couldn’t possibly love her as much as she loved them.”

He points at his daughter. “You know, she got a lovely review from the critic in Boston when we did ‘An Evening at the Pops,’ ” he says, referring to a 1992 concert that was broadcast on PBS. Included in the program were their duets of Ms. Raitt’s “Blowing Away,” and “Hey There” from “The Pajama Game.”

“That man said she could be the next Mary Martin if she wanted to,” Mr. Raitt says.

Ms. Raitt smiles. Clearly, she doesn’t.

“I was always drawn to the blues,” she says. “Alberta Hunter at the Cookery was a life-changing experience. I only wanted to get enriched as a performer as I got older, to have an audience which got older, too, and would come to see me when I’m 80. And I didn’t have a legit trained voice. My love was Bob Dylan. But,” she concedes to her father, “as I got older I realized a good ballad was a good ballad.”

He is considerate in turn. “On the 50th anniversary of ‘Oklahoma!’ last spring I sang the title song on the stage of the St. James before a preview of ‘Tommy.’ I said, ‘Most of you people know me as Bonnie’s father.’ “

Rosemary Raitt comes in from the bedroom. She and Mr. Raitt were college sweethearts but didn’t marry then because she was Catholic and Mr. Raitt was Presbyterian (he later became a Quaker, and a conscientious objector during World War II). He first married Marjorie Haydock, with whom he had Bonnie; her older brother, Steven, who is a sound technician and designer, and her younger brother, David, a musician and builder of yurts, which are Mongolian round houses. After the couple divorced he married Kathleen Landry, and when they divorced, 14 years ago, Mr. Raitt heard from a close friend in his hometown of Santa Ana, Calif., that Rosemary had been widowed.

“Having played Zorba, I believe in grabbing at life,” Mr. Raitt says. “So I called and this lovely voice answered. ‘I’m free now,’ I told her, ‘and coming to dinner.’ First she had the typical woman’s response, that her hair was in curlers. And I said, ‘How long will it take you to get ready?’ And she said 45 minutes. Then I got nervous because the last time she had seen me I was a dark, curly-headed guy.

She was nervous, too, and she said to me, ‘What do you see?’ And I said, ‘The same eyes.’ About two weeks later I brought my suitcases and said ‘I’m spending the rest of my life with you.’ So in 1981 we were married, 41 years later. Bonnie sang one of her songs at our wedding.”

“It was ‘Safe In Your Arms,’ ” Ms. Raitt recalls. “I could hardly get it out.”

He returned the favor by singing “My Heart’s Darling” from the Broadway show “Three Wishes for Jamie” at her wedding in 1991. The memory prompts him to sing a verse right now.

“It stopped the show opening night,” he claims.

“It stopped the wedding, Dad,” she counters.

The first time Ms. Raitt saw her father on stage she was 5 years old. “It was ‘Pajama Game’ on Broadway and I remember being backstage with you and Eddie Foy putting on makeup and running around in your underwear,” she says.

As she speaks, he says, “I never had my kids backstage.”

They laugh. Certainly, after all these years their differences are apparent. But how are they similar?

They both look blank. “Well,” Ms. Raitt finally says, “I think we have the same dedication when it comes to our talent.” He nods. “I don’t want to get another job and neither do you,” she says. “We’ll do anything to keep this gig.”

Of the 1,060 performances of “The Pajama Game” Mr. Raitt played on Broadway, he missed only one, because of laryngitis. Ms. Raitt says that in 22 years she has missed only two shows. “On stage the adrenaline suppresses the illness and you can sing yourself well,” she says. “I’ve got good genes.”

And what was the downside of having a leading-man father who looked so perfect and always did the right thing?

“It was hard to let him be a human being,” she says without hesitation, “and he’d be gone on tour for weeks.” She looks at him, and though his face doesn’t change, in that moment they seem to mutually agree to drop the downside, pronto.

“He was always so athletic, handsome, youthful,” she goes on lightly, “not the stern dad type. He was hipper than other dads, with sideburns, all buff. And we had really cool cars.”

So, on this day of reflection, does he have any regrets?

“No,” he says. “I always held out for quality shows. I am most proud of what I maintained in my career, bringing theater to the people who can’t usually get to see it, without insulting their intelligence.”

“He never sold out for a quick buck,” Ms. Raitt says. “If he did Vegas he would have been a bigger star, but he didn’t want to sing for drunks and hecklers, and neither do I. To this day I’d rather play small college audiences than big clubs. I always thought there was something really cool about being the underdog and playing just for the people who want to hear it. To have a nice moderate career for a long time versus a big, splashy one for a short time. I was always angry that people weren’t writing shows for my dad. But by the 70’s, that leading man type of hero wasn’t in vogue to write shows around.”

Later that night, at the Hall of Fame induction that honored the era when those shows were written, Ms. Raitt spoke eloquently. After Mr. Raitt thanked her, he encouraged the audience to sing along with him the last 16 bars of “Oklahoma!” People looked uneasy. But he started without them, his voice forceful and strong. And as he swung his arm high in the air with an imaginary lasso, his daughter watched him turn young again, and vital, and the theater was filled with life.

Photos: John Raitt and his daughter, Bonnie, in New York last week for his induction into the Theater Hall of Fame. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times) (pg. C1); John Raitt in 1966, with his children Bonnie and Steven and their mother, Marjorie, in his dressing room at the Mark Hellinger Theater, when he was appearing in “A Joyful Noise.” (United Press International) (pg. C8)
(Edit: saved this article but couldn’t retrieve the photos)

Source: © Copyright The New York Times
Info: The Theater Hall of Fame

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Bonnie Is First ‘Raitt’

on May 11, 1974 No comments

The low down sounds of Bonnie Raitt’s blues and the sophisticated “grease” rock of Bruce Springsteen and his E St. Band, carried on till the wee hours Friday morning.

If the crowd who packed the Harvard Sq. Theater for the Cambridge Blues Queen’s second show had its way, we all would have stayed for breakfast.

At 2:40 a.m. the square wore the effects of a “Blitzkrieg” launched by two thousand weary fans, who shuffled into the morning drizzle like fatigued troops who’d just taken an enemy stronghold.

Four hours earlier a primed regiment waited at the stage entrance where the doorkeeper became the most important person in Cambridge. The pleas began.

“Hey, man, did this dude with shoulder-length hair just go in. I gotta know, man, cuz like he said it was cool for the gig, ya know? I mean like I know Clarence and Springsteen’s cool, too, man.”

And the keeper’s reply never faltered. “Look . . ., don’t keep pounding these doors, because nobody gets in till 10. Nobody!”

Bruce Springsteen, introduced as “the man from Asbury Park,” opened the marathon show with a two-hour opening set.

He began with his musical credo “The E Street Shuffle.” It’s a vivid tale of streetcorner life, complete with gangs, cruising, drinking, fighting, loving and over-all survival.

Springsteen is not a narrator of what he sings, he is a character. His lengthy, Dylanesque numbers become a philosophy of a “greaser” life-style. Their complex, often incoherent images, go way beyond the simple woes told in a “fast rocker.” It works because the orchestration is so good.

Clarence Clemons, a superb tenor sax man, helps fashion numbers like “Jenny’s Back in Town,” “Born to Run,” and “Jackie,” with a lovely jazz bent, or when the talents of Danny Federici, Garry Tallent and David Sancious, merge on “Jenny” it takes on the dimensions of a show tune.

The image fits, for the short, lean figure in the black T shirt and corduroys, white Panama hat and electric guitar looks like a plugged in Sky Masterson. He’s greased , but he’s polished. His voice is raw and gravely enough to be convincing, but his guitar and his music is zestfully imaginative.

Bonnie Raitt came to study at Harvard University in 1967 with the hopes of being a social reformer. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s she also became a fixture in the Boston and Cambridge music community playing local clubs. Her introduction to blues musician manager Dick Waterman set the stage for a long relationship which found her performing along side such blues greats as Howlin’ Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Though a local favorite her early records achieved only moderate success though critically acclaimed by many.

In the early 1970’s the word was out around town about this young girl who could sing the blues and play a nasty slide guitar to boot. I had seen Bonnie perform at Jack’s, a local club in Mass Ave. in Cambridge where she was a regular. Boston and Cambridge had a vibrant music scene at the time with many clubs having an emphasis on blues music. The area’s rich heritage of folk and acoustic music created an audience hungry for that genre and Bonnie fit right in. But there was a sense of hope and wonder if she would make it beyond the local scene.
She was clearly a fan favorite and her rise to popularity would continue as she continued to build a strong following in the local bar scene. She would always command a good crowd at local venues but when she started to play theatre engagements she was often relegated to opening for more established artists of the time. She remained a local star often bringing up on stage other local musicians when she performed. She was dedicated to preserving a traditional blues style in her work while exploring other genres as well.
Working with her management I probably photographed her more than any other local artist at the time. Stopping by at sound checks the band always warmly greeted me and I soon began to feel like a regular around them. In the spring of 1974 her management finally broke the pattern of her being a supporting act and booked her as a headliner. They felt it was finally her time to stand on her own.
In the following year she would adopt a more mainstream style with the release of Home Plate, appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and soon after bid farewell to Cambridge as her home. Eventually her manager Dick Waterman would end his relationship as manager allowing Bonnie to move on with others he felt could take her farther. He had done his job.
But it would be her 10th album, Nick of Time, released in 1989 that brought an infamous Grammy sweep.
Today she is considered one of the most respected musicians of her generation.
~ Barry Schneier

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Bonnie Raitt – guitar, vocals
Freebo – bass
John Hall (Orleans) – guitar
John Payne – sax
Bill Payne (Little Feat) – piano
Dennis Whitted – drums

Taping Gear: Sony TC-55 with built in condenser mic and auto level control

JEMS 2013 transfer: SH master cassettes > Nakamichi CR-7A > Sound Devices USBPre2 > Peak 6.0 with iZotope Ozone > .wav (24/96) > resample via iZotope MBIT+ to .wav (16/44) > xACT to FLAC

Thanks yet again to Steve Hopkins for allowing JEMS to present his outstanding audience recordings in a fresh light.

This recording contains every minute Steve Hopkins recorded that fateful night in Cambridge. Bonnie performed a 10 PM late show as well, but there are no known recordings of that set, because, as Hopkins notes below, he was unsuccessful getting back into the venue.

As Hopkins’ himself wrote in his original post of the show: “This is a new transfer of a recording that has been in circulation for many years. I got in early with a friend who had a press pass. It was a general admission show and the first few rows were roped off for the press, so I sat down front and center and stayed there for the entire early show. Unfortunately, they cleared the house after the early show, and as the crowd was lined up around the block for the late show, I was unable to get back in.

This is the first time Steve’s master tapes have been digitized directly. Hopkins points out a “loud electrical buzz emanating from the stage throughout the show, mostly noticeable during quieter segments.” It is worse in Bonnie’s set than Bruce’s, and you can tune it out, but it is annoying at times.

What’s also gone under appreciated is the wonderful, talkative performance Raitt turns in this night. In hindsight, the Harvard Square Theatre show feels like a major Bruce Springsteen moment, but Raitt was the headliner and her star was rising faster than Bruce’s at the time. Here’s she’s touring in support of her third album, Takin’ My Time, released the previous October. The set is laden with wonderful covers of songs penned by Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Chris Smither and Mose Allison to name a few.

But even Bonnie recognized something special had occured. Before her first song she says of Springsteen, “He’s got the most incredible band and he’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever heard. I just had to say that. He’s a real hard act to follow.”

When Bonnie Raitt came out the crowd was loose and ready to be lulled by her blues.

The lusty, bawdy redhead sat down, two cans of beer on an adjoining chair, fixed the large electric guitar across her lap and let out with “Love Me Like a Man.”

Blues is relative to the artist. It can be soulful, raucous or despairing, but it has to be felt. Bonnie Raitt can tear at your insides without leaving her seat. Her voice carries a range of personalities, from the plain rauchiness of Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, I Love You,” the quiet desperation of Eric Kaz’s “Love Has No Pride,” and a lilting tenderness of Jackson Browne’s “I Thought I Was a Child.”

When she draws back from the microphone to pick away at the guitar, her face seemed tired and worn. There’s a toughness about her when she wails out with “Give It Up or Let Me Go.” Yet when she ran her hands through her long red hair and threw it over her shoulder, there was sorrow in the face that filtered through her own song, “Nothing Seems to Matter.”

She was joined on stage by people who knew the message Bonnie Raitt was sending out. John Hall, a strong lead guitar, John Payne kicked in a searing clarinet on “You Got to Know How,” and Freebo on bass, put his foghorn vocal backing on her classic version of Stephen Stills’ “Bluebird.”

Her days in Cambridge are behind her now. She lives in Los Angeles, but the dawn-breakers let her know she was misled.

Ira Gold’s Windowpane Productions originally booked Bonnie Raitt to play Harvard Square Theatre in the spring of 1974 with no opening act. But after listening to the two albums by a young New Jersey up-and-comer, over at photographer Barry Schneier’s apartment, Ira’s plans changed. Windowpane invited Bruce Springsteen and his band onto the bill… and on May 9, 1974, Jon Landau was able to witness Rock and Roll Future. Here, Ira shares his recollections, with images of the night from Schneier’s book ‘Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Roll Future.’
Forty-six years ago, on May 9, 1974, Jon Landau saw “rock and roll future” when Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band played Harvard Square Theatre in Cambridge, MA. Author Barry Schneier literally wrote the book on that night: ‘Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Roll Future,’ from Backstreets Publishing. To celebrate the anniversary on May 9, 2020 — since these troubled times prevent us from sending Barry back on the road for another book tour right now — we hosted an Instagram Live event with Barry, the only photographer present that night, sharing his unique photos and stories from the legendary concert. Schneier’s ‘Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Roll Future’ (hardcover) can be purchased here:

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Bonnie Raitt – Why I Sing the Blues
Produced by Gail Pellett with the Red Tape Collective

on January 15, 1974 No comments
Production Company: The Women’s Hour – The Red Tape Collective

Presented by: WBCN – Boston

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In the first ten minutes of the program we hear cuts from John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt and Arthur Big Boy Cruddup along with Memphis Minnie. We also hear Bonnie talk about where her interest in the blues came from and how she chose music making over finishing university and hear about her thoughts on the blues revival of the late 60’s.

Bonnie Raitt Interview, The Real Paper/Ear Book, Oct. 24, 1973 © Jeff Albertson
Bonnie Raitt Interview, The Real Paper/Ear Book, Oct. 24, 1973   © Jeff Albertson

In this music laden half-hour program, a young Bonnie Raitt, at the early stage of her long and consistent career – ready to release her 3rd album under a new label, Warner Bros.– talks about how she became a blues musician and singer, how she turned anger about women’s experiences into a creative force and ruminates on the waxing and waning of the blues revival.

Never Into Judy Collins, but loved John Lee Hooker

“I grew up in California during the Surf music era but I was into Soul music. When I moved East to go to college (Harvard) I arrived in the midst of the folk music revival.  I was never into Judy Collins, but I loved Mississippi John Hurt.  I really loved John Hammond and John Lee Hooker even better.”   Bonnie began singing in 1969 and 70 while at Harvard playing in the folk clubs around Boston and Cambridge.  “Perhaps my initial success came from the fact that there were very few women blues musicians — really no women blues guitarists — so I fit into a slot.  Kinda like a gimmick.”

“I didn’t want to go back to school and I didn’t want to become a secretary until I really had to.”

The blues revival was the result of a few white middle class guys from the Northeast driving around the South meeting and recording the old blues guys.  “Many of them were unemployed or working at menial jobs and had been ignored and forgotten for years.  Some were practically starving.  I make a living at playing this music now, but it makes me sick that most of these folks are so underappreciated.”  Bonnie has performed with the great Sippie Wallace (“Women Be Wise” at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival; check out the Classic Women Blues radio show on this site) and learnt bottle-neck guitar from many of the old Delta blues musicians.  In her live concerts she always gives credit to those musicians and their music.

Bonnie is outspoken about her anger as a woman and talks about the importance of turning that anger outward and putting it into music.  This program is rich with both the music that inspired her and her own recordings. We hear John Lee Hooker,  Arthur Big Boy Cruddup, Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton and Sippie Wallace among others.

Bonnie Raitt & Sippie Wallace - Ann Arbor Blues Festival (Ann Arbor, Michigan) 1972 © Charlie Auringer
Bonnie Raitt and Sippie Wallace – Ann Arbor Blues Festival (Ann Arbor, Michigan) 1972   © Charlie Auringer

Source: © Copyright Gail Pellett Productions

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