Let’s just put aside for a moment the fact that Bonnie Raitt is one of the most important musicians of this century, showing the world that a woman can wield a guitar while holding her own alongside the legends. And let’s ignore the detail that as a singer, this whiskey-voiced performer nails every note, and will move you wherever she wants you to go – to dance, cry, laugh, or sigh. And while we’re at it, forget that we’re talking about a truly great songwriter – one whose modesty tends to downplay that particular talent. Let’s just take all of those elements, wrap them up in a package, and put a nice bow on it.
Now step back and take a look. You’ll see that what we’re left with overshadows all individual talent and skill, and it’s something that should never, ever be taken for granted. And that is Bonnie Raitt, the woman who has made an immeasurable difference in this world and on the lives of all who are within her far-reaching touch.
Bonnie was born and raised in Los Angeles, the daughter of Marjorie – an accomplished pianist – and Broadway singer John Raitt (star of Pajama Game and Carousel). At the age of 8, she was given a Stella guitar and her life was never the same. “I was such a music fan that I played until my fingers bled when I was little, learning every Joan Baez record that I had,” she says. “And I then proceeded to learn what this thing was called bottleneck, which I’d never seen anybody do because nobody was playing it on TV. There weren’t any photographs of it or books written on it. And I literally found a Coricidin bottle, took the label off, and figured out it was an open tuning.”
In 1967 she left L.A. and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where she entered Radcliffe, only to drop out to follow her true passion which she had found in music. She began playing in local folk and blues clubs, and Dick Waterman – longtime blues aficionado – signed her and introduced her to blues legends like Howlin’ Wolf, Sippie Wallace, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. “I became kind of a quasi assistant road manager. I would help with the logistics of getting suitcases, and getting food and liquor set up in the dressing room, and basically hanging out with my heroes – never expecting to have ever met them, let alone become friends.”
Her reputation in Boston and Philadelphia led to a record contract with Warner Brothers, and between 1971 and 1986 she released nine albums before her deal came to an end. But the tenth album was the charm. In 1989, Bonnie re-emerged on Capitol Records with her Don Was-produced breakthrough album, Nick of Time. It topped the charts, sold four million copies, and won a Grammy for Album of the Year. (It was actually one of four Grammys that she won that year, with the dazed and exalted Bonnie making 1990’s award show one of the most memorable in its history.)
The winning streak continued with 1991’s Luck of the Draw, which included the hit singles, “Something To Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” It sold over four million copies and earned three more Grammys. Her last two albums have both been chart-toppers and critical successes as well – ’94’s Longing In Their Hearts and ’98’s Fundamental. And in March, Bonnie will be this year’s only female to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But awards and accolades aside, what makes Bonnie so beloved is that throughout her career she has maintained a commitment to social activism and general kindness to others that few artists can match. Uniting social awareness with music, she has played hundreds of benefits to aid causes that cover nuclear issues, anti-apartheid, pro-choice and women’s rights, Native American rights, and environmental protection…just to name a few.
In 1991 she became a co-founder of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and works tirelessly to raise awareness and money for musicians who were pioneers in the music industry, but were left destitute by unjust record deals and lack of health insurance. She also brings those overlooked heroes of R&B on the road to open for her, showering them with a deserved spotlight. In 1995 Bonnie set up a program with Fender and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to develop the Music Education Program, providing disadvantaged youth – particularly young girls – access to instruments and instruction.
And even though she is a gifted songwriter (just take a listen to “Nick of Time”), she has become one of this era’s finest and most respected interpreters of others’ songs. She has a gift for finding those rare musical gems, all the while championing lesser-known writers and introducing them to a wider audience. In short, Bonnie Raitt has become the matron saint of songwriters.
So let’s bring the package back to the center of our view, pull out all of her musical virtues, and stand them up next to the plethora of work she has done to promote justice and improve the quality of life on this planet. Now we have a clear picture of Bonnie Raitt. A woman who’s changing the world. No doubt about it.
How did you first become aware of the plight of the rhythm and blues artists and their failure to receive royalties?
My friend, Howell Begle, is an attorney in Washington who has long been a music fan of R&B and blues, and he informed me that he had approached Atlantic Records to find out why some of the giants that they had recorded over the years still hadn’t received any royalties. Laverne Baker, Ruth Brown, The Clovers, The Drifters… So he formed the Rhythm and Blues Foundation from an endowment from Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun who is also a board member.
A $1.5 million grant started a program to help with medical and financial assistance for these R&B pioneers who were basically the victims of unfair and dated royalty practices. At that time, artists were supposed to pay the entire cost of all the recording out of approximately one percent – which was the standard royalty. And since then the record companies have sold and re-sold these masters to different labels without paying these artists. And even with new formats like CDs, 8-Tracks, and cassettes, there’s been no way that these artists could ever make any money. So 20 and 30 years down the line you have an entire population that is the foundation of our music business – rock and roll, soul music, and every other form of music that we all make our living from – who’ve still never been paid.
When I heard about the situation, I – and most of the people in the world – didn’t know that every time we bought a new Sam and Dave record those guys didn’t get a piece of it. And it not only was rhythm and blues artists, it was all artists that recorded before about 1970 when royalty rates were customarily low. When the era of the singer-songwriter came in, the high-powered lawyers and managers started to negotiate for a more fair royalty rate.
Bonnie Raitt extended interview What follows are exclusive excerpts from our interview with Bonnie Raitt that didn’t make it in the printed version for space reasons. Enjoy!
On The New Album: I noticed that this is the first time you’ve listed yourself as the producer of one of your albums. Albums are always a collaboration, and in my case I pick partners in the studio—a producer or an engineer—because they have a real affinity musically and personally. But the vision and the song choice and to a great extent everything from the sound of the snares to which kind of strings and which bass on each song, sweetening—all that is basically my taste with the advice of whoever it is that I’m working with. Tchad Blake and his sensibility, mixing style, the fact that we cut it to API vintage analog board, and his choice of mics, his choice of pedals, but mostly his artistic taste and his great intelligence makes him a great producer, engineer and musician. So that maybe I’m the captain as producer, this is really a collaborative co-production effort between him and the other engineer and my band.
The feel of this album is so great and energetic and real—was most of it recorded live? That’s pretty much how I always do it. The songs get minimal rehearsal for keys and arrangement ideas, and a lot of the concept of how they’ll sound I do before I get the band together. I sort of know what I’m gonna do with the song as I find it or as I’m writing it, and I have an idea of the instrumentation —whether it’s going to be an acoustic-type song or whether it’s going to go in this tabla djembe direction or whether it’s gonna be a rock and roll tune. So the band often can’t tell from the demo what I have in mind until I get ’em in the room. But we’ve been together for so long that I don’t tell them what to play because they already know. As a producer and a bandleader I have to let the song breathe a little and see where we find what’s out there. It’s basically a creative process in the first or second time we play the song, and then we don’t do it again until we get in the studio—then it’s the first or second take. So it’s live, and we’ll overdub right after the take.
What is the time frame you worked on with this album? They’re all about the same in terms of the year and a half it takes to tour behind the last record, then there’s a break hopefully, and then there’s time to start thinking about the next one. And in my case I start taking songs and listening to them pretty much from about six or seven months after my last album’s released; I listen to them recreationally on the road, and when I’m home or in the car I’ll go, “Well, I’d better go listen to the first batch.”
So you’re looking ahead to your next record during a current tour. Yeah. Some people write all the time, but I started looking for ideas of what I might want to sing about while I’m on the road because I have the days to myself; I’m out hiking or walking or riding my bike. So once the big flush of promotion is up and ready and we’re just waning it down, there’s more recreational time to listen to new kinds of music and put my ear to the ground for new songwriters.
What is the schedule for releasing an album like for you? I’d say it’s a year after the tour I start planning when I’m going to put the next record out, and I back up from there and put the studio time in. You can put it in September to make it for Christmas or you put it in February in time to make it for the summer tour. There’s only two times to release ’em, and if you miss one year then you’ve gotta go to the next. With my two consecutive years of international touring and then my family health crises, this album release got pushed up from when I felt like being on the road for a year. And I needed a break. So the album was recorded in October and November of last year, and then I tweaked it, and basically because of my family situation and because I needed some time off, I postponed the release until the fall.
On Inspiration: [Bonnie talked in the printed article about how Joan Baez was her first inspiration. This is the dialogue that followed] In my early college years I was exposed to James Taylor and Eric Andersen and Joni Mitchell. Judy Collins had been a big part of my growing up as well, and that’s another example. She and Joan interpreted other people’s material, and Aretha, too—they didn’t necessarily write all their own stuff. So when I was playing in my room, that’s where I got the model from. I didn’t come up with the singer-songwriter model, that didn’t happen until Joni Mitchell, and I was already doing “Since I Fell For You” and Motown songs on the guitar. And all along I’d loved Ray Charles and black gospel music, and I loved Jump blues and I loved Dinah Washington … as I became a young teenager, soul music and the Beatles and the Stones were what I really loved. When I heard Aretha Franklin that was a total experience—vocally, absolutely. I could get it all with her. And you know, after Aretha there were people like Etta and look at Tina Turner still — she’s an incredible inspiration. But you know, it’s hard. There’s a lot more people than just the blues or female artists who were inspirational. I think James Taylor — those of us who were my age that were starting out — their soulfulness. The Joni Mitchells and Jackson Brownes and John Prines.
When did blues music hit your life? The first blues records I heard, I wouldn’t be able to name one artist who was really it for me, because as a teenager I didn’t have the depth of knowledge about blues that I later developed. I mean, I can’t say that Muddy or John Hurt were more important than the other; it was the whole world of Delta blues. I got into blues—Delta folk blues—and then I heard Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters through the Rolling Stones.
How old were you then? Twenty when I first started. And all of my 20s I played with those guys. Incredible. So, you know, Sippie and Fred McDowell were probably the biggest inspiration, and Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were right up there.
Did you ever meet Alberta Hunter? I did! I went to see her at the Cookery and just introduced myself—she didn’t know who I was, I just said I was a singer too and I loved her music. Those big earrings. Wasn’t she incredible? She was seminal for women blues singers because she just didn’t take any shit from anybody.
You talking about sitting in your room when you were young, playing your guitar, reminds me of a conversation that I had with Marilyn Bergman not too long ago. And she was saying how when she and Alan first moved to L.A. they lived right down the road from your family… Yeah! They were right down the street…
And she was saying how she remembers looking out the window every day and seeing this little red-headed girl getting off the school bus to walk home—and you were probably heading up to your room to play that guitar… I just love that determined image of you. I’m so glad she remembers that (laughs)! And I did play guitar every day in my room. I remember running into them later when I became a professional, and when “The Way We Were” was big I remember saying to my dad, “Isn’t that the people that lived down the street?” (Laughs) And we’d since run into each other at the Grammys or something, and my dad was with me a lot of the time, and they’ve just been so gracious to me and my family all this time. I think they’re fantastic as well.
About Her Faith: Tell me about the Quaker faith—it seems to be such a cornerstone in your activism. Well, there’s a religious aspect to it which is basically starting out with the premise that there’s God in every person. So if you love God, you can’t kill another person. And that’s really directed from Jesus or from Buddha or Mohammed. And that divinity exists within and you appeal and relate to the oneness that you all are. That sounds pretty “woo-woo,” but in fact a lot of religions are based on the same premise, that there is only love and if it behooves you to find that of God in the other person, then find a way to work it out. So structurally Quakers were persecuted because they wouldn’t take their hat off to the king, they don’t have a minister.… There are Quakers like Richard Nixon, though, where they had ministers and a church and they were more traditional like Protestant religions. The Quakers that I grew up around—the Society of Friends is what we’re called—you basically sit in a circle with no altar and it’s called “centering in.” And if someone is moved to share something of a spiritual nature, then they stand up and say something. And then they sit back down and someone else will say something. And sometimes there’s nobody that stands up. So that’s what Quaker meetings are, people basically getting real quiet and meditating. It’s similar to a mystical eastern religion in that way. In terms of beliefs, it’s that we are here to help each other, and not have more than we need; you’re supposed to be of service, and you’re not supposed to be greedy or focus on material goods. And like the Amish, which we’re confused with—the Shakers, the Quakers didn’t adorn themselves a lot in the old days. That wasn’t what it was about, you know, gussying up in push-up bras and mascara and all that stuff those of us rock chicks aspire to (laughs). So anyway, over the years, Quakers have become especially known for their peace activism. A lot of the “Ban the Bomb” movement was spearheaded by them, and conflict resolution efforts. The American Friends Service Committee, which is the social help arm of the Society of Friends, is allowed in war-torn areas that the American government or the Peace Corp wouldn’t even be allowed, because they’re not aligned; they’re pacifists, they’re coming from a conciliatory point of view, and they don’t take sides. So it’s humanist, it’s altruistic, it’s mystical, it’s a reaction against organized religion, and spending money on real estate. … Quaker meeting houses are just really simple little rooms with benches; no choir, no minister. But they do great work, really great work. The way that I’m Quaker isn’t so much that I go to church, but it’s my philosophy of conflict resolution, and being anti-war and pro-life and pro-respect. Everybody’s equal. Nobody’s above. It’s not like a hierarchy of the church, where these guys have the direct dial to God and they’re going to pass down what the law is. Sorry but that doesn’t float for me.
It’s easy to see how you’re someone who walks the walk, then, knowing that those beliefs are the core of who you are. Peace and justice. I mean, basic religion is that you’re supposed to share what you have with someone who’s suffering. And if someone’s being bullied, then you do what you can to stop it in a way that doesn’t involve violence. Jesus had a really good idea; he changed the world. And Gandhi did, too. And Martin Luther King. And that’s all based on non-violence.
On Benefits: How did the Vote For Change tour go? It was great! It was a fantastic experience because obviously everybody who came really wanted to be there, and we had a mission bigger than just the musical thrill of the concert. Jackson [Browne], Keb’ [Mo’] and I love working together, and then Sheryl [Crow] was along for one of them. And we’re musical brethren, so we mesh perfectly and have a lot of respect for each other and the audience knew us—so it was bigger than the sum of its parts. And to know that simultaneously all these concerts were going on in different states was fantastic.
That’s where you really find your community, isn’t it? Benefits. My favorite shows to do, because we’re making a difference and we love each other, plus we get a chance to hang out together and mix music in ways that you don’t get to otherwise.
On Learning About Music: Last time we talked you were really getting into world music. Has that opened up a lot of creativity for you? You know, that ear opening that happened in 2000 when I got to really spend some time in Ireland and Mali and then Cuba … it’s just been ongoing because my band is so well-versed in so many different kinds of music, especially Hutch and Jon Cleary. So riding on the bus is like a tutorial; they’ll bring this amazing stuff and we’ll be watching some black and white footage from the 1940s from Cuba. After our show we’re going down the highway and nobody’s getting any sleep because we’re like, “No, no, I’m next, I get the machine” (laughs).
So you watch a lot of DVDs with historical footage? Oh yeah. The American Folk Blues Festival is this set of three DVDs that’s the most astonishing footage of blues artists who were brought over to Europe between ’62 and ’66 on these tours—so Lightnin’ Hopkins and Fred McDowell and Howlin’ Wolf, just everybody at their prime. So that’s been taking up a lot of my time just going back and unearthing all of this incredible video to go with the music that I love, and the footage I wouldn’t have known existed. And ones like Only The Strong Survive and Standing In The Shadows of Motown. There was a Mill Valley Film Festival that had Sophiatown, which was about the whole jazz scene in South Africa in the ‘50s, and that was a film that deserves to be seen. And there’s another great one called Calypso Dreams that features a lot of calypso music and Calypso Rose, who I cut a song with.
On What She’s Listening To: There really are some incredible songs out there, aren’t there? You know, someone just said to me a couple of days ago in an interview that there didn’t seem to be any great new songwriters coming up or that it seemed more bleak, and I just said, “Oh, no … it’s not bleak at all.” The Internet has made things so much more possible; it’s harder to wade through how many thousands of entries there are, but just when you think you’ve heard everything there’ll be the most unusual great new song. Like this guy Amos Lee, and there’s a guy Tom Brosseau—wait till you hear him. There’s a woman named Lauren Ellis who sent me her stuff, and she’s really good. And Richard Julian is one of my favorites—I just sat in with him the other night, and I can’t wait for his new album. My friend saw Jill Sobule and said she was just amazing. I love her stuff but haven’t seen her live yet. But I’ve gotta check her out—apparently it’s like the second coming (laughs)! And you know what I love? Those Nashville Underground CDs. Great artwork, mastering, incredible performances. Those are great—the hit songwriters playing the songs the way they were written. So that’s what I said to this journalist—get these records and you’ll see whether there are any good writers out there. It’s like when Hutch said, “Have you heard of this guy Paul Brady” and aside from the Johnstones I hadn’t heard of his pop stuff. You know, there’s these seminal artists like Patty Griffin or Paul Brady who have been around for a while but I just didn’t know. The songwriters on this record, for me, are as fine a crop of any I’ve heard. I mean, I just can’t imagine not singing their songs for the rest of my life. So that’s one of the reasons I wanted to showcase them on this record in the way that I have and calling it Souls Alike—I took the lyric from “Deep Water.” Between my band and Tchad and this particular group of songwriters, I just wanted to be able to let people know that there isn’t any difference between my penning a song or my playing all the instruments … once it gets in this family of people, we’re saying the thing that is real and true for us. But every one of the songwriters on this record, I could listen to their own solo record and they’re right up in my top list of people I’d love to be listening to. We’re putting Maia [Sharp] and Randall [Bramblett] on different dates of the tour to open, and Stephen Bruton is going, too. Wait till you hear his new album … [From the Five on New West]… it’s just so great. Billy Payne [from Little Feat] is playing on it. Oh, it’s really, really good. I try to get more enthusiastic about my friends, but I don’t think I could do it (laughs).
Does music have a very healing power for you, especially with everything you’ve gone through recently? Do you turn to it for comfort? I listen to African music, real up-tempo gospel music, Hornsby always; I’ll go back and pick up albums that I haven’t heard for years from people like Danny O’Keefe. So in the sense that I surround myself in my non-working hours with the music of people I already know, that makes it like being wrapped in a blanket of familiarity. And lately I’ve been listening to a lot of the jazz stations, or shows like Thistle and Shamrock—I’ll listen to Celtic music or put Altan on, or maybe Alison Krauss … but I tend to listen to stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m singing. So yeah, I think it can be incredibly healing. But so can silence.
When Bonnie Raitt was 14 years old, she heard the album Blues at Newport and it lit her flame for slide guitar, blues music and the legendary masters who played it. By the time she was in her 20s she was the opening act for these legends, soaking up music lessons as well as life lessons. As a matter of fact, Sippie Wallace, Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker all played a part in raising this fiery-haired blueswoman.
It’s easy to see the profound influence they had on Bonnie Raitt, who to this day carries with her an unmatched soulfulness in all aspects of her life. “I’m certain that it was an incredible gift for me to not only be friends with some of the greatest blues people who’ve ever lived, but to learn how they played, how they sang, how they lived their lives, ran their marriages and talked to their kids,” she says.
One of the most admirable qualities Bonnie Raitt possesses is her unwavering commitment to people and causes she believes in. She doesn’t just talk the talk, she digs in and walks the walk. When she was made aware of the injustice in financial compensation to the blues musicians who had made millions for the recording industry, Bonnie joined forces with other like-minded souls and co-founded the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. Since its formation in 1988, the organization has launched programs and services to educate the public and provide financial assistance to those R&B community members in need.
For Bonnie Raitt’s birthday today, I’m shining a spotlight on the Rhythm & Blues Foundation with a conversation I had with her in 2000 about the program’s beginnings and the impact those blues giants had on her life. Thank you so much, Bonnie, for passing those lessons along to us, and for a lifetime of paying it forward. You’ve made such a difference in this world, and we’re so happy and grateful you were born.
How did you first become aware of the plight of the rhythm and blues artists and their failure to receive royalties?
My friend, Howell Begle, is an attorney in Washington who has long been a music fan of R&B and blues, and he informed me that he had approached Atlantic Records to find out why some of the giants that they had recorded over the years still hadn’t received any royalties: Laverne Baker, Ruth Brown, The Clovers, The Drifters. So he formed the Rhythm and Blues Foundation from an endowment from Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun.
Jazz and blues fests are everywhere now, and Americana is going strong on college radio. What I'm hearing is an appreciation of real music.
I speak my mind and come from a place of conscience, as well as have fun as a musician.
I don't know if I'm a heroine; I'm just somebody that can cheer the troops by singing to folks, and have receptions after the show, and tithe a dollar of every ticket sale for all kinds of different great charities and social action groups.
Quakers are known for wanting to give back. Ban the bomb and the civil rights movement and the native American struggle for justice - those things were very, very front-burner in my childhood, as were the ideas of working for peace and if you have more than you need, then you share it with people who don't.
The consolidation of the music business has made it difficult to encourage styles like the blues, all of which deserve to be celebrated as part of our most treasured national resources.
I think my fans will follow me into our combined old age. Real musicians and real fans stay together for a long, long time.
I grew up in Los Angeles in a Quaker family, and for me being Quaker was a political calling rather than a religious one.
I just play the music that I love with musicians that I respect, and fortunately, I'm in a position where people are willing to play with me, and perhaps I can do something to help them.
I never saw music in terms of men and women or black and white. There was just cool and uncool.
Solar power is the last energy resource that isn't owned yet - nobody taxes the sun yet.
Religion is for those who are scared of hell, and spirituality is for those who have been there.
Life gets mighty precious when there's less of it to waste.
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Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, Vol. 2, the anticipated new John Prine tribute record from Oh Boy Records, is out today. Stream/purchase HERE.
Created as a celebration of Prine’s life and career, the album features new renditions of some of Prine’s most beloved songs performed by Brandi Carlile (“I Remember Everything”), Tyler Childers (“Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You”), Iris DeMent (“One Red Rose”), Emmylou Harris (“Hello In There”), Jason Isbell (“Souvenirs”), Valerie June (“Summer’s End”), Margo Price (“Sweet Revenge”), Bonnie Raitt (“Angel From Montgomery”), Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (“Pretty Good”), Amanda Shires (“Saddle in the Rain”), Sturgill Simpson(“Paradise”) and John Paul White (“Sam Stone”). Proceeds from the album will benefit twelve different non-profit organizations, one selected by each of the featured artists.
Bonnie Raitt - Write Me a Few of Your Lines/Kokomo Blues
60 years anniversary celebration of Arhoolie
December 10, 2020
Arhoolie Foundation celebrates it's 60th anniversary (1960-2020) with an online broadcast.
Bonnie Raitt - Shadow of Doubt
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival
October 3, 2020
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass celebrates it's 20th anniversary with an online broadcast titled “Let The Music Play On”.
Bonnie Raitt & Boz Scaggs - You Don't Know Like I Know
Farm Aid 2020 On the Road
Sam & Dave classic written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter.
Sheryl Crow & Bonnie Raitt - Everything Is Broken
[Eric Clapton’s Crossroads 2019]
Eric Clapton, one of the world’s pre-eminent blues/rock guitarists, once again summoned an all-star team of six-string heroes for his fifth Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2019. Held at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, the two-day concert event raised funds for the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, the chemical dependency treatment and education facility that Clapton founded in 1998.
'A Tribute To Mose Allison'
Celebrates The Music Of An Exciting Jazz Master
Raitt contributed to a new album, If You're Going To The City: A Tribute To Mose Allison, which celebrates the late singer and pianist, who famously blended the rough-edged blues of the Mississippi Delta with the 1950s jazz of New York City.
NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Bonnie Raitt about her friendship with the Mose Allison. They're also joined by Amy Allison — his daughter, who executive produced the album — about selecting an unexpected list of artists to contribute songs to the album.
Recorded on tour June 3, 2017 - Centennial Hall, London - Ontario Canada