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How a Quaker summer camp inspired Bonnie Raitt’s music career
Bonnie Raitt on Grammys lifetime achievement award, says she's grateful to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy while she's still touring. (April 3) AP

on July 18, 2022 No comments
by Alessandro Corona Special to Cincinnati Enquirer

Bonnie Raitt returns to the Queen City July 19 at the Andrew J. Brady Music Center. Amassing 10 Grammy awards over her 50-year career, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, her authentic vocal style and virtuosic slide guitar can be found in the recordings of a host of blues and folk legends.

Nearly 20 years into her illustrious career, Raitt had already released 10 albums before her breakout “Nick of Time” in 1989, which was closely followed by hits like “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” We recently spoke about musical influences from her Quaker upbringing, her commitment to social justice and her most recent album, “Just Like That.”

Question: Do you have any stories about Cincinnati?

Answer: I love playing Cincinnati. We’ve always had great audiences. I went to college on the East Coast and I’m from the West Coast. When I started my career all those years ago, it was a fun revelation to discover all the states in the middle and the great vibrant music scenes. Of course, you’ve got Chrissy Hynde, Rachel Sweet and Devo coming out of Ohio, not to mention the Ohio Players and Bootsie Collins.

We toured in the early ’90s through Riverbend next to the racetrack. Charles Brown was our very special guest, a legendary rhythm and blues pioneer. He had gotten off the tour bus to go to the horse track and he said, I’ll see you in time for the gig. But he didn’t have his credentials on him. So here’s this guy in his 70s, an elderly Black man in a mylar jumpsuit and a rhinestone baseball hat, trying to get backstage and they wouldn’t let them in. We had to send somebody to the gate and say he’s an important part of our show.

© Marina Chavez

Q: When you were younger, you grew up in LA, but also went to summer camp in the Adirondacks. How did that West Coast – East Coast connection inform your career as a musician and activist?

A: My parents became Quakers after the second World War. You didn’t need to get inside a church and pray to an altar or listen to a minister to get the message. It was the pacifist message and being of service and simplifying your life and not being so consumerist or materialistic. They brought us up to be very actively involved in the peace and social justice and environmental movement.

The Quakers ran the summer camp that we went to for eight summers while my dad was on the road in his Broadway summer-stock productions. It was full of international counselors and campers. It wasn’t a political camp but there was an undercurrent of spirituality and coming together, and tolerance and international relations. 

There was a folk craze in the late ’50s and early ’60s – a revival of songs of the labor movements and the Spanish American War. Joan Baez was on the cover of Time magazine. The Kingston Trio had a number one hit. There were a lot of TV shows that were showcasing folk music, like Hootenanny and the Smothers Brothers. The Newport Folk Festival was the preeminent showcase for people like Bob Dylan.

At my summer camp, I had the benefit of all those counselors teaching us these folk songs. I looked up to them, and begged my parents for a guitar when I was 8, and I got one for Christmas when I was 9 and taught myself to play. My sophomore year of college, I needed to make some extra money, and I started playing in little clubs. I was never planning to do it for a career, but it worked out.

Q: What did you think you were going to do as a career?

A: I majored in social relations at Harvard, and I minored in African studies. I wanted to go work for the American Friend Service Committee, which my uncle worked for. They do great work – Peace Corps type work, all around the world. So I went to college with a real focus on learning how to undo the damage colonialism had done.

Q: I listened to your new album. “Living for the Ones” is probably my favorite. How has your songwriting process changed over the past 50 years? And what do you look for in other writers when you’re choosing songs to play?

A: I don’t write that often. I write on assignment, I call it. When I’ve finished a couple of years of touring, I’m already thinking about what I might want to stay the next time around. The pandemic happened, and that inspired the lyrics to “Living for the Ones.” My process was heightened this time because I wanted to try something new. I was inspired by early Dylan songs and Jackson Browne’s early records, and especially my friend John Prine with “Angel from Montgomery” that I sing every night. I was really holding him in my heart when I put the music to these sets of lyrics.

© Ken Friedman

Q: How has sobriety affected your longevity, in your career and your life generally?

A: In your 20s and 30s, you can live that nighttime lifestyle. It’s not the healthiest atmosphere. You’re around a lot of drinking and smoking. And when you finish work to unwind, it’s not like you’re going to the gym at one in the morning and going home. You have to reckon with your body.

I was looking around at some friends of mine that were a little older and had gotten sober right before me. They lost a bunch of puffy weight, they were recovering from colds better. Their voices sounded incredible. They seemed to be a lot more at peace. Sobriety made a huge difference emotionally and spiritually as well as physically for me – just being a better and clearer version of myself at 37-38. It’s a massive rebirth when you become sober, no matter when you do it.

Q: Your songs generally have an undertone of social awareness, but with gentleness and compassion for the different perspectives of what’s going on. How do you toe the line of pushing for your values while avoiding riot girl anger?

A: Very few of my songs are overtly about politics. I don’t want to preach from the stage when people come to a concert. If they’re coming to a benefit or a rally for a specific cause, then you can whip out songs that are more politically oriented. But there’s a fine line between being too preachy and assuming that everybody’s agreeing with you.

The main focus I have is safe energy and promoting conservation. I know nuclear power is extremely expensive and dangerous. Similarly, there’s enough healthy food that can be grown organically and support farmers and keep the toxins out of our system as well as the animals that are grown. There are more sustainable ways to live on the earth and more fair ways.

There are people that feel that I should shut up and just sing, but then again, they don’t have to come to my shows. A lot of the venues, they’re not pushing for donations, they’re not forcing people to take a playbill when they go in. I just say, “We’ve invited people from this great local organization that’s working to clean up this toxic dump in your neighborhood.” If they’re interested in getting involved, we try to make it easy for them. But the concert is there primarily to entertain and inspire. To share this life experience is as meaningful for me as it is for the folks in the audience.

Bonnie Raitt: Just Like That Tour with Mavis Staples

When: 7:30 pm, Tuesday, July 19.

Where: Andrew J. Brady Music Center, 25 Race St., Downtown.

Tickets: $50.50-$100.50.

Source: © Copyright The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Charles Brown Gets His Reward – Raitt, Hooker celebrate R&B veteran’s comeback

on November 4, 1997 No comments

by Joel Selvin, Chronicle Pop Music Critic

Not long ago rhythm-and-blues giant Charles Brown was working as a janitor, although he was always careful with his fingers because he knew he would return to the piano someday.

Oakland’s Paramount Theater plays host to Charles Brown 75th birthday Bash. San Francisco Jazz Festival. Bonnie Raitt and Ruth Brown join the celebration to honor Brown – 1997  © Michael Macor /Chronicle

But he probably would never have guessed he would celebrate his 75th birthday in such grand musical style. At the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on Sunday he was saluted by greats such as Bonnie Raitt, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Scott and Ruth Brown before an adoring house of old and new fans. Charles Brown is not just a landmark stylist in modern American music, a figure whose music helped shape the sound of such disparate artists as Ray Charles and Sammy Davis Jr., but also a truly beloved man. “You can have those Grammys,” shouted a jubilant Bonnie Raitt. “I’ll take Charles Brown.” As the lead vocalist and pianist with Johnny Moore‘s Three Blazers and later, with his own solo recordings, Charles Brown was a huge star among black audiences in the late ’40s, although he was unknown to the white world. As styles changed, Brown’s popularity slipped until, living in Berkeley, he could no longer find work as a musician.

His return, nurtured by guitarist Danny Caron, has been bountiful. Only a few weeks ago, Brown appeared at the White House, where first lady Hillary Clinton presented him with a Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. His appearance at the Paramount capped this year’s San Francisco Jazz Festival.

And when the money started coming in again, Brown moved from his studio apartment in a Berkeley senior-citizen housing project into one of the project’s one-bedroom units downstairs.

A sequined cap now replaces the sleek wigs he used to wear, and Brown has some physical infirmities, but with his long, elegant fingers on the keyboard and his smooth-as-scotch voice on the microphone, he is as commanding as ever.

He sang a duet with Raitt, “Someone to Love,” from one of his recent records. He joined Ruth Brown on a version of her first hit, “So Long,” a record that dates from — their first association as touring colleagues 48 years ago.

Bonnie Raitt, Ruth Brown at Charles Brown 75th birthday concert in Oakland’s Paramount Theater  © Stuart Brinin

“Charles is truly one of the persons my mama took me to see when I was little,” quipped the stately rhythm-and-blues queen.

A big band led by veteran New Orleans arranger Wardell Quezergue augmented his basic quintet, including both Clifford Solomon, whose sax solos graced many of Brown’s original recordings, and saxophonist Teddy Edwards, a ’50s bopper also undergoing something of a comeback.

Brown played graceful, understated accompaniment behind Jimmy Scott, whose broken-tempo ballad, “Heaven,” brought down the house. Brown tinkled across the dark, ominous rumble of John Lee Hooker, whose own recent recordings have featured Brown on piano, although Hooker’s earthy, raw Mississippi- Delta blues style is far from Brown’s polished, sophisticated approach (Brown, who practices for hours every morning, frequently dashes off a little Liszt or Chopin in those pri vate sessions).

Brown brought out the entire cast minus Hooker to sing his “Merry Christmas Baby” — the ebony “White Christmas” — with Scott, Raitt and Ruth Brown trading lines with the man who wrote the song and sold the rights for $35 a half century ago. The song was recorded by Elvis Presley, Otis Redding and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few.

Charles Brown lived long enough to get his just rewards, something he never counted on happening. He will never have to do windows again.

Source: © Copyright SFGate

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Raitt Goes on the Record in Oakland
Audience is in on her first live album

on July 20, 1995 No comments
JOEL SELVIN, Chronicle Staff Critic
Bonnie Raitt at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland where she taped her first ever live album in July 1995 © Ken Friedman

With guests who included Jackson Browne, Bruce Hornsby and Bryan Adams, Bonnie Raitt undoubtedly captured an exciting television special and live album, even if the proceedings tended to drag toward the end of her nearly three-hour performance Tuesday at the Paramount Theatre.

But with her trademark honesty, she faced the sometimes intrusive mechanics of such a production by building them right into her act. She piped the talkback between the recording truck and herself into the house sound system. She stopped songs midway and started over, even doing second takes of performances. Serving as emcee for the evening was her record producer, Don Was.

“I’ve waited 25 years to make a live album,” Raitt told the crowd. “I thought it would be a good idea before menopause.”

The capacity crowd clearly didn’t mind. They applauded the second version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” with, if possible, even greater enthusiasm than the first. They sat pin-drop still for two consecutive takes of “My Opening Farewell,” a song she and Browne sang together, from his first album.

It was an extraordinary evening. Raitt ranged across the full breadth of her remarkable gifts — from driving, slashing bottleneck guitar rock to deep country blues, buoyant pop and aching, plaintive ballads — liberally sprinkled with marvelous matchups with special guests.

She and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds romped through his “I Believe I’m in Love,” trading walloping instrumental verses on harmonica and bottleneck. Rhythm and blues greats Charles Brown and Ruth Brown, who served as the evening’s opening acts, returned for a three-way frolic early on, with Wilson whiffing away behind them on his harmonica.

Hornsby was greeted by a standing ovation when he joined Raitt to play electric piano on “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Adams and Raitt turned up the steam on a jolting “Rock Steady,” a song Adams wrote for her that will surely be one of the highlights of the album and PBS special.

Raitt herself supplied more than an album’s worth of goose- bump moments. Her set-closing version of the Talking Heads‘ “Burning Down the House” brought that surefire rouser into the house of rhythm and blues. Her performance of Richard Thompson‘s “Dimming of the Day” — “Of all the songs I’ve recorded,” she said, “I think this is my favorite” — burst into an explosion of pain and longing as she reached deep inside for the final chorus.

But that, ultimately, is what makes Raitt so special. She crawls inside these songs and lives them each time she sings. The heart of each piece is so plainly evident, so palpably exposed.

Furthermore, after essentially spending the past eight years on the road in the wake of her “Nick of Time” breakthrough, Raitt has drilled her exceptional band into a combat-tested cadre, schooled to close-order precision in her style. This flexible unit moved fluidly from supple, spare folk accompaniment to loud, raucous rock. Guitarist George Marinelli shifted from background to foreground at the drop of a pick. Bassist Hutch Hutchinson pulled out a hollow- body model to stitch limber, loping lines into the densely woven fabric Raitt laid down on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s delta blues, “Sweet Home Kokomo.”

After spending more than 20 years beating the bushes, plugging away at nightclubs and recording worthy album after album that few noticed, Raitt has earned her stardom. Maybe that explains why nobody wears the crown with more grace, dignity and ease.

She explained to the audience why she chose the Bay Area to record this album and TV special: “I wanted to feel comfortable in front of people who are rhythm and blues fans,” she said, “who appreciate a good ballad and who know I’m not a country act.”

Source: © Copyright My San Antonio

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