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Bonnie Raitt

Music buffs could count on one hand the number of contemporary female blues artists there were in the 70s when BONNIE RAITT appeared on the scene; the fact that the iconic JANIS JOPLIN had passed to the other side in October 1970 was inspiration enough that there was room on Planet Rock for another blues star, and the fact she could play guitar and write songs was an added bonus. From Bonnie’s mainstream success, a plethora of stars emerged by way of MELISSA ETHERIDGE, SHERYL CROW, BETH HART, et al.
Born November 8, 1949, Burbank, California, Bonnie was brought up in a Quaker family (her dad John Raitt was also a Broadway actor!). Showbiz running through her veins, she learned guitar as a young child, receiving the instrument as a Christmas present and subsequently catching the blues bug at college while in Cambridge, Massachusetts (reading African studies). Branching out from her love of folk music (JOAN BAEZ was a favourite) to recordings by JOHN LEE HOOKER, SON HOUSE and MISSISSIPPI FRED McDOWELL, the young Bonnie became a well known blues performer on the North-Eastern circuit, alongside bassist Dan “Freebo” Friedberg (sometimes sharing a stage with her idols, SIPPIE WALLACE, HOWLIN’ WOLF and MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT). Her boyfriend, Dick Waterman, became her manager and, influenced by DYLAN, MUDDY WATERS and JOHN HAMMOND, the redhead began recording for Warner Bros.
Establishing her own individual blend of Californian country blues and LA-style soft-rock, her eponymous BONNIE RAITT (1971) {*7} debut, set the tone for her later work, with a combination of self-penned songs (namely `Finest Lovin’ Man’ and `Thank You’) and carefully selected covers, among them ROBERT JOHNSON’s `Walking Blues’, PAUL SIEBEL’s `Any Day Woman’, BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD’s `Bluebird’ and SIPPIE WALLACE’s `Mighty Tight Woman’ and `Women Be Wise’.
Bonnie’s sophomore set, the Michael Cuscuna-produced GIVE IT UP (1972) {*8}, featured the lusty CHRIS SMITHER cover `Love Me Like A Man’, JACKSON BROWNE’s `Under The Falling Sky’ and ERIC KAZ’s `Love Has No Pride’, but so far only a paltry peak position of #138 rewarded her labour of love. Two self-scribed tracks that stood out from the pack, were in the opening New Orleans brass of `Give It Up Or Let Me Go’ and the warm and amiable `Nothing Seems To Matter’.
Recorded after RAITT’s relocation to Los Angeles, 1973’s Top 100 breakthrough TAKIN’ MY TIME {*8} – with contributions from TAJ MAHAL, VAN DYKE PARKS, Jim Keltner, Bill Payne and LOWELL GEORGE – featured such outstanding tracks as McDOWELL’s `Write Me A Few Of Your Lines / Kokomo Blues’, RANDY NEWMAN’s `Guilty’, MOSE ALLISON’s `Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy’, JACKSON BROWNE’s `I Thought I Was A Child’, CHRIS SMITHER’s `I Feel The Same’ and KAZ’s `Cry Like A Rainstorm’.
Still content to rely on inspirational covers (the opening three stemming from JONI MITCHELL: `That Song About The Midway’, JAMES TAYLOR: `Rainy Day Man’ and JOHN PRINE: `Angel From Montgomery’), the crossover pop production touches by Jerry Ragavoy on STREETLIGHTS {*7} were far removed from purist blues; another example was on the swampy-funk of ALLEN TOUSSAINT’s `What Is Success’.
Indeed it was another song (`What Do You Want The Boy To Do?’) from the N’Orleans giant, that opened her inaugural Top 50 set, HOME PLATE (1975) {*6}. Taken down a commercial path by producer Paul A. Rothchild, sentimental ballads such as `My First Night Alone Without You’ (penned by Kin Vassy), J.D. SOUTHER’s `Run Like A Thief’ and KAZ’s `I’m Blowin’ Away’ (not forgetting the blues-y Glen Clark piece `Sugar Mama’), RAITT had now proved beyond doubt she could sing anything… in any style put to her.
Over the ensuing few years, RAITT moved towards an out and out rock direction, exemplified on 1977’s SWEET FORGIVENESS {*5}, her most successful album to date, peaking at #25. Recorded with her regular touring band of Will McFarlane (guitar), Jeff Labes (keyboards), Dennis Whitted (drums), Freebo (bass) and guest vocalists MICHAEL McDONALD and J.D. SOUTHER, the set provided RAITT with her first Top 60 hit single, a rocking version of DEL SHANNON’s `Runaway’. Sticking by BROWNE, KAZ, SIEBEL and LITTLE FEAT’s Bill Payne on respective tracks, `My Opening Farewell’, `Gamblin’ Man’, `Louise’ and `Takin’ My Time’, Bonnie was finding a niche within the American mainstream without much fuss.
Switching producers from Rothchild to Peter Asher for Top 30 set, THE GLOW (1979) {*7}, BONNIE RAITT’s star was again in the ascendency. A blues sung at a horizontal pace through numbers `Sleep’s Dark And Silent Gate’ (another from the quill of BROWNE) and the sedate title track, the vibes that emanated from the funky ISAAC HAYES cuts, `I Thank You’ and `Your Good Thing (Is About To End)’, were down to seasoned session men Danny Kortchmar, Waddy Wachtel and Bill Payne. Whilst a modest hit came courtesy of ROBERT PALMER’s `You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming’, Bonnie looked back to the 50s and 60s for her cool re-workings of `The Girl Can’t Help It’ and MARY WELLS’ `Bye Bye Baby’.
1982’s Rob Fraboni-produced GREEN LIGHT {*7} – another Top 40 set – featured a new backing outfit, The Bump Band, which numbered ex-FACES keyboard man, IAN McLAGAN, drummer Ricky Fataar (ex-BEACH BOYS), bassist Ray O’Hara and guitarist Johnny Lee Schell; the latter three contributed a handful of tracks including the co-scribed `I Can’t Help Myself’. The shock factor was her ill-advised but catchy cover of EDDY GRANT’s `Baby Come Back’, plus DYLAN’s `Let’s Keep It Between Us’, whilst the riff that attached itself to her and Walt Richmond’s `Can’t Get Enough’ recalled IAN DURY’s “Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll”. Mmm…
RAITT subsequently disappeared from the scene to undergo drugs and alcohol rehabilitation, resurfacing in 1985 when she took part in the worthy Artists Against Apartheid project. Her final album for Warner Brothers was NINE LIVES {*5}, a modest selling record (#138) that included songs by KARLA BONOFF (`Runnin’ Back To Me’), Tom Snow (`Who But A Fool (Thief Into Paradise)’), Jerry Lynn Williams (`Excited’), Will Jennings (`Stand Up To The Night’), ERIC KAZ (`Angel’) and Jim Vallance (`No Way To Treat A Lady’). It also featured her old friend and blues mentor, SIPPIE WALLACE, singing on their duet version of TOOTS & THE MAYTALS’ `True Love Is Hard To Find’.
In 1987, RAITT joined a programme for recovering alcoholics and, after recuperating, spent two days recording with PRINCE in Minneapolis. Her benefit work also increased that same year when she took part in the July Fourth Disarmament Festival in the Soviet Union, and also Stop Contra Aid, Amnesty International, Farm Aid and a film about homeless awareness. Real success had been a long time coming, although she bounced back with `Baby Mine’ (a duet cut with WAS (NOT WAS) from the 1988 covers album, Stay Awake – Disney); the single’s release led to a fresh deal at Capitol Records.
Her first album for her new bosses, 1989’s DON WAS-produced NICK OF TIME {*8}, highlights were her bookend self-penned title track and `The Road’s My Middle Name’. Still reliant on sourced songs from the likes JOHN HIATT (`Thing Called Love’), Jerry Lynn Williams (`Real Man’ and `I Will Not Be Denied’), Bonnie Hayes (`Have A Heart’ and `Love Letter’), among others, the contemporary blues set was strictly aimed at the AOR market. It would net her three Grammys and a chart-topper (No.51 in Britain), whilst it also elevated her into the superstar bracket, leading to guest spots on projects by the likes of DAVID CROSBY, EMMYLOU HARRIS and B.B. KING, to name but a few.
RAITT’s Top 3 follow-up album, LUCK OF THE DRAW (1991) {*8}, was nigh-on equal to its predecessor, although the songs from the likes of JOHN HIATT (`No Business’), WOMACK AND WOMACK (`Good Man, Good Woman’) and PAUL BRADY (`Not The Only One’ and the title track) weren’t quite as strong as her own four and the big hitters `Something To Talk About’ (from Shirley Eikhard) and `I Can’t Make You Love Me’ (from Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin). On a high note, RAITT’s personal life became stable following her marriage that year to actor, Michael O’Keefe (co-scribe of `One Part Be My Lover’), coming as it did after years of singing about broken hearts and no-good-men; although they duly divorced in ‘99.
1994 saw a return to previous highs with LONGING IN THEIR HEARTS {*8}, a No.1 album that reaped further Grammys and went deservedly multi-platinum on the strength of Top 30 single, `Love Sneakin’ Up On You’, and covers of RICHARD THOMPSON’s `Dimming Of The Day’, PAUL BRADY’s `Steal Your Heart Away’ and her own `Circle Dance’.
A cunningly-titled concert double-set, ROAD TESTED (1995) {*8}, was incredibly her first such outing despite her legendary live status. Featuring duets with JACKSON BROWNE, BRUCE HORNSBY and Kim Wilson (of The FABULOUS THUNDERBIRDS), the record also contained a disappointing collaboration with BRYAN ADAMS on `Rock Steady’, although excellent versions of TALKING HEADS’ `Burning Down The House’, DON COVAY’s `Three Time Loser’ (from 1977) and MICHAEL McDONALD’s `Matters Of The Heart’, were enough to save the album. Having started out in her long career using an acoustic, thumb-picking style of playing and progressing to slide guitar, she had become perhaps the only woman in the “rock” world to be recognised as a guitar virtuoso (RAITT was initially tutored by the late, great Lowell George of LITTLE FEAT).
For 1998’s FUNDAMENTAL {*5}, RAITT ditched DON WAS and brought in producers of the moment Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. Unfortunately, the latter pair’s more adventurous studio techniques sat particularly uncomfortably with Bonnie’s earthy style; experiments with Cajun, reggae and Caribbean music falling particularly flat. Only scraping into the Top 20, the set saw her working with PAUL BRADY on `One Belief Away’ and BETH NIELSEN CHAPMAN on `Meet Me Half Way’; there were rootsy covers of JOHN HIATT’s `Lover’s Will’, WILLIE DIXON & J.B. LENOIR’s `Round & Round’, alongside contributions from sessioners David Hidalgo (of LOS LOBOS) and Joey Spampinato (of NRBQ).
Production duties back within her own remit on SILVER LINING (2002) {*6}, RAITT turned in one of her most engaging albums in years; guest spots from the likes of STEVE CROPPER and ROY ROGERS adding texture and colour. While her guitar playing was never less than dazzling, the spotlight fell squarely on RAITT’s ever-maturing vocals, showcased to particularly heart-rending effect on Jude Johnstone’s `Wounded Heart’ and DAVID GRAY’s title track. Her increasingly high profile as a quality adult contemporary artist was reflected in another Top 20 placing.
At a few years short of 60, RAITT proved herself as defiant an individualist as ever, assuming both the bulk of the production responsibilities and the weight of life’s iniquities on SOULS ALIKE (2005) {*6}, yet another Top 20 success story heralded with unyielding adult contemporary hit, `I Will Not Be Broken’. Among the various collaborators it was ex-pat New Orleans pianist Jon Cleary (also from previous encounters) who supplied RAITT with the loosest Hammond B3 grooves, harking back to the second line spirit of her early 70s work with Lowell on the likes of `Love On One Condition’ and `Unnecessarily Mercenary’. In the awkward funk of `Deep Water’, the stanky `God Was In The Water’ (co-penned by another 70s stalwart, RANDALL BRAMBLETT) and the gnarled `Crooked Crown’, however, RAITT showed herself to be on a par with EMMYLOU HARRIS as an elder stateswoman unafraid of sonic replacement therapy.
Featuring friends NORAH JONES, BEN HARPER, ALISON KRAUSS and KEB’MO’, the concert CD/DVD package DECADES ROCK LIVE! (2006) {*7} was something for her fans, as she and Cleary presented some of her stylish soul-blues semi-classics and a few other surprises. She’d certainly taken a step back since both her parents, her brother and her best friend all died around the same time.
Several years since her previous album, the comeback SLIPSTREAM (2012) {*7} set – her first for her own Redwing Records – saw Bonnie back in the Top 10. Roping in JOE HENRY’s Garfield House Studio musicians Greg Leisz, Patrick Warren and Jay Bellerose, she performed a couple of DYLAN cuts (`Million Miles’ and `Standing In The Doorway’) with guest BILL FRISELL, whilst her producer and LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III lavished her with `You Can’t Fail Me Now’. An album shared by RAITT’s own live entourage of George Marinelli (guitar), Mike Finnigan (keyboards), James Hutchinson (bass) and stalwart Ricky Fataar (drums), she slipped in a cod-reggae take of GERRY RAFFERTY’s `Right Down The Line’, while the aforementioned BRAMBLETT was probably content to see `Used To Rule The World’ receive the funky RAITT treatment.
Her 17th studio set in total, the self-produced near Top 10 DIG IN DEEP (2016) {*7}, was more or less an extension of her previous effort, featuring her band and one leftover from the JOE HENRY sessions: the beautiful `You’ve Changed My Mind’. Fans of INXS might cringe at a lady of 66 rendering `Need You Tonight’, but the re-arrangement does it a service, as does her cover of T-BONE BURNETT’s/LOS LOBOS’ `Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes’ and her own (one of five!), `The Ones We Couldn’t Be’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD/BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Mar2016

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