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This story by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 12, 1998. All rights reserved.
An Artist Who Remembers When
Bonnie Raitt has come a long way since playing the basket houses around Boston. In the late 1960s, in Boston coffee houses, she was adding a much-needed woman's point of view to the blues, singing songs by her mentors, people like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace. Raitt, now 48, is a person who doesn't forget her friends or her roots. In 1987 she played the Hudson River Clearwater environmental festival in Westchester County, co-founded by her old friends and supporters Pete and Toshi Seeger, for just $300.
Since 1990, Raitt and her various bands have been playing big shows at big arenas, like the show coming up at the PNC Bank Arts Center at Garden State, Thursday, August 13, at 8 p.m. That a woman who considers herself primarily a blues singer and guitarist by trade could have such a meteoric rise to prominence in the current record business climate, with its all-consuming focus on profits, is frankly amazing.
In other words, Raitt got lucky, and she knows it. But at the same time, no one can accuse her of having forgotten where she comes from, nor of having forgotten her friends. Raitt, a liberal Democrat known for her more-than-generous support of a wide range of causes that include abortion rights, women's rights, Native-American rights, and the environment, is married to actor Michael O'Keefe. They have no children, and as she explained in a recent New York Times interview, "I feel that my job is to mother the causes I'm involved in."
Among her many non-profit groups, Raitt remains active and involved on the boards of the Washington, D.C.-based Rhythm and Blues Foundation and the Memphis-based Blues Foundation. This February, for the first time since their inception, Raitt missed the R&B Foundation awards ceremonies, held in New York the night following the Grammys -- a bout with the flu kept her away.
For a shining example of Raitt's style of grass-roots benevolence and activism, one need only take a look at her 1995 summer tour. She performed at the Arts Center with legendary vocalist Ruth Brown and pianist Charles Brown on her bill. While barnstorming across the country, playing big arenas, she introduced both Browns (who are not related) to new and larger audiences. In the process, she helped the artists -- veterans of the business -- sell more records and earn improved name recognition among a media-saturated populous that doesn't normally listen to such college and public radio outlets as Philadelphia's WXPN-FM, Princeton University's WPRB-FM, or Rutgers University's WRSU-FM.
Two summers back, my guest for my Rutgers' radio show was East Orange-based jazz balladeer Jimmy Scott, who now lives in Cleveland. Scott, 73, one of the first inductees at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation's annual Pioneer Awards in 1989, couldn't stop smiling during Raitt's set, so great was his love for this artist. Unlike some other prominent performers who've done well financially, Raitt backs up her words with checks, and Scott said he'll never forget the check he received from Raitt, over and above the $15,000 he was awarded by the R&B Foundation at the Pioneer Awards. Scott used his R&B Foundation money to form J's Way Records, recording and releasing CDs by up-and-coming New York area jazz singers.
Born in Cleveland in 1949, Raitt was raised in Los Angeles, the daughter of Broadway star John Raitt and an accomplished piano-playing mother, Marjorie. When she was eight, she received a Stella guitar as a Christmas gift. But the blues bug didn't really hit until the 1960s folk and blues revival, when she was attending Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Like Johnny Winter, Janis Joplin, Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs, and a lot of other 1960s blues kids, Raitt dropped out of college after the blues bug hit her. She never did graduate.
In her early days around Boston, she and other musicians would hang out at the home of blues impresario and scholar Dick Waterman, who managed acts like McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt, and John Paul Hammond. The young Raitt would open for Hammond (now of Jersey City) at Boston area clubs and coffee houses, and she eventually caught the ear of Waterman, who began managing her as well.
"No one was more surprised than I to get a record contract at 21," she explains in the biography that accompanies this year's new Capitol Records release, "Fundamental," " -- suddenly my hobby was my career."
Raitt's albums include her self-titled debut for Warner Brothers, "Bonnie Raitt," released in 1971, "Give It Up," (1972), "Takin' My Time" (1973), "Streetlights" (1974), "Homeplate" (1975), "Sweet Forgiveness" (1977), "The Glow" (1979), "Green Light" (1982), and "Nine Lives" (1986), all with Warner. Despite the marketing and promotional muscle of that major label, Raitt didn't break out into the big time until after 1989, when she signed with Capitol Records.
As she recently told an interviewer for Guitar Player magazine, "Radio only decided to play me when my age group got old enough to own radio stations. Like suddenly, by the time I was 39, some other 39-year-old was program director at some station and said, `You know, I really dug Bonnie Raitt when I was in college, and she's got a new record out. Let's play it.'"
Beginning with her 1989 Grammy-winning "Nick Of Time" album, Raitt suddenly became a mainstream artist, and to her mind, it wasn't because she was doing anything different. It was because she was being played on mainstream commercial radio stations of considerable wattage and listener buying power. "Nick Of Time" was a hugely successful album, and for Raitt, it was truly a first big break. The four Grammys awarded the album pushed sales even further.
"It was like winning the lottery," says Raitt. "It catapulted the record to No. 1, and soon I was off on a whole new tour, this time playing to up to 20,000 [people] a night." Raitt followed up the multi-platinum success of "Nick Of Time" with "Luck of the Draw," "Longing In Their Hearts," and "Road Tested," all 1990s albums that blend pop tunes and blues into a palatable mix -- both for the 40- and 50-somethings who were around for the 1960s folk-blues revival, as well as for the 20- and 30-somethings who discovered Joan Baez and Bob Dylan through their parents' record collections.
Raitt's most recent, 1998 release, "Fundamental," opens with the attention-grabbing line: "Let's run naked through these city streets, we're all victims of captivity." She continues: "Let's get back to the fundamental things, let's get back to the elemental style, let's get back to simple skin on skin." Then later, she sings, "maybe we'll find our innocence again."
True to the form of her spate of 1990s albums, Raitt includes a blues tune, one written by J.B. Lenoir, "Round and Round," and sings through a harmonica bullet microphone to give the track a classic, 1930s blues ambiance. While "Fundamental" offers a change in direction that some fans won't be happy with, Raitt herself acknowledges she's lucky enough to be able to afford to tell her record company what producers she wants to work with and what kind of record she wants to make.
Working with New York and L.A.-based producer Mitchell Froom (the husband of folk singer Suzanne Vega), and his longtime engineer, Tchad Blake, Raitt says she was ready to shake things up a bit. "I loved working with Don Was, Ed Cherney, and the band on my last four albums, but this time I wanted to give myself and my fans a stretch and do something different," she says. Froom and Blake have forged a reputation for their sonically innovative work on recordings by Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, and Sheryl Crow.
With Froom and Blake behind the console and a new team of musicians together in the studio with Raitt for the first time, "Fundamental" was recorded in just 29 days. Raitt performs some tasty, blues-based slide guitar playing and also delivers just-right keyboard treatments on other tracks, supplementing the keyboard work of producer Froom.
While "Fundamental" certainly includes enough of Raitt's wonderful slide guitar playing to keep most fans happy, there is a sparse feeling to some tracks on the album, and it's far from the slick (some would say over-produced) lushness of "Nick of Time."
"Over the years," Raitt explains, "I've found that making records means learning how not to lose the best moments. That's why I tend to go for first or second takes. On this record in particular, we tended not to fix anything. Just let it be."
Not fixing things and letting things be is in keeping with the blues recording and performing tradition laid down by Raitt's mentors McDowell, Wallace, Ruth Brown, and Charles Brown.
Perhaps the legendary R&B vocalist Ruth Brown (who made a big splash with her return to Broadway in the hit show "Black and Blue") sums up Raitt's loyal nature best in her memoirs, "Miss Rhythm" (1996, Penguin Books).
Brown recalls the summer of 1995 tour, writing, "It was during the space of that tour -- on which, I don't need to add, we stayed in all the best hotels, traveled in unbelievable luxury -- that I got to thinking how far one person can travel in the space of a lifetime. . . from the back of a tobacco truck in the 1950s, changing in the headlights, washing with witch hazel, paid if we were lucky enough or smart enough to extract the money in advance, to playing with a true friend like Bonnie, someone who worked her butt off each night, sang her heart out -- then turned around and gave you the most glowing and gracious introduction imaginable."
That's the Bonnie Raitt that her longtime fans know and love.
-- Richard J. Skelly
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com -- the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.