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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Bonnie Raitt!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Bonnie Raitt, a blues and rock singer

Bonnie Raitt was born on November 8, 1949. Raitt is a blues and rock singer who was a critical favorite for twenty years before finding commercial success in the early 1990s.

Raitt was born in Burbank. Her father, John Raitt, was one of Broadway’s biggest musical stars of the era, appearing in shows like Carousel and The Pajama Game. She began playing the guitar as a child but had no plans to go into music. She entered Radcliffe College in 1967, studying social relations and African studies, and planning to go to the young nation of Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere was trying to create a distinctively African form of democratic socialism.

Raitt left school midway through her second year after a blues promoter encouraged her to give music a chance. Within a few years, she was playing in Mississippi Fred McDowell’s band and giving solo performances in New York clubs. Word spread quickly, and record labels began sending representatives to her shows.

Warner Bros. released her self-titled debut album in 1971. It was firmly in the blues tradition, though it included a couple of pop songs written by Raitt and others. The album was praised by the critics but sold only modestly. That would be the pattern for Raitt’s next several albums, as she worked with a variety of producers, and explored different styles, gradually moving closer to a more mainstream pop/rock sound.

Raitt had a small commercial breakthrough with her 1977 album Sweet Forgiveness, and her version of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” was her first single to make the charts. It wasn’t an enormous hit, but it was enough to start a small bidding war between Warner Bros. and Columbia Records. The two labels were fierce rivals at the time, and several artists had recently jumped from one to the other; both thought that Raitt was sure to break through eventually. Raitt stayed at Warner, but her new deal paid her more.

3 album covers by Bonnie Raitt

The 1982 album Green Light returned Raitt to a more blues-oriented sound, and some critics heard elements of the burgeoning new wave movement in it. It got some of the best reviews of Raitt’s career, but the public remained largely indifferent, and Warner Bros. finally lost their patience.

In 1983, in what Warner called a “house cleaning,” Raitt was one of several artists dropped by the label. The timing was bad; she had just finished recording a new album. Two years later, they told her that they wanted to release that album, and agreed to let her do some additional recording and editing work on it. When Nine Lives was released in 1986, it was another commercial disappointment, and this time, even the critics were less enthusiastic.

For several years, Raitt had struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. With the help of therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous, she got sober in the late 1980s. Raitt gave great credit for her recovery to her friend Stevie Ray Vaughan, who had gotten sober after dealing with his own addictions; she said that seeing his music get even better after sobriety helped her get the help she needed.

Raitt made an important musical connection in 1988, when she was asked to take part in producer Hal Willner’s all-star collection of Disney songs, Stay Awake. Raitt was paired with the band Was (Not Was) to sing “Baby Mine.” Was (Not Was) was at the peak of their success—“Walk the Dinosaur” had been their big hit the previous year—and Raitt asked Don Was to produce her next album.

That album, Nick of Time, was released in 1989, and it was the commercial success that Raitt had been seeking for nearly twenty years. Singles “Have a Heart” and “Nick of Time” both made the top ten on the adult contemporary charts, and Raitt won three Grammy Awards for the album, including Album of the Year. (She won a fourth Grammy that night for “I’m In the Mood,” a duet she’d recorded with John Lee Hooker.)

Was produced two more albums for Raitt. Luck of the Draw featured the two biggest hits of her career, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Something to Talk About;” Longing in Their Hearts included “Love Sneakin’ Up On You.” Between them, the two albums won four more Grammy Awards.

The three albums Raitt recorded with Was were the commercial peak of her career as a pop artist, but she has continued to record a new album every three or four years and has had a dozen more songs make the adult contemporary and adult alternative charts. She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and her 2012 Slipstream won Raitt her tenth Grammy. Her most recent album is 2016’s Dig In Deep.

Beyond her own albums, Raitt has been a frequent duet partner and contributor to multi-artist projects. She’s appeared on tribute albums to Fats Domino (“I’m In Love Again/All By Myself”) and Warren Zevon (“Poor Poor Pitiful Me”), and been a guest artist on albums by Aretha Franklin (“You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”), Tony Bennett (“I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues”), Willie Nelson (“Getting Over You”), and the Blind Boys of Alabama (“When the Spell Is Broken”).

Raitt has also been an activist on several social and political issues. She was one of the organizers of the 1979 all-star “No Nukes” concerts. In the 1990s, she worked with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund to pay for headstones for several blues musicians who were buried in unmarked graves. And she works with the organization Little Kids Rock, which provides free musical instruments and lessons to children in public schools.

More of Bonnie Raitt’s music is available for streaming at Hoopla.