For two decades, Bonnie Raitt was no big star but just a talented, hard-working singer and guitarist, making solo albums in a mix of blues, country, folk, and rock and helping out some high-profile colleagues in studio sessions. Her biggest successes happened in the early 1990s, well into her career: Luck of the Draw and Longing in Their Hearts were huge smashes. They were also her 11th and 12th albums. Raitt’s career is an unusual illustration of dues-paying that truly paid off.
She was born in 1949, daughter of Broadway actor and golden-throated bari-tenor John Raitt and the pianist Marge Goddard. As a way of rebelling against her mom as a teen, she taught herself guitar and hung out with beatniks and folkies. That scene wasn’t just about music for Raitt: she wanted to change the world. She entered Harvard in 1967, hoping to learn enough about democracy to help fledgling African nations. Instead, she played the Philadelphia Folk Festival and was signed by Warner Brothers.
Bonnie Raitt was her debut in 1971, a modest seller that critics generally appreciated, particularly for Raitt’s guitar chops. About a third of the tracks were recorded in a live room, without overdubs, an approach Raitt took on as a challenge to up her own game and not rely on post-production.
Besides her talents as a performer, Raitt’s debut also established her as an enthusiastic student of American roots music. Among the many interesting song choices on this disc are two numbers by Sippie Wallace (1898 – 1986), a blues singer/songwriter and early feminist. “Women Be Wise” features a laid-back, flexible vocal by Raitt with some fine honky-tonk piano by John Beach and the muted trumpet of Voyle Harris.
Warner Brothers released Give It Up in 1972. Despite more complex arrangements and another imaginative track list, this record sold only a bit better than the first. It did, however, give critics another chance to praise Raitt’s singing, which kept the album selling steadily. When Takin’ My Time came out in 1973, she built on that groundwork, even if it still wasn’t a hit.
There are many genres at play on Takin’ My Time, from the ragtime “Let Me In” to the sentimental ballad “I Gave My Love a Candle.” Maybe most against type is Raitt’s foray into calypso on “Wah She Go Do” by the great Trinidadian singer/songwriter Calypso Rose. The performance is surprisingly convincing, heartfelt, and humorous without being a stereotype.
For Streetlights (1974), Warner Bros cut Raitt’s studio budget because they thought she overspent on Takin’ my Time. She tried a new producer, Jerry Ragavoy, an experienced songwriter himself (Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Piece of My Heart,” for example). The result was a more mainstream, less raw, less bluesy sound. But that didn’t stop Raitt from inviting blues masters Sippie Wallace and Roosevelt Sykes to join her on the tour.
Raitt’s moving version of John Prine’s “Angel of Montgomery” is an album highlight. Another, which got less attention, is “What Is Success” by Allen Toussaint. In both her guitar playing and her vocal delivery, Raitt taps into some rich soul flavors. Much credit goes to the horn and string arrangements by David Matthews.
The Doors’ producer, Paul Rothchild, took over production for Home Plate (1975), which continued Raitt’s trend toward a pop sound. But it wasn’t until Sweet Forgiveness in 1977 that she had her first solid commercial hit. The album itself reached the Number 25 spot, far higher than past efforts, and her cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” did pretty well as a single.
By this point, Raitt had worked a lot with Jackson Browne, including a tour with him in support of Streetlights. It’s natural that she chose to record his song “My Opening Farewell,” which suits the gentle, emotional country-rock aspect of her musical range.
The Glow followed in 1979, with a large cast of top-notch session musicians like guitarist Danny Kortchmar and drummer Rick Marotta. Critics described it as “slick,” a complaint that sent her on a different path for Green Light (1982). She had been listening to what she termed “rockabilly new wave,” and bands like the Blasters and Rockpile. Her goal on Green Light was to let that style push her sound to heavier, harder rock, yet also return to a more blues-based foundation. She also hoped to create an album that was more fun both to record and to listen to.
She succeeded in spades. The choice of material was influenced by her expansive curiosity as a listener, including the title track by New Rhythm and Blues Quartet (NRBQ) and Eddie Grant’s reggae-tinged “Baby Come Back.” Another unexpected choice was “Let’s Keep It Between Us” by Bob Dylan, which gets the Southern-rock treatment, glued together by Smitty Smith’s organ chords a la 1960s Dylan. Not incidentally, the album’s producer was a Dylan veteran, Rob Fraboni.
In the late 1980s, she left Warner Brothers and signed with Capitol, which proved to be the right move commercially. Nick of Time (1989) was nominated for four Grammys. Raitt’s sales grew until she reached her pinnacle with Luck of the Draw (1991) and Longing in Their Hearts (1994). The big singles during this era included “Something to Talk About” “Not the Only One,” “Thing Called Love,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and “Love Sneakin’ Up on You.”
On Fundamental (1998), Raitt leaned to her country side. For inspiration, she turned to an unusual source: Paul Brady is an Irish singer-songwriter as steeped in Americana as he is in his own culture’s traditions. “Blue for No Reason” is one of two Brady songs on the album and features some nice guitar work by session veteran and Los Lobos staple Dave Hidalgo.
Raitt’s last few albums have been marketed by Redwing Records. Most recently, Dig In Deep (2016) featured tight arrangements with a focus on percussion and bass. There are always great musicians eager to play on a Bonnie Raitt recording session. A typically esoteric blend of song sources makes this another interesting track list, including a cover of INXS’s “Need You Tonight” and a funky run at T Bone Burnett’s “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes.”
Besides the mixed lineup of other people’s songs, Dig In Deep is notable for including original music by Raitt for the first time in over a decade. “If You Need Somebody” was co-written with her guitarist, George Marinelli.
The passing years may have brought a rough edge to Raitt’s voice, but that’s no problem; she knows how to take advantage of her newfound sonic grit to dig deeper into the blues.
Header image of Bonnie Raitt courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Masahiro Sumori.