Bonnie Raitt's mellifluous voice, accomplished guitar playing and classic catalog of blues, folk, R&B, and pop songs have made her one of the most acclaimed artists of her generation. Though she made her debut in in 1971, it was not until 1989's Nick of Time and 1991's Luck of the Draw that Raitt achieved the enormous commercial success fans and critics had been predicting for decades.
The daughter of Broadway star John Raitt, Bonnie Raitt began playing guitar at age 12 and was immediately attracted to the blues. In 1967 she left her L.A. home to enter Radcliffe, but dropped out after two years and began playing the local folk and blues clubs. Dick Waterman, longtime blues aficionado and manager, signed her, and soon she was performing with Howlin' Wolf, Sippie Wallace, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and other blues legends. Her reputation in Boston and Philadelphia led to a record contract with Warner Brothers.
Raitt's early albums were critically lauded for her singing and guitar playing (she is one of the few women who play bottleneck) as well as her choice of material, which often included blues as well as pop and folk songs. Most of Raitt's repertoire consists of covers, and she has gone out of her way to credit her sources, often touring with them as opening acts. Her sixth album, Sweet Forgiveness (Number 25, 1977), went gold and yielded a hit cover version of Del Shannon's "Runaway" (Number 57, 1977). The Glow (featuring her first original tunes since three on Give It Up) (Number 30, 1979) was produced by Peter Asher, but it did not sell as well as its predecessor.
A Quaker, Raitt has played literally hundreds of benefits over the course of her career. She was a founder of M.U.S.E. (Musicians United for Safe Energy), which in September 1979 held a massive concert at Madison Square Garden, with other stars such as Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and the Doobie Brothers. It was later commemorated on a three-LP set. In 1982 she released her eighth LP, Green Light (Number 38, 1982), a harder-rocking effort aided by her backup band, the Bump Band, which included veteran keyboardist Ian MacLagan (of the Faces and the Stones) and Raitt's longtime bassist and tuba-player, Freebo, remained a constant sideman through her various backup bands. They toured with Raitt in mid-1982, greeted by the usual critical acclaim. Her work also appeared on the platinum 1980 Urban Cowboy soundtrack, with the country song "Don't It Make You Wanna Dance."
When Nine Lives (Number 115, 1986) flopped, Raitt lost her deal with Warner Bros. Prince reportedly produced an album's worth of tracks with her, but they were never released. Instead, Raitt reemerged in 1989 on Capitol with her Don Was–produced breakthrough album Nick of Time, which smoothed out her rough bluesy edges yet avoided crass commercialism. It topped the charts, sold 4 million copies, and won an Album of the Year Grammy (one of four awards won by a thunderstruck Raitt at the 1990 gala; one was for her duet with Delbert McClinton, "Good Man, Good Woman").
The pattern held with Luck of the Draw (Number 2, 1991), another Was production, which included the hit singles "Something to Talk About" (Number 5, 1991) and "I Can't Make You Love Me" (Number 18, 1991). It sold over 4 million copies and netted three more Grammys, for Album of the Year, Best Female Rock Vocal, and Best Pop Vocal Performance. Raitt earned another in 1990, for Best Traditional Blues Recording, for "In the Mood," a duet with John Lee Hooker on his album The Healer. Her former label Warner Bros. capitalized on Raitt's high profile by releasing The Bonnie Raitt Collection (Number 61, 1990), which included live duets with Sippie Wallace and John Prine.
In April 1991 Raitt married actor Michael O'Keefe (they divorced in 1999). Raitt also cofounded the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness and money for influential musical pioneers left impoverished in their old age by unfair record deals and lack of health insurance. Raitt once again found success working with producer Don Was, as 1994's Longing in Their Hearts topped the chart and went platinum shortly after its release; it sold over 2 million copies. It included "Love Sneakin' Up on You" (Number 19, 1994) and "You" (Number 92, 1994). Around this time, Raitt had a hit with "You Got It" (Number 33, 1995) from the film Boys on the Side, and a minor hit with "Rock Steady"(Number 73, 1995), a duet with Bryan Adams. Road Tested (Number 44, 1995) is a live album.
In 1995 Raitt became the first woman guitarist to have a guitar named for her. All royalties from the sale of Fender's Bonnie Raitt Signature Series Stratocaster go to programs to teach inner-city girls to play guitar.
Her next effort, Fundamental (Number 17, 1998), produced by Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, was a less polished collection that some viewed as a return to the fine roots- and blues-based work of her earlier, hitless days. Raitt called 1982's Green Light the album's "true predecessor." Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, Raitt continues to perform for and speak out on a wide range of issues, including nuclear power, reproductive freedom, and the environment. In 2002, Raitt issued Silver Lining (Number 13, 2002) followed by a greatest hits compilation, The Best of Bonnie Raitt on Capitol 1989-2003 in 2003. The self-produced (with Tchad Blake) Souls Alike (Number 19, 2005) followed in 2005. In 2006, Bonnie collaborated with Norah Jones, Alison Krauss, Keb' Mo', and Ben Harper on the DVD/CD project Bonnie Raitt and Friends.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
POLITICS No Price Big Banks Can't Fix
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus