“It’s the Grammy lady! It’s the Grammy lady!”
Bonnie Raitt hadn’t even made it out of the parking lot and into the terminal at the San Francisco International Airport when one of her nightmares suddenly became real. Like most performers, Raitt suffers from a couple of recurring anxiety dreams. In one, she’s being pushed onto a stage with her father, actor and singer John Raitt, and she doesn’t know the words to any of the songs she’s supposed to perform. In another, she finds herself in the middle of a crowd of people who recognize her and won’t leave her alone, and there’s no one around to help her: no road manager, no security people. And that’s exactly what happened on a recent night when Raitt went to the airport to pick up her new paramour, Michael O’Keefe.
“People were running up to me and yelling,” Raitt says the next day. “Even little kids.” She’s curled up on a couch in the living room of a small, Hobbit-like house, filled with candles, crystals and carved trolls, that she’s renting in the Northern California redwoods. “I panicked,” she continues, “because Michael’s plane was late, and I didn’t have any place to go and I didn’t have anybody with me. I really got scared.”
Raitt finally ducked into one of the gift shops, bought a huge hat to conceal her familiar mane of red hair and managed to survive intact until actor O’Keefe (The Great Santini, Caddyshack) arrived. “I didn’t realize I was going to have to start wearing disguises,” Raitt says with a sigh.
The need for disguises is about the only negative side effect of the sudden fame that has befallen Raitt after 20 years in the music business. To the surprise — and delight — of music fans everywhere, Raitt dominated this year’s Grammy Awards, winning in four categories: Album of the Year; Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female; Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female; and Best Traditional Blues Recording (with John Lee Hooker). Three of the awards honored Nick of Time, Raitt’s latest album, which is made up of her usual mix of blues, R&B and pop ballads. The LP makes no ostensible concessions to current popular tastes, and it addresses such grown-up concerns as having children and coming to terms with old age. Nonetheless, the album, produced by Don Was, managed to sell a million copies by the time the Grammy ceremonies were held in Los Angeles on February 21st. Since then, more than 700,000 additional copies have been sold, and at press time the album had skyrocketed to Number Three on the Billboard chart. (The fourth Grammy was for “I’m in the Mood,” a duet on Hooker’s new album, The Healer.)
Born 40 years ago in Burbank, California, Bonnie Lynn Raitt is the antithesis of the overnight sensation. Her father became a major Broadway star in the Forties and Fifties as a result of his roles in such musicals as Oklahoma!, Carousel, The Pajama Game, Annie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me Kate. Her family (including her mother, Marjorie Haydock, and two brothers) spent most of Bonnie’s early years shuttling between the two coasts until 1957, when they settled in Los Angeles after her father landed a role in the film version of The Pajama Game. Despite his popularity, the Raitts, who were practicing Quakers, kept a fairly low profile on the Hollywood scene (one of their only celebrity friends was Hugh Beaumont, who played the father on Leave It to Beaver).
When she was eight, Bonnie got her first guitar, a $25 Stella, as a Christmas present. At the time, her instrument of choice was piano, but within a few years she changed her mind. Her maternal grandfather, a Methodist missionary who also played Hawaiian lap steel guitar, taught her a few chords on the guitar, and her counselors at a Quaker summer camp in the Adirondacks turned her on to the emerging folk and protest music. In addition, Raitt was exposed to the blues via an album recorded at the 1963 Newport festival and a batch of Ray Charles recordings a family friend had given her.
After her family moved back East when she was 15, Raitt attended a Quaker high school in Poughkeepsie, New York, then enrolled in Radcliffe, where she intended to major in African studies, an outgrowth of her childhood fascination with Tanzania. That plan got derailed, though, when she met Dick Waterman, a former photojournalist who had helped such bluesmen as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James resuscitate their careers in the wake of the Sixties blues resurgence. What started as a weekend attraction to the blues turned more serious after Waterman, whom Raitt was soon dating, began adding her to some of his artists’ shows. “I never expected to have a career in music,” she says. “But I thought, ‘Geez, if I want to take a semester off from college and support myself by making $50 here and there, well …’ It was hilarious to me that it went over.”