Born Bonnie Lynn Raitt, November 8, 1949 in Burbank, CA; daughter of John (a musical theater actor) and Marjorie (Haydock) Raitt; married Michael O'Keefe (actor) in April 1991. Education: Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA Addresses: Record company-Capitol Records, 1750 N. Vine St., Hollywood, CA, 90028, Phone: (213) 871- 5197 Fax: (213) 871-5836.

Inspired by politically-themed folk music and rhythm and blues, vocalist and guitarist Bonnie Raitt perfected her own style of crossover music for some twenty years before becoming a superstar. In fact, Raitt was dropped by her record company because of poor sales prior to releasing her 1989 breakthrough album, Nick of Time. Soon thereafter, Robert Hilburn commented in the Los Angeles Times, "At 44, an age when many pop-rockers are in the twilight of their careers, Bonnie Raitt exudes the energy and ambition of someone just entering her prime-which she may well be." A performer who loves to tour, Raitt is also a tireless champion of social issues. Within the musical realm, this includes encouraging women to play the guitar and helping aging, financially-distressed blues musicians.

Raitt's husky vocals and slide guitar playing are the core of a musical style that defies categorization. As she explained in Guitar Player, "I'm certainly blues-based, but I've never felt that I was totally a blues artist. I've been doing the same mixture of rock and roll songs, ballads by contemporary songwriters, [and] off-the-wall jazz songs." Raitt is famous for playing bottleneck slide guitar, a technique she taught herself. And while Raitt is modest about her playing abilities-she demurred in Guitar Player, "I play the same Muddy Waters lick over and over"-she placed first in the magazine's readers poll for four consecutive years. For many years, Raitt specialized in playing and singing other people's songs, performing only a few of her own. But the overwhelmingly positive response to Raitt's own songs on Nick of Time has given her a new confidence and interest in songwriting.

Raised a Quaker, Raitt grew up in New York and Los Angeles. She began playing guitar at age nine and learned to play, in part, by copying her favorite blues recordings. Another important musical influence was, as Raitt described it in the Los Angeles Times, "this sort of progressive Quaker camp in the early '60s that had a lot of counselors from the East Coast colleges where a lot of interest in folk music and civil rights and the peace movement was mushrooming.... So that kind of tied music and politics together for me." The experience led Raitt down a far different musical path from that of her father, John Raitt, a musical theater star who had leading roles in the first Broadway productions of Carousel and The Pajama Game during the 1940s and 1950s. Father and daughter have widely different professional interests but have great respect for each other's talents and a mutual understanding of the desire to perform. Raitt said to her father in a New York Times interview titled "Like Father, Unlike Daughter," "I think we have the same dedication. I don't want to get another job and neither do you. We'll do anything to keep this gig." The two have performed together on "An Evening at the Pops," a 1992 concert broadcast on public television.

In 1967, Raitt began attending Boston's Radcliffe College but she soon found a greater interest in the local music scene. She met Dick Waterman, a manager who introduced her to blues greats John Hurt, Fred McDowell, and Sippie Wallace. Waterman eventually became Raitt's manager. Within a couple of years, Raitt dropped out of college to perform in folk and blues clubs. While other artists speak of the inspiration they have found in the recordings of blues musicians, Raitt met and performed with her idols, a practice she has continued throughout her career. In 1971, Raitt signed with Warner Bros. Records and released her debut album, Bonnie Raitt. It was not until 1974 that Raitt began playing lead guitar, beginning with the album Streetlights, and touring with her own band. The next year, Raitt bought a home in Los Angeles.

Raitt produced five albums from 1971-75, containing mostly covers of blues, folk, and pop songs. Tracks included several Sippie Wallace tunes ("You Got to Know How," "Mighty Tight Woman," and "Woman be Wise") as well as songs by Joni Mitchell, John Prine , Jackson Brown, and Randy Newman. In 1977, Raitt's LP Sweet Forgiveness turned into her first gold album and produced a hit cover of Del Shannon's "Runaway." Raitt's interest in linking music and social causes was evident in her 1979 participation as a founding member of Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.). Joining M.U.S.E. co-founders John Hall, Jackson Browne, and Graham Nash, she performed in a series of five benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden, which were recorded and released as a three-album set.

The albums that followed, The Glow (1979) and Green Light (1982), did not perpetuate increased album sales for Raitt. She was working on an album tentatively titled Tongue and Groove for Warner Bros., only to be told that the record company refused to release it. While the material was eventually released as by Warner Bros. as Nine Lives in 1986, Raitt parted ways with the company in 1983, sought new management, and later signed a contract with Capitol Records. The upheaval in Raitt's life was personal as well as professional. In 1987 she joined Alcoholics Anonymous, feeling that she had hit bottom physically and emotionally. Raitt looked back on the experience in a New York Times interview, noting, "I'm really grateful that I didn't either kill myself or somebody else. I really used to think I needed to be messed up to sing the kind of music I sing.... I don't regret all those years, but I was one of the lucky people that could say no to [alcohol] and not miss it that much."

Don Was in the Nick of Time

Working with producer Don Was, Raitt rebounded professionally when she recorded Nick of Time. The album surprised many with its hit songs "Thing Called Love," "Nick of Time," and "Have a Heart." Raitt won four Grammys in 1990, three for Nick of Time, and one for best traditional blues recording, for her duet with John Lee Hooker, "In the Mood." Nick of Time went on to sell more than four million copies and the album catapulted Raitt into super- stardom. By comparison, her previous albums had each sold in the ballpark of several hundred thousand copies. In 1991, Raitt recorded a follow up album with Don Was, Luck of the Draw, which included the hit singles "Something to Talk About," "I Can't Make You Love Me," and "Not the Only One."

The media attention generated by these two breakthrough albums gave Raitt new opportunities to promote political and social causes as well as to express her views on the music business. In 1991, Raitt co-founded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, an organization devoted to assisting aging and often poor musicians. She frequently appears at political benefits, such as a 1998 fund-raiser for Democratic California senator Barbara Boxer. In the New York Times, Raitt commented on using fame to advance causes: "You just do what you can.... As long as I've got a mouth, somebody's going to be hearing about it. I'm just glad I won those Grammys, so now I get on a better page when the newspapers cover these things."

Raitt has also used the spotlight to remark on the youth-oriented and male-dominated music business. Speaking to the New York Times she said, "I thought that after I won those Grammys, people like Delbert McClinton and John Hiatt would then start having hit records.... I though maybe it would mean that age-ism wasn't going to happen, but everything's too bucks-driven." Regarding her own experiences as a woman in the industry, she told Rolling Stone, "I've been lucky in that people haven't judged me primarily by my appearance; they've judged me by how I sing and play. Women like Tracy Chapman and Chrissie Hynde and me-we're all gonna be OK. But the Spice Girls probably won't be able to do what they're doing now when they're 45."

Raitt is working to encourage other women to play the guitar, which led to the Bonnie Raitt-signature Fender guitar. The only Fender instrument to honor a woman, it's production resulted in a giveaway program and provided women with an instrument that features a slimmer neck-which is more suited to smaller hands-and a copy of a guitar that Raitt plays. Raitt was enthusiastic about the future of women guitarists in Guitar Player, saying, "I'm waiting for the next Stevie Ray Vaughan to be a woman.... We're like a sneeze away from a great lead guitar player with that kind of attitude.... We just have to make sure [women] get the exposure they deserve."

Her interest in such issues has not diminished Raitt's devotion to performing or her desire to grow as an artist. In 1994, she again worked with Don Was, recording Longing in Their Hearts and the hit "Love Sneakin' Up on You." In 1995 Raitt issued the live, two-CD recording Road Tested, capturing her passion for performing on stage with excerpts from five concerts. This album ended Raitt's string of collaborations with Was. Raitt's 1998 release, Fundamental, was produced by Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, who have worked with artists including Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, and Richard Thompson. The album was described by Neill Strauss in the New York Times as "11 stylistically diverse songs that value raw musical immediacy over pop polish. Throughout the album, Ms. Raitt... sings of the search for love and the struggle to keep love alive."

Writing for Billboard, Melinda Newman observed that at the time of Fundamental's release, Raitt had already enjoyed "household name" status for nearly ten years. With appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and The Late Show With David Letterman, in addition to being highlighted on VH-1, the album's promotion showed that Raitt continued to keep a high profile. She was also scheduled to take part in several concerts in the 1998 Lilith Fair festival, which features an eclectic mix of female performers. Raitt expressed both appreciation for her good fortune and a yearning for the smaller, intimate performances of the past in Billboard, saying, "I've been playing these sheds because there's 15,000 people a night who want to see [me] luckily, and that's great for me. Except, I'm sure those longtime fans sure get tired of only getting to see me in a big place." And she concluded that her time onstage was still her greatest thrill: "The time when you're actually getting onstage and playing makes it all worth it. If you can have a life where you get to travel around and control when and where you work and have that much fun and make that many people happy'. I'm not complaining for one minute."

by Paula Pyzik Scott

Bonnie Raitt's Career

Dropped out of college to pursue a musical career; began by performing in Boston clubs; signed with manager Dick Waterman who introduced her to legendary blues musicians; signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. and released debut album Bonnie Raitt, 1971; earned first gold album with Sweet Forgiveness, 1977; was dropped by Warner Bros. during work on her ninth album, which the company eventually released as Nine Lives; with a new manager and record contract with Capitol, Raitt producedNick of Time with Don Was, 1989; released first live album, Road Tested, 1995.

Bonnie Raitt's Awards

Album of the year, best female rock vocal, best female pop vocal, best traditional blues recording (with John Lee Hooker), 1990; Grammy Awards, best female pop vocal, best rock performance by duo or group, 1992; Grammy Award, best pop album, 1994.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 30, 2003: Raitt's album, Best of Bonnie Raitt on Capitol 1989-2003, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/rock.jsp, October 2, 2003.

September 13, 2005: Raitt's album, Souls Alike, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_7/index.jsp, September 14, 2005.

Further Reading

Sources

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 8 years ago

Bonnie ROCKS!!! First time I saw her was on PBS, before she was known. I called my dad and told him to put the tv on channel 8, he would love this ladys' music. Was able to go to a concert with my dad and sister to see her. He loved Bonnie as much as I!! Saw her at Chastain Park last night with Taj Mahal, AWESOME concert!!!

almost 9 years ago

I saw Bonnie Raitt live in concert many years ago at the Starlight Amphitheater in Burbank, CA (I wonder if it's still there?). She was amazing and so down to earth! She even mentioned to the audience that she grew up right down the street and was very familiar with this section of town. I've always loved her music and style.