‘I’m living for the ones who didn’t make it’: Bonnie Raitt on her unquenchable thirst for music

The Guardian – By Kat Lister – April 01, 2022

As she wins a lifetime achievement Grammy at 72, the US singer who crossed blues with pop is still determined to support artists who never got their dues.

Bonnie Raitt’s story begins in a childhood bedroom in Burbank, California. By 16, she had already taught herself the guitar by listening to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Now, the Newport folk scene was turning her on to Muddy Waters, John Hammond Jr and Robert Johnson – and to the bewitching sound of the slide guitar. She soaked the label off a medicine bottle, placed her middle finger inside the glass and started to play.

“I’m just one more kid who learned how to play the blues from being a fan,” the 72-year-old tells me on a video call from her home in northern California. It is a modest statement for the first woman to have a Fender guitar launched in her honour. On Sunday, Raitt will receive a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys – a far cry from her DIY beginnings in the mid-60s, and a long overdue accolade. “My gameplan was just to follow my blues and jazz exemplars. Stay true to your art, do the best shows you can, keep going, don’t worry about commercial success, and when you’re 70 years old people will still want to come and see you,” she says.

This self-determination has come to define Raitt’s life and work. She first dazzled the critics in 1971, when she was just 21. Her self-assured debut album, Bonnie Raitt, was followed by six more before the decade was through. The 80s, however, would challenge the singer, who was tussling not only with her label’s commercial expectations, but also with alcohol and drugs, too. In 1983, she was dropped, her ninth album shelved. In spite of the odds, she toured anyway, scaling the band down to just her and a bass guitarist. A few more years passed. Warner Brothers forced her to release the album they had scrapped in 1986. She called it Nine Lives; it is a deeply painful record that she describes as “a sputter of a bad relationship”.

Raitt joined a recovery programme in 1987: “I recognised that I had been in the grips of an increasing addiction, reliant on drugs and alcohol to numb my feelings.” Her 10th album, Nick of Time, was her first made sober – and her first No 1. Luck of the Draw swiftly followed, featuring the pensive ballad I Can’t Make You Love Me, written by Mike Read and Allen Shamblin and later covered by George Michael and Adele.

The album sold 7m copies in the US alone. It was a turning point that Raitt calls her “Cinderella moment” – not because she courted fame and fortune, but because its success enabled her to invest in social activism causes such as the Rhythm & Blues Foundation (dedicated to assisting artists) and Musicians United for Safe Energy, founded by Raitt, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and John Hall. “When I became a hit artist for a minute, I could really raise money and attention in a way that I couldn’t before,” she says. “It gave me clout and freedom and security – and at 40 that was something, along with sobriety, that were four of the greatest gifts I could’ve gotten.”

Granted, Raitt hasn’t always been a Grammy-winning artist, but that doesn’t negate the years that preceded Nick of Time. “I was never unsuccessful in the 70s and 80s,” she says, reframing the narrative. “When I started out, I didn’t want to come off the road, I didn’t want to marry and have kids, I loved the Gypsy life and I loved playing.”

Raitt’s great mission is to showcase underappreciated artists, she says – and that includes the R&B musicians who never got paid for their original recordings. “Someone like me can bring attention to the fact that recording contracts weren’t fair back then, and ask for contributions to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, so we can get some health insurance for these legends who populate your record shelves,” she says.

Her mastery of the guitar once prompted BB King to call Raitt the “best damn slide player working today”. “There were more people around doing great blues guitar,” Raitt says, with typical humility. Shine a light on her accomplishments and she will be quick to turn to those of others. From the folk greats (“Joan Baez and Odetta were like goddesses to me – they were my Beyoncé”) to her blueswomen contemporaries (“Jo Ann Kelly was a master of the acoustic blues. And Sister Rosetta Tharpe nailed the electric guitar. Memphis Minnie was a great role model for me, too”).

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Posted by Teri Perticone

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