Earlier this spring Seventies blues prodigy Bonnie Raitt hit the charts with a brand new studio release, her sixteenth, called Slipstream
, defined as the stream of air behind a moving object. The album's title holds much significance to the re-energized world-class blueswoman, slide-guitar master, platinum pop star, singer-songwriter, and social activist who strapped on her guitar and got down to the business of reclaiming her place in the music community after a self-imposed exile kept her out of the recording studio for seven long years. "I'm in the slipstream of all these styles of music," she says. "I'm so inspired and so proud to continue these traditions, whether it's reggae or soul or blues. I'm in the slipstream of those who came before me, and I'm leaving one for those behind me."
Not only does Slipstream
mark the return of Bonnie Raitt, it heralds the birth of her very own label, Redwing Records. After a career split between Warner Bros. and Capitol Records, Raitt, now 62, decided to follow the example set by many of her peers and start her own label. Slipstream
is the first release in its catalog.
Raitt's last album, 2005s acclaimed Souls Alike
, came out at a particularly rough time for her, released amid a cluster of passings that included both parents, Raitt's brother, and her best friend. After touring in support of the album, Bonnie decided to step back and recharge for a while. "I took a hiatus from touring and recording to get back in touch with the other part of my life," she says. "I didn't have to be the professional version of myself for a long time. It wasn't so much a vacation as a chance to take care of a lot of neglected areas of my life, a lot of processing after all that loss and activity."
The flaming-haired songstress has been making music for more than four decades now and is a notorious road warrior. She apprenticed with the greats like Son House and Muddy Waters when those storied performers were about the same age she is now. To many, Raitt is a crucial link in the chain of great blues artists.
Bonnie had a natural talent for the guitar, and from the time she was a Harvard African Studies major, she was playing a fearsome repertoire of blues licks, fingerpicking with the best, and wielding a slide with authority. She was a girl in what was still considered by many to be a boys' club. Raitt was, in fact, one of only two female guitarists (the other being Joni Mitchell) named to Rolling Stone's
list of 100 Greatest Guitarists.
Bonnie Lynn Raitt was born into a musical family in Burbank, California, on November 8, 1949. The ten-time Grammy winner is the daughter of celebrated Broadway singer John Raitt (Carousel, Oklahoma!, The Pajama Game
) and accomplished pianist/singer Marge Goddard. Unlike many of her female friends, Bonnie showed an interest in music from an early age and was given a Stella guitar for Christmas when she was 8 years old. She picked up the instrument in earnest at the age of 12 and took an instant liking to blues and slide guitar after hearing the album Blues at Newport 1963
when she was 14.
"I had played a little at school and at camp," Raitt recalled in a July 2002 interview. "My parents would drag me out to perform for my family, like all parents do, but it was a hobby—nothing more... I think people must wonder how a white girl like me became a blues guitarist. The truth is, I never intended to do this for a living."
Early in her career, while living in one of the West Hollywood apartment complexes directly behind Cherokee Studios, Raitt used to get back-up singing recording gigs with music producers Bruce Robb and Steve Cropper. As Cherokee's owner Bruce Robb recalls, "Bonnie became somewhat of a fixture around Cherokee, hanging out on the back steps when she was in need of work. Cropper and I would pull her in to sing on stuff and give her a couple hundred bucks. She already had the awe of us on the 'music' side of the industry. It was the suits who took a little longer to figure out that she was a star."
Eager to get involved in the social turmoil of the 1960s, Bonnie packed her bags and headed east to study at Harvard's Radcliffe College, where she gravitated to the Cambridge folk-blues scene. Besides her interest in the social issues of the day, Raitt kept up with her music and often played at local coffeehouses between classes, fine-tuning her gritty, soulful voice and skillful interpretations on the bottleneck guitar.
Raitt was soon a staple of the Boston folk-and-blues circuit. It was there she met blues promoter and Cambridge resident Dick Waterman, who introduced her to some of the legends of the genre. At the time, very few women in popular music had strong reputations as guitarists.
Bonnie began performing in folk and R&B clubs alongside established blues legends like Howlin' Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell, both of whom she met through Waterman. "What earned their respect was my playing bottleneck guitar," she recalls. "John Lee and B.B. and those guys thought I was funky. It was the greatest joy to be accepted by those blues guys."
It was from these blues masters that Bonnie learned firsthand many life lessons as well as invaluable techniques of performance. "I'm certain that it was an incredible gift for me to not only be friends with some of the greatest blues people who've ever lived, but to learn how they played, how they sang, how they lived their lives, ran their marriages, and talked to their kids," she says.
When Dick Waterman and a number of local musicians all relocated to Philadelphia during Bonnie's sophomore year at Radcliffe, Raitt felt lost. So she decided to take off a semester and joined her compatriots in Pennsylvania. "It was an opportunity that young white girls just don't get," she says, "and as it turns out, an opportunity that changed everything."
As her reputation as a blues artist grew, Raitt attracted the attention of record executives at Warner Bros. who signed her, at age 21, to a contract that granted her full artistic control, something that was practically unheard of at the time for someone so green, no less a woman. By 1971, Raitt had released her eponymous debut album, Bonnie Raitt
, which showcased her interpretations of classic blues by artists like Robert Johnson and Sippie Wallace. The album was warmly received by critics.
While admired by those who saw her perform and respected by her peers, Raitt gained little public acclaim for her work. She would record 4 albums over the next 6 years, but it wasn't until 1977s Sweet Forgiveness
that Raitt scored a minor hit with her bluesy version of the Del Shannon song "Runaway," which landed at #57 on US record charts. Long a darling of the critics, commercial success continued to elude her. It would take another dozen years for Raitt to go mainstream.
By now, Bonnie was already experimenting with different producers and different styles and began to adopt a more mainstream sound. She was also struggling with alcohol and drug issues. Once she dealt with her abuse and got clean and sober, Raitt began working with a new record label (Capitol Records), and hit her stride in 1989 with the release of her tenth album, Nick of Time
. After two decades as one of music's underdogs, the floodgates finally opened. The album earned Raitt three Grammy Awards in 1990, including one for Album of the Year. (She also won an award that year for "In the Mood," a duet with John Lee Hooker on his breakthrough album, The Healer
.) Nick of Time
hit the top of the charts and has sold over 5 million copies in the US alone.
Lightning struck twice for Raitt with her next release, 1991s Luck of the Draw
, which included the smash singles "Something to Talk About" and "I Can't Make You Love Me." Luck of the Draw
surpassed the success of Nick of Time
, selling nearly 7 million copies in the US and earning Raitt another three Grammys. Three years later, in 1994, she added two more Grammys to her shelf with the release of Longing in Their Hearts
, her second No. 1 album and third straight to go multi-platinum.
In between recording sessions and heavy touring, Bonnie devoted herself, and continues to devote herself, to playing benefits and speaking out in support of an array of worthy causes. She campaigned to stop the war in Central America and participated in the Sun City anti-apartheid project. She performed at the historic 1980 No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden, co-founded MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), and worked tirelessly for environmental protection and for the rights of women and Native Americans.
Raitt continued to release strong albums throughout the early 1990s and racked up another Grammy win in 1996 for her work on a tribute album to Stevie Ray Vaughn, whom she credits for helping her get sober. (Check out "Pride and Joy,"
which she dedicates to Vaughn.) Bonnie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. After the release of Souls Alike
in 2005, she decided to take a break from recording.
Traveling for fun instead of work rejuvenated Raitt, who says she relished the time spent with family and friends and the freedom to do ordinary things like going to the symphony and checking out live jazz shows. Raitt continued her ongoing political work during her hiatus, and occasionally collaborated with friends, both in the studio and on the road, whenever the opportunity arose.
As much as Bonnie enjoyed her time off, she also missed her work. And judging by the packed concert halls of late, Raitt's fans missed her back. Slipstream
, which broke into Billboard's
top 10, is classic Bonnie Raitt, mixing bluesy slide-guitar riffs with her soulful voice and a pop-friendly sensibility on covers of songs by Joe Henry, Bob Dylan and Loudon Wainwright III as well as a reggae-fied version of Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line" to rival the original. According to Rolling Stone
, who gave the release four stars, "[Slipstream
] is mood music with a razor edge, pain fronting as bliss, delivered by a vet who understands that the blues are often about just that." Any guitarist would be lucky to follow in her wake.
image: By John Edwards (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]
, via Wikimedia Commons