Bonnie Raitt, Blues Sister: Her Life And Times In Eight Songs

Heading Photo By Ebet Roberts

When an icon drops her first album in six years, you sit up and take notice. Bonnie Raitt made her earliest record a half-century and more ago, in August 1971. She was 21 and could easily have been carded; the face on the cover of Bonnie Raitt—that first album—has yet to shed all its baby fat.

Eighteen albums followed, through 2016's Dig in Deep, before Raitt took time off to rest, take stock, then wait out the pandemic. In summer 2021, she put the call out to her longtime band, and work commenced on her 20th album. Like its predecessors, Just Like That is roots-inflected pop of the highest order.

The arc of Bonnie Raitt's life is common knowledge: daughter of a not-quite-top-tier star of the golden age of the Broadway musical (footnote 1); Radcliffe freshman besotted with the blues; Radcliffe dropout taking the blues on the road; hitting the bottle in emulation of her hard-living heroes; growing a small but ardent following; dumped by her label due to sluggish sales; kicking the bottle and tapping into the anxiety of her graying fellow boomers to vault into a megastardom that has long outlasted her years in the wilderness. Twenty million albums sold; 10 Grammys; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2000; feminist, anti-racist, bearer of political witness.

622raitt.4-1975-Home-Plate-publicity-photo-copy-(1)

Bonnie in a 1975 publicity photo.

Given this now-familiar throughline, Stereophile chose to go not with a personal but, rather, a musical narrative: a 50-year memoir in eight songs, from 1971's "Big Road Blues," a classic by one of the Mississippi Delta Johnsons—Tommy, not Robert—to the new album's "Waitin' For You To Blow," the unsparing self-examination of an individual in ever-present danger of backsliding.

At 72, Raitt is striking out in a new direction as a songwriter: fictional narrative. In what to these ears are the most affecting songs on Just Like That, the title track and "Down The Hall," Raitt imagines her way into two very different situations, to deeply moving effect.

If her voice is noticeably frayed, it's been ridden hard for 50 years; if her sound has few surprises, the band still cooks, in a nourishing piece of work from a smart, gutsy woman whose music has worked its way into the souls of multiple, and counting, generations.

We spoke by phone in March, Raitt at her Marin County, California, home, busy making preparations to finally get back on the bus. The road is Bonnie Raitt's middle name.

622raitt.album1

#1: "Big Road Blues" (from Bonnie Raitt, 1971)

Tony Scherman: Why on earth would someone record an album at a summer camp in the Minnesota woods?

Bonnie Raitt: Because it was the only place that would rent to a bunch of hippies and black people. In rural Minnesota in 1971, do you think you could just drive up with long hair and have someone rent you their house? I was living in Cambridge, but I wanted to make my record in Minneapolis because of its music scene. Willie Murphy and "Spider" John Koerner had made one of my favorite albums, Running, Jumping, Standing Still, and I wanted Willie to produce and his band, the Bees, to back me up (footnote 2). We wanted a place where we could all sleep and camp out and not have to get up and get 15 people to a studio. And we had a very limited budget.

We finally found a guy with a remedial reading summer camp about an hour outside of Minneapolis. I don't think the camp even existed anymore, but that's what it was, on a place called Enchanted Island on Lake Minnetonka, which we later found out was probably an Indian burial ground. Or there was one right around there. We all had gigs, so we were in and out of there for a month. It was a riot. I'd gone to summer camp in the Adirondacks, so it was really fun for me to be back in that setting, cabins on a lake. Junior Wells went fishing every day (footnote 3).

622raitt.6-BackCoverofBonniesFirstAlbum

Bonnie (left hand raised) from the back cover of her first album, with friends including Junior Wells, AC Reed, Willie Murphy, Freebo, Peter Bell, and Douglas "Toad" Spurgeon.

Willie produced and Dave Ray engineered and we recorded in the garage. We deliberately wanted to record live onto four-track, not in a regular studio, and Dave had a four-track recorder.

Scherman: What was the recording setup?

Raitt: Four-track recorder in the attic, and we ran the lines down into the garage. We brought in an upright piano for Willie to play. Piano in one corner, electric guitar in another, and me. There wasn't room for everybody, so the horns were out in the driveway. And there were lots of bugs.

Scherman: So it was recorded more or less live.

Raitt: It was recorded absolutely live. We used what we had, which was microphones and stands. The horn section was part of Willie's band, so they were used to working together. Which was good, because every time we recorded it was all of us together.

I always record live, more or less. Since 1979, I'll do a couple of vocal takes and pick like the second verse from the third take. But everything's pretty much live. Percussion and horns are overdubbed, and some guitar solos are overdubbed. If it's one keyboard player, he'll put in another organ part or something. But this session was absolutely live.

Scherman: What did you learn from the older, classic blues musicians you spent time with, Junior Wells, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, and others?

Raitt: I got a first-hand education in what it was like to be black in Jim Crow America. To tour when you couldn't use the bathroom or stay in a hotel. In Fred McDowell's case, to grow up working on a plantation and playing juke joints on the weekends. In Sippie's case, it was great to get advice about men. And what it was like to be the only woman in a traveling group of guys.

I'd been listening to them on records, but here were the people themselves. I got to hear how they put a set together. I got some guitar tricks from looking at Fred's hands up close, although I'd learned from his records before I met him. I had developed a pretty good blues collection, especially as I got older and could afford to pay $3 for an album. I loved the music so much, I taught myself to play. I was playing slide guitar by the time I was 16. But I had no intention of doing it for a living. I was just a fan. It was a hobby.

Scherman: Did you know Son House?

Raitt: I did, yes. I knew who Dick Waterman was and Dick managed Son, which is how I met them both (footnote 4). I was in my freshman year in college when my dear friend on the Harvard blues station, a blues fan just like me, said, "You know, Dick Waterman lives in Cambridge, and Son House is in town. Would you like to meet him?" And that's how my life changed, by going to Dick's and meeting the great Son House.

622raitt.2cover

#2: "Let Me In" (from Takin My Time, 1973)

Raitt: This was a great, big record in my childhood that I loved and always wanted to do. Especially with Taj Mahal on standup bass. Taj drove down from Northern California with his bass sticking out of his car.

Scherman: I hadn't realized that Earl Palmer plays on almost all of the tracks (footnote 5).

Raitt: Jim Keltner's on a few, I think. But what an honor it was to work with the great Earl Palmer. That was all Lowell George's doing. I had no idea Earl would be available, but Lowell said, "Sure, he's right here in L.A."

Scherman: George started out as the album's producer. Why did you fire him?

Raitt: I didn't fire him, we just decided to part ways. We disagreed about a couple of creative things. He wanted to play slide on a song, and I thought I should play it. There were personal issues as well that I won't go into. So, John Hall came in and helped, and Taj as well, and John and I worked together with the engineer on mixing and overdubs (footnote 6).

622raitt.3taj

Bonnie with Taj Mahal at the 30th Annual Blues Music Awards held in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2009. (Photo by Ebet Roberts)

Scherman: Did any of George's production work make it to the final album?

Raitt: Yes. It's like a movie director taking over partway through, you don't shoot the whole thing over again.

Scherman: That horn break [1:40 to 2:05] is pure New Orleans–style collective improvisation.

Raitt: Exactly, that was our intent. Otherwise, it would just be a jukebox recreation of the original hit. We wanted a Dixieland romp, just like my song "Give It Up" [from Give It Up, Raitt's second album].

622raitt.SweetForgivenessCover

#3 & 4: "About To Make Me Leave Home" and "Three Time Loser" (from Sweet Forgiveness, 1977)

Scherman: These are two of the first songs where you really step out on electric slide guitar (footnote 7). Who did you learn the most from about playing slide?

Raitt: I loved Son House, and I loved Fred McDowell, but Ry Cooder changed everything. And Lowell, who used a compressor. Those two, Ry Cooder and Lowell George, are the ones I was most influenced by.

Scherman: What makes your slide sound distinctly yours?

Raitt: I have no idea. That's for the listener and the journalist to figure out. I just put on the guitar and play.

Scherman: Early on, did you have trouble being accepted as a woman slide guitar player?

Raitt: No, if anything, I got my foot in the door and got a record deal because I played slide.

Scherman: Did anybody ever say, "You play just like a man"?

Raitt: No, because I probably would have slapped them.

Scherman: I wonder why you didn't take the route that someone like Rory Block did and become a full-time blues player (footnote 8).

Raitt: Because I have very eclectic taste. The mix of songs I've done over the years is not that different from one album to the next. There's a little bit of R&B and some torch songs and a couple of folk ballads and singer/songwriter songs and maybe some ethnic. Rory's her own person and focuses on blues.


Footnote 1: John Raitt (1917–2005) was the leading man in Oklahoma, Carousel, The Pajama Game, and other Broadway hits of the 1940s and '50s; as his New York Times obituary put it, Raitt "came to epitomize a new distinctively modern breed of Broadway leading man—rugged cowboys and blue-collar workers." A youthful convert to Quakerism, Raitt was a conscientious objector during World War II.

Footnote 2: Pianist/bandleader Willie Murphy was a Minneapolis-area legend for decades. His 1969 collaboration with another, "Spider" John Koerner, was, Crawdaddy declared, "perhaps the only psychedelic ragtime blues album ever made." The so-called city (read "white") blues trio of "Spider" John, Dave "Snaker" Ray, and Tony "Little Sun" Glover made two classic albums in 1963 and '64, Blues, Rags & Hollers and Lots More Blues, Rags & Hollers, are cornerstones of every mid- to late-'60s blues revivalist's record collection.

Footnote 3: Harmonica player Junior Wells, who contributes to four songs on Bonnie Raitt, was one of the great postwar Chicago blues musicians, along with Muddy Waters (Wells's first employer), Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson, and others, all legends and mentors to bluesniks like Raitt. Wells and another Chicago blues veteran, tenor saxophonist A.C. Reed, showed up at Enchanted Island in their Cadillacs, which sat in the driveway in state.

Footnote 4: Along with Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, Eddie "Son" House (1902–1988) was one of the greatest of the Mississippi Delta blues musicians, a magnificent singer and powerful if limited bottleneck guitarist who made a handful of 78s for Paramount Records in 1930, was recorded in 1941 and '42 by Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax and Fisk University musicologist John W. Work, to abandon the deep South for Rochester, New York, where blues researcher Dick Waterman found him in 1964. After lessons from bluesologist and future Canned Heat member Al Wilson in how to play like his younger self, House enjoyed a second career at folk festivals, blues clubs, and college campuses.

Waterman was one of the most ardent of the young blues enthusiasts known collectively as "The Blues Mafia," who fanned out across early- and mid-'60s America in search of legendary, hopefully still-living bluesmen, whose music the "kids" knew only from so-called race records from the 1920s and '30s on labels like Okeh, Vocalion, Paramount, and Victor Talking Machine. Knocking on doors and poring over census records and city directories, Dick Waterman and his friends succeeded beyond their dreams, locating House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Booker White, and others, and introducing them to rapt young audiences. Raitt's mentor and boyfriend, Waterman went on to manage her for years.

Footnote 5: Drummer Earl Palmer was a member of the so-called Studio Band in mid-1950s New Orleans, rock'n'roll's first great recording-session ensemble, which backed up Fats Domino, Little Richard, and dozens of other pioneering rock'n'roll hitmakers. Palmer moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and quickly became one of the most prolific members of the West Coast recording scene. The oral biography Backbeat: Earl Palmer's Story (Da Capo Press, 2000) is by this writer. Palmer's remarks on the preparations for this session are worth quoting: "Lowell George was a fat short guy, had this big old rustic beautiful house above a nudist colony in the Malibu Hills. Them broads didn't hide or nothing. I guess they were used to being watched!"

Footnote 6: John Hall got sole producer's credit on the album. A guitarist, songwriter, and producer, Hall cofounded the best-selling band Orleans and, with Raitt, Jackson Browne, and others, organized the 1979 No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden. Hall was later a two-term congressman from New York state.

Footnote 7: Will McFarlane, a Raitt bandmember of the day, plays the slide solo on a third track on Sweet Forgiveness, "Takin My Time."

Footnote 8: Like Raitt a master slide guitarist, Rory Block is another product of the 1960s blues revival, an exceptional singer/player largely in the Delta blues tradition, still touring and recording today.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
DaveinSM's picture

Wow, very telling that Bonnie Raitt is echoing the complaint of so many musicians who were unhappy about the sound quality of the first CD reissues of their earlier albums.

I think this is the reason why so many audiophiles and music fans alike preferred the sound of analog LPs. The first CDs sounded harsh, and like crap.

And now with the loudness wars, engineers weren’t even taking advantage of one of the biggest inherent advantages of digital- dynamic range.

No wonder there’s been so many CD reissues over the years. It’s taken mixing engineers this many takes to start getting it right.

That said, I’m happy with my all digital music collection of CD and SACDs. Finally. For now.

Sal1950's picture

What a shame Bonnie was concerned about the sound quality of her early CD mixes but has allowed both this new album and the last (Dig In Deep) to be squashed down to a DR7.
Luck Of The Draw measured DR14 and Nick Of Time DR13.
Please Bonnie, don't let them do this to your music.
Sal1950

DaveinSM's picture

That is a shame to hear. I’d be willing bet that her producer recorded the whole thing digitally on ProTools. Musicians swear it’s way easier and much, much faster to use then multitrack mixing to tape. And in all fairness, it must be ultimately much cheaper to make recordings, so both of these factors make putting out grass roots recordings much easier for unknown bands and artists.

That said, you can bet that Raitt’s early stuff was recorded onto warm, lovely, and organic sounding multitrack master tape. I have little doubt that those masters sound a lot better- and less dynamically squashed- than her new digital recordings.

Sal1950's picture

That's no excuse for the rampant compression. Digital using ProTools can kill analog in dynamics or any other area of sound quality.
Steven Wilson's latest SOTA 5.1ch master of Tears For Fears - Tipping Point measures DR13. It's all up to the mastering engineer.

Talos2000's picture

I still have my original vinyl copy of Takin' My Time, what an album that is .... :)

Brown Sound's picture

This was an excellent interview and article, so thank you very much. Her outing of Warner Brothers for their early 90's cash grab, by releasing poorly mastered versions of her first nine albums was also awesome. Great read.

X