More than a best-selling artist, respected guitarist, expressive singer, and accomplished songwriter, Bonnie Raitt has become an institution in American music. The release of Silver Lining, her sixteenth album, makes it clearer that her contributions, in music as well as social issues, will endure as hallmarks of our time.
Born to a musical family, Bonnie Raitt is the daughter of celebrated Broadway singer John Raitt (Carousel, Oklahoma!, The Pajama Game) and accomplished pianist/singer Marge Goddard. She was raised in Los Angeles, in a climate of respect for the arts, Quaker traditions, and a commitment to social activism. A Stella guitar given to her as a Christmas present launched Bonnie on her creative journey at the age of eight. While growing up, though passionate about music from the start, she never considered that it would play a greater role than as one of her many growing interests.
In the late '60s, restless in Los Angeles, she moved east to Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a Harvard/Radcliffe student majoring in Social Relations and African Studies, she attended classes and immersed herself in the city's turbulent cultural and political activities. "I couldn't wait to get back to where there were folkies and the antiwar and civil rights movements," she says. "There were so many great music and political scenes going on in the late '60s in Cambridge." Also, she adds, with a laugh, "the ratio of guys to girls at Harvard was four to one, so all of those things were playing in my mind."
She was already deeply involved with folk music and the blues at that time. Exposure to the album Blues at Newport 1963 at age fourteen had kindled her interest in blues and slide guitar, and between classes at Harvard she explored these and other styles in local coffeehouse gigs. Three years after entering college, Bonnie left to commit herself full-time to music, and shortly afterward found herself opening for surviving giants of the blues. From Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, Son House, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker she learned first-hand lessons of life 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. "I was especially lucky as so many of them are no longer with us."
Word spread quickly of the young redhaired blueswoman, her soulful, unaffected way of singing, and her uncanny insights into blues guitar. Warner Bros. tracked her down, signed her up, and in 1971 released her debut album, Bonnie Raitt. Her interpretations of classic blues by Robert Johnson and Sippie Wallace made a powerful critical impression, but the presence of intriguing tunes by contemporary songwriters, as well as several examples of her own writing, indicated that this artist would not be restricted to any one pigeonhole or style.
Over the next seven years she would record six albums. Give It Up, Takin' My Time, and Home Plate were followed in 1977 by Sweet Forgiveness, which featured her first hit single, a gritty Memphis/R&B arrangement of Del Shannon's "Runaway." Three Grammy nominations followed in the 1980s, as she released The Glow, Green Light, and Nine Lives. A compilation of highlights from these Warners albums as well as two unreleased live duets was released as The Bonnie Raitt Collection in 1990.
In between sessions, when not burning highways on tour with her band, she devoted herself to playing benefits and speaking out in support of an array of worthy causes, including stopping the war in Central America, the Sun City anti-apartheid project, the historic 1980 No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden, co-founding MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), and working for environmental protection and the rights of women and Native Americans.
After forging an alliance with Capitol Records in 1989, Bonnie achieved new levels of popular and critical acclaim. She won four Grammy Awards in 1990, three for her Nick of Time album and one for her duet with John Lee Hooker for his breakthrough album, The Healer. Within weeks, the album shot to number one. Luck of the Draw (1991) brought even more success, firing two hit singles, "Something to Talk About" and "I Can't Make You Love Me" up the charts, and adding three more Grammys onto her shelf. Longing in Their Hearts, released in 1993 and honored with a Grammy for Best Pop Album, was followed by the live double-CD and film Road Tested in '95.
With eight Grammys and decades of virtually nonstop touring under her belt, Bonnie decided to take a break and enjoy some of the well-earned rewards of life off the road. Spending time biking, hiking and doing yoga, enjoying family and friends and traveling for fun instead of work brought her a great sense of renewal and purpose. Of course, she never really went too far away, continuing her activism and guesting on numerous friends' records, including B. B. King, Ruth Brown, Charles Brown, Keb' Mo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Bruce Cockburn, as well as tribute records for Richard Thompson, Lowell George, and Pete Seeger. She picked up another Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for her collaboration on SRV Shuffle, an all-star tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan in l996 and continued her "dual career," performing with her father, John, in concerts as well as on his Grammy nominated album, Broadway Legend.
In l998, she returned to the studio with a new collaborative team to create Fundamental, one of her most exploratory projects, signaling her growing desire to "shake things up a bit." After that tour and more inspirational travel, she went back in the studio with her veteran road band to record Silver Lining in 2001 (released in April of 2002.)
On March 6, 2000, Bonnie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; this was followed by her welcome, along with her father, into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame in June 2002. She continues to sing and play on albums by artists as varied as Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, legends Tony Bennett and Willie Nelson, and jazz mainstay Les McCann. She also appears in a duo performance with Don Henley on the Disney animated feature, The Country Bears.
Bonnie continues to use her growing influence to affect the way music is perceived and appreciated in the world. In l988, she helped found the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which works to improve royalties, financial conditions and recognition for a whole generation of R&B pioneers to whom she feels we owe so much. In 1995, she initiated the Bonnie Raitt Fender Guitar Project with Fender and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, currently running 180 clubs around the world, to encourage inner city kids to play music as budgets for music instruction in the schools run dry.
Her commitment to the redemptive power of music led Bonnie to also write the foreword to American Roots, the book based on 2001's PBS series of the same name:
"I feel strongly that this appreciation needs to be out there so that black, Latino and all kids can understand the roots of their own musical heritage," she explains. "The consolidation of the music business has made it difficult to encourage styles like the blues, all of which deserve to be celebrated as part of our most treasured national resources."