Bonnie Raitt’s Values Survived Roller-Coaster Career
For a while there in the ‘80s, it looked like Bonnie was about to slide out of sight.
Raitt had appeared on the scene in the early ‘70s in a blaze of red hair, slinky vocals and sinuous slide guitar lines. Her early albums deftly mixed traditional blues with accessible blues-pop and quickly won her a devoted core of followers.
But for the longest time, Raitt struggled to define herself in larger terms than as blues interpreter. She had a minor hit in 1976 with a remake of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” but couldn’t capitalize on it. Her record label cut her loose and she fell into a bout with the bottle.
Raitt never gave up, though, even when the only band she could afford was a bass player.
“We have older fans, a real cult following that always comes out,” she told The SpokesmanReview before a 1987 show at the Panida Theater in Sandpoint. “I won’t start worrying until people stop buying tickets.”
They didn’t, and Raitt hung on to score her big career breakthrough just two years later, when “Nick of Time” won three Grammys and sold 4 million copies. (Raitt actually won four Grammys that year; she snared a fourth for her duet with John Lee Hooker on his LP, “The Healer.”)
“Nick of Time” told the tale of late-arriving love, but could as easily have about the record’s role in Raitt’s career, arriving as it did in the nick of time.
It also opened the floodgates: Raitt’s next record, 1991’s “Luck of the Draw,” grabbed three more Grammys and established her as a performer for her time, if a modest one.
“I never pretend to be a great artist or a great originator,” Raitt said in 1989, when “Nick of Time” was brand new. “I’m just an interpreter of good music.”
But legions of fans say she’s more than that: Certainly, she’s one of a handful of major pop artists who can get away with singing about the concerns of normal adults.
The title track from her 1994 CD “Longing In Their Hearts” deals with a happy and successful married couple searching for life’s deeper meaning.
“People assume that when you get married and have some success and some security and some sobriety, that your life is smooth and content,” she said last year. “… this longing is for something bigger than what you have is not longing for more success. And it’s not discontent. It’s just an acknowledgment that there’s a different kind of growth and a longing to be swept away into a deeper place. I think it’s a more existential longing than it is a dissatisfaction with where I’m at.”
There’s another song on “Longing In Their Hearts” that touches on a Raitt passion: “Hell to Pay” is a manifesto opposing corporate greed and of all the good things that can be said about Bonnie Raitt, maybe the best is that she has arrived in the mid’90s with her values intact.
“I was going to save the world from the time I was 11,” she once told a reporter. She was raised a Quaker and her parents were pacifists during World War II.
“So it was just assumed that you were going to be of service to other people and that people who just worked for their own aggrandizement were shallow.”
Those aren’t just words to Raitt, who says “War and injustice are the things that cause me the most anger and crying in my life” - they’ve become a way of life.
She’s been active in the anti-nuke and environmental movements, but she’s saved the biggest chunk of her passion for the great blues and R&B; musicians who were victimized financially by record companies in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Raitt champions their cause as an officer in the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises money to support older musicians, and she’s been tireless in her efforts to put many of them back on the stage.
In fact, her show Saturday at The Gorge will feature two of the great R&B; pioneers, Charles Brown and Ruth Brown.
Ruth Brown ruled the R&B; charts in the early ‘50s and in many ways served as a prototype for the “girl groups” that came along a few years later and crossed over to pop success. Public radio listeners will also recognize her as the host of a popular radio history of R&B.;
Pianist, singer and songwriter Charles Brown has been a traveling companion of Raitt’s for several years. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, he wrote and recorded such R&B; classics as “Black Night,” “Fool’s Paradise,” “Merry Christmas Baby,” “Traveling Blues,” “Drifting Blues” and “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
It’s a measure of Bonnie Raitt’s character that she’s making it possible for these two R&B; masters to keep their careers alive.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Bonnie Raitt Location and time: The Gorge, Saturday, 7 p.m. Tickets: $24.45, $32.85 and $43.35, available only at Ticketmaster outlets
This sidebar appeared with the story: Bonnie Raitt Location and time: The Gorge, Saturday, 7 p.m. Tickets: $24.45, $32.85 and $43.35, available only at Ticketmaster outlets