November 8, 2011 | 7:57am
Credibility and commercial success don't always go hand in hand, but in Bonnie Raitt's case, they seem in sync. Born November 8, 1949, to Broadway superstar John Raitt and his first wife, pianist Marjorie Haydock, she clearly had music in her genes, but it was by riding the wave of the '60s blues revival that Raitt found her true calling. A master of bottleneck blues guitar and gifted with a rich soulful vocal, she got her start in the fertile Boston club scene and eventually made her way to New York. A reporter from Newsweek magazine spotted her and began touting her talents, leading to an eventual offer from Warner Bros. Records.
Raitt's early albums on Warner Bros. were met with critical acclaim but little in the way of solid sales. Still, that didn't deter her. Relying chiefly on covers, many of which centered on the traditional blues artists she had accompanied in the clubs -- Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, and Howlin' Wolf among them -- she stayed true to her roots and made little effort to acquiesce in order to expand her audience. Still, praise came early on, and her gradual integration into the Southern California music scene -- via associations with Jackson Browne, CSN, Warren Zevon, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, members of Little Feat, the Eagles, and the Doobie Brothers -- helped bring her further into rock realms.
Fortunately, Raitt remained true to her muse, and despite a string of highly lauded efforts, it was a full seven years before she reaped the sufficient sales that would move her into the mainstream. It came courtesy of another cover -- an unlikely one at that -- a rugged version of Del Shannon's "Runaway." Warner Bros. began eyeing her as a star, but when her follow-up attempts failed to reap their rewards, they eventually dropped her from the label, with notice coming the day after the mastering on her new album, the aborted Tongue & Groove, was completed.
Happily, this unfortunate turn of events didn't remove her from the public eye. Her increasing political activism found her at the helm of the
No Nukes concert and surrounded by a host of famous friends. Moving forward, she later participated in the Sun City anti-apartheid effort as well as benefits on behalf of Farm Aid and Amnesty International.
It seemed fitting, then, that Raitt struck critical and commercial paydirt immediately after switching labels and signing with Capitol at the end of the '80s. Her first release for the label, Nick of Time, featured some of the songs intended for Tongue & Groove, and the label honchos at Warner Bros. were likely rankled with remorse when in 1990, Raitt became the big winner at the Grammys, taking home four trophies in what became the surprise showing of the night. Cary Baker, who currently helms Conqueroo, a leading Los Angeles-based public relations firm, recalls when, as head of Capitol Records' publicity department, he witnessed Raitt's multiple wins for Nick of Time. "We couldn't believe it when Bonnie won first one, then two, then three Grammy awards," he reflects. "I recall Hale Milgrim, then the president of Capitol Records, yelling backstage, 'Bonnie, go ahead and win best male vocalist!' He was kidding, of course, but he just didn't want the momentum to stop."
Baker needn't have worried. The victories swept her to the top of the album charts for the first time in her career and eventually resulted in the sale of 6 million albums.
Raitt's next album, Luck of the Draw, reaped a pair of hit singles, "Something to Talk About" and "I Can't Make You Love Me"; three additional Grammys; and enough momentum to once again propel her up the charts, thanks to sales of 8 million copies. In 1994, she achieved her second number-one record with the album Longing in Their Hearts, a double Grammy winner.
While Raitt has made some commercial concessions -- her 2006 live album Bonnie Raitt and Friends
, taped at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and featuring guest appearances from Norah Jones, Alison Krauss, Keb Mo, and Ben Harper, was an obvious attempt to cash in on some all-star associations -- Raitt has never wandered all that far from her blues roots. If commercial compromise
is in her vocabulary, artistic integrity
are also words that she still lives by.
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