Last Friday was Bonnie Raitt’s birthday (63) and I promised that I’d have a few thoughts on the lady. I remember the exact date that I first met here. It was February 8, 1968, and my friend Jack Viertel (then a student at Harvard) came by my house in Cambridge to spend some time with the great blues singer, Son House, who had just come back from a tour. He brought along a young red headed Radcliffe (i.e. also Harvard) student and I recognized the name immediately. I was a huge fan of her father, John Raitt, a Broadway legend of the highest order.
People has the impression that Bonnie came into the blues world because of me but that is not true. She had seen many blues artists in the Los Angeles area and she had learned to play every lick on the “Blues at Newport” album.
What I did do was introduce her to blues artists and then she was on her own to absorb what they were doing. I remember when she met Muddy Waters and he would later slyly acknowledge that he had seen her come into where he was playing by starting “She’s Nineteen Years Old.”
She was simply destined to have a music career and that was apparent right from the beginning. She played a coffee house in Philadelphia by the name of “The Second Fret” opening for a band named Sweet Stavin’ Chain. They were being paid 60% of the door (four night gig) and she was getting 10%.
The total on the door was about $650.00 so the band (about eight or nine members) got around $400.00 to split up and Bonnie got $65.00 for herself. This was big money back in 1968 . . . and so much more appealing than Cambridge classrooms.
Her first major gig was opening for Fred McDowell at The Gaslite on McDougal Street in Greenwich Village. We were stunned when she got a rave review in “The Village Voice” from one Kit Rachlis. We thought that Mister Rachlis was a staff writer at the “Voice” but he turned out to be a 19-year-old Yale student who sent in the unsolicited review on a whim.
I have perhaps been given too much credit for managing Bonnie’s career. I tell them that Son House was tough. Skip James was tough. Working with people who were illiterate was always difficult but guiding Bonnie Raitt’s career was never difficult.
Because she was John Raitt’s daughter . . . and she had grown up in the show business work where the phone rings and everybody loves you when you’re hot . . . when you have a new show, a new album or something fresh coming to the market.
But when you’re in a dry period in your career . . . well, nobody knows you and you languish while the spotlight is on whoever happens to be hot at the time.
So Bonnie never had to be forewarned about that world of false flattery and people hanging around just to ride with a winner. She knew it before I ever came into her life and it made my job so much easier.
She’s the smartest music professional that I’ve ever met and she has an astounding ability to retain information that is fed to her. In those days before computers, email, texts and other modern necessities of communication, I would write memos to her filled with things I wanted her to know about finances and details about salaries, taxes, gross income, net after expenses and explain to her why I made booking decisions based on capacities, ticket sales, opening acts, hotel costs and an endless amount of details.
She would never – never – call to discuss these memos with me but weeks (months) later we’d be in a major business meeting with executives and she would have total command of the conversation with instant and full recollection of all the information she had been given.
I want to take a minute here to explain that she has always been an incredibly successful touring artist simply because she knows your town. It is partially because she has been to every city so often but, more important, she can give her audience some stage talk about which favorite restaurant isn’t there any more, where she had a fabulous Mexican lunch, how nice it was to bicycle out by the lake. She knows what hot button political issues are on your plate and what ballot referendums are coming up for a vote. This is never a gimmick with her. It is a connection that she formed with this community some decades ago and she is going to keep up her side of the conversation.
I remember back when her area of the marketplace was crowded and the competition was fierce. But the fighting was done by the agents and the artists themselves remained separate from the intensity. So we look back and think about Minnie Ripperton and Nicolette Larson and Phoebe Snow, talented ladies who have passed away. And Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris and Janis Ian and so many others who were in the scene with her.
Bonnie can still connect with her audiences because they know that the ballads that are wrenching and emotionally moving to them are affecting her the same way. In the early years, it was “I’m Blowing Away” and “Love Has No Pride” and then “Angel From Montgomery” and finally “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Is it possible to perform a song for years and still have it ‘get to you’ every night? It is if you are not just stopping in town to pick up a check. If you really care for the people who have turned out to support you for all these years then, yes, you give the emotion to them and they give it right back to you.
She has never cheated an audience by giving anything less than everything she can bring. She is the singer who knows that a great song can fill her up and carry her away to that place where she is only there to serve the music.
She becomes the song and the music just takes her over . . . and for over 40 years she has brought you nothing less . . .