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Off the Beaten Tracks: First Raitt

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THIS week, fond recollections of Bonnie Raitt and the albums she made at the beginning of her long career. Bonnie was blessed with a wonderful voice and is no slouch with a slide guitar. But perhaps her major attribute is the ability to spot great songs and stamp her own personality on them. As one admirer put it, ‘Bonnie Raitt does something with a lyric no one else can do; she bends it and twists it right into your heart.’

Bonnie Lynn Raitt was born in Burbank, California, on November 8, 1949. Her father John made his name as a singer in Broadway musicals and went on to become a successful film and TV actor. Her mother Marjorie was a pianist. As Bonnie’s red mane would suggest, she is of Scots extraction. Her ancestors built the ancient monument Rait Castle, near Nairn.

She learned the guitar at school and summer camp, and in her second year at college became friends with a blues promoter named Dick Waterman. She dropped out and moved to Philadelphia, determined to make music full time.

Bonnie played alongside the legendary bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell at the 1970 Philly Folk Festival. At the Gaslight Café in New York, she was spotted by a Newsweek reporter who gave her a rave review. Soon afterwards she signed for Warner Brothers and went into the studio to make her first album.

Released in 1971 and produced by the singer and pianist Willie Murphy, Bonnie Raitt is a collection of mainly blues cover versions, although there are two of her own songs, of which one, Thank You, is probably my favourite track.

Two further songs are by Bonnie’s mentor Sippie Wallace. A few years later Bonnie and Sippie would duet on one of them, Women Be Wise, at the American Music Hall in San Francisco.

Bonnie Raitt was warmly reviewed but sales were disappointing. Undeterred, she was soon back in the studio for 1972’s Give It Up, a more ambitious project combining rock and folk influences with the blues. It begins with the self-penned Give It Up Or Let Me Go, which starts out with bottleneck acoustic quickly joined by a Dixieland-style brass band.

The highlights of the LP for me are the Joel Zoss song Too Long at the Fair, Jackson Browne’s Under the Falling Sky and the superb final track, Love Has No Pride, which was written by Eric Kaz and Libby Titus. Production was by Michael Cuscuna. Again the album was a hit with the critics, and again its sales figures sucked. It didn’t help that Bonnie was none too keen on performing in public, declaring: ‘I don’t want to be a star.’

For 1973’s Takin’ My Time, the great Lowell George of Little Feat was enlisted as producer but was replaced by John Hall of the rock band Orleans after Lowell and Bonnie developed more than just a working relationship. She gave an interview in the 1980s in which she said: ‘Takin’ My Time is one of my favourite records to listen to, although I started out with Lowell producing it, and he and I got too close to be able to have any objectivity about it. That’s the problem when you’re a woman and you get involved with the people you work with – and I don’t just mean romantically. It becomes too emotional. It’s hard to have a strong woman telling the man her ideas when, in fact, the man wants to take over the situation. So that album had a lot of heartache in it. At the time it was a difficult one to make, but now I like it.’

I agree with Bonnie – of all her albums, this one is my favourite. Joel Zoss provides another classic song with I Gave My Love a Candle and Eric Kaz likewise with Cry Like a Rainstorm

The Chris Smither song I Feel the Same is followed by another Jackson Browne beauty, I Thought I Was a Child, and Randy Newman’s lachrymose Guilty wraps things up. The song Takin’ My Time, which featured on Little Feat’s 1971 debut album, does not actually appear for some reason and was shelved until 1977 when it was included on Bonnie’s album Sweet Forgiveness.

Among the stellar line-up of backing musicians on Takin’ My Time are Lowell and his fellow Featers Paul Barrere, Sam Clayton and Billy Payne, Taj Mahal, Jim Keltner and Van Dyke Parks. Despite all this the album again failed to hit the charts and a frustrated Bonnie, who had by now decided that success would be preferable to failure, adopted a more mainstream approach.

The pop song writer and producer Jerry Ragovoy took over production duties for 1974’s Streetlights, giving it an altogether smoother sound than its down-home predecessors. It starts with three drop-dead winners – Joni Mitchell’s That Song About the Midway, James Taylor’s Rainy Day Man and the John Prine classic Angel From Montgomery, which would become Bonnie’s signature tune. In my column about Prine just before his death from the virus a few weeks ago, I quoted her as saying: ‘It probably has meant more to my fans and my body of work than any other song, and it will historically be considered one of the most important ones I’ve ever recorded.’ It wasn’t enough, however, to make Streetlights a hit, reaching only No 80 in the US charts.

For her 1975 effort Home Plate no expense was spared, with producer Paul Rothchild organising a cast of thousands including backing singers Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Terry Reid, JD Souther and Tom Waits. Standout tracks are Allen Toussaint’s What Do You Want the Boy To Do, Souther’s Run Like a Thief, Fred Tackett’s Fool Yourself (which had appeared on Little Feat’s LP Dixie Chicken), Eric Kaz’s I’m Blowin’ Away and Nan O’Byrne’s Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes (also covered by Browne and Waits among many others). Home Plate was Bonnie’s most successful album to date, reaching No 43 on the Billboard chart.

Following guest appearances in 1976 on Warren Zevon’s eponymous debut album and Jackson Browne’s The Pretender, Bonnie released her sixth LP Sweet Forgiveness. Again produced by Rothchild, it includes a cover of the 1961 Del Shannon classic Runaway which provided her first hit single and propelled the album to the dizzy heights of No 25 in the charts. Other choice cuts are the oft-covered Paul Siebel song Louise, the customary Eric Kaz selection Gamblin’ Man, Jackson Browne’s My Opening Farewell and Karla Bonoff’s lovely Home

Having negotiated a big-money new deal with Warners to stop her defecting to rival Columbia, Bonnie tried for a smoother, more soul-based style on 1979’s The Glow, produced by Peter Asher. It wasn’t entirely successful apart from the final track, Goin’ Wild For You Baby. Reviews were negative and it went no higher than No 30 in the album charts. ‘I knew I had to get away from the slick sound I had with the Asher record,’ she said at the time Green Light was released in 1982. ‘What I wanted this time out was a combination of the music I’ve been listening to recently, Billy Burnette, the Blasters, Rockpile and the rockabilly New Wave scene. I was a little stung by the lack of response to The Glow. And I was disappointed by not being able to make a record that sounded the way I wanted it to sound. I wanted to get back to the roots and to the funkiness I had on earlier records, even though I’m not crazy about how they sound. They sound like I was having a lot more fun than I really was. Green Light is the first album I actually had fun doing.’

The fun factor was no doubt enhanced by the presence on keyboards of Ian McLagan, formerly of the Faces, who knew how to have a good time, to say the least. The album kicks off with Keep This Heart in Mind, which does indeed have a New Wavy, Nick Lowe kind of vibe, followed by yet another stonking Eric Kaz song, River of Tears

There’s a Bob Dylan cover on Let’s Keep it Between Us and a fun version of Baby Come Back, the Eddy Grant song which was a 1968 hit for the Equals.  

By this point, the ever-thirsty Raitt had big problems with drink and drug abuse and in 1983 had what she described as a ‘complete emotional, physical and spiritual breakdown’. She was eventually dropped by Warner Brothers and a planned collaboration with Prince on his Paisley Park label came to nothing. Fourteen record company executives declined to sign her, feeling she was no longer commercially viable, but eventually Tim Devine of Capitol Records threw her a lifeline. It paid off, big time. Her 1989 album Nick of Time, produced by Don Was, went to number one and at long last she was a big star. Her publicist, Joan Myers, said: ‘Bonnie’s personality and sincerity just won people’s hearts, in addition to her music. There was nothing ever pretentious about her.’

Raitt, who continues to tour and record at the age of 70, was among the many devastated by the death of John Prine. Here’s a tribute to him she recorded while self-isolating at home. 

And finally, a duet with the great Richard Thompson that brings tears to the eyes. Look at RT’s expression, like a delighted schoolboy.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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