Sing like an angel, play like a devil

By Tom MacIntosh

American blues singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt became a superstar after 10 albums and no commercial success until her 1989 blockbuster Grammy winning album Nick of Time. It vaulted her into the limelight and she hasn’t stopped since. She has amassed 10 Grammys, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2000), is listed at 50 on Rolling Stones “100 Greatest Singers of All Timeand #89 on their “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”, among her many accolades.  

Born in Burbank California in 1949 into a musical home; her father was broadway star John Raitt and her mother was pianist Marjorie Haydock. She first picked up a guitar at age 12, and learned to play the ‘bottleneck’ or slide guitar well enough to raise eyebrows, and then there’s her voice, almost an instrument in itself. In 1967 she dropped out of Radcliffe college and devoted her time to playing folk music in clubs around Boston. She caught the attention of famed blues manager Dick Waterman and started performing alongside the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Sippie Wallace, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.

This fiery red-head signed with Warner Brothers and released her debut album, simply Bonnie Raitt, in 1971, and was well received by critics but had little commercial success. Raitt herself admits that being accepted into the music world was very challenging for a woman, always being told that she couldn’t play a guitar like a man or drink like a man, etc., just made her more determined to conquer it, and them. In ‘72 she put out Give It Up, which fared better and contained material from Jackson Browne and Eric Kaz. During this decade she released an album annually, Takin’ My Time73, Streetlights74, Homeplate75, but didn’t get much radio play until Sweet Forgiveness in ‘77 and her cover of the Del Shannon classic Runaway.

All throughout her long career she has been an activist co-founding MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) and has played several benefit concerts for causes for The Rhythm and Blues Foundation. The early 80s took a downward turn and even with this prolific output of records she still couldn’t crack the public consciousness and led to her spiral into alcohol and drug abuse. She cut a few tracks with Prince, but due to her personal strife, they were never published. In 1986 Nine Lives hit the record stores and was her worst effort to date. Raitt was pretty well written off by then, looking haggard and beat, but then something happened that would change her fortune for good: she teamed up with legendary producer Don Was, who had worked with people like Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, and Joe Cocker to mention just a few. Together they released Nick of Time, and the heavens opened. The album went straight to the top of the charts in the U.S., and earned her a handful of Grammys. She claimed “it was my first sober album.  The only remaining addictions were her devotion to her music and her guitar, as she proudly describes, “ My brown Strat - the body is a ‘65 and the neck is from some time after that. It’s kind of a hybrid that I got for 120$ at 3 o'clock in the morning in 1969. It’s the one without the paint, and I’ve used that for every gig since 1969. She goes on to say that it “sounds like bacon smells”. However, perhaps her finest instrument is her voice. It is what makes the hair in your neck stand up; a soulful expressive tone filled with air, like a river reed.


Her release of Luck of the Draw in ‘91 was also a smash hit that made her a household name with singles I Can’t Make You Love Me, and Something to Talk About. On the heels of that gem, she put out Longing in Their Hearts (‘94), Fundamental (‘98), Silver Lining (‘02) and Souls Alike (‘05) on Capitol Records. Bonnie Raitt and Friends came out a year later, and includes collaborations with Norah Jones on I Don’t Want Anything to Change, with Alison Krauss on the ever so delicious You, on Well Well Well with Ben Harper, and on Love Letter with Keb' Mo’. It’s a fabulous record, and one to include in any collectors treasures. She took the next few years off from recording to deal with the loss of her folks, her brother and best friend.

She has alway been wary of ‘matters of the heart, saying it was the hardest commitment of all, mostly because she’s used to being the boss; she married actor Michael O'Keefe, which lasted just 8 years. She laments, “What makes me attractive, -fame, wealth - is also a burden sometimes…”  

Now an international icon, she released her 20th record Dig In Deep in 2017, has toured in North America, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and Europe with over 170 shows. She became the first woman to get a signature guitar model from Fender, which pleased her so much; to have broken that glass ceiling, which brings us back to the beginning where she mentions the music world as such a challenge for a woman.

Bonnie Raitt is the embodiment of what it takes to remain creative, adventurous, and gutsy after such a long glorious run. Singing like an angel and playing like a devil, is what puts the charm, allure and beauty in her body of work. In an interview with Dan Rather, she was asked how she wanted to be remembered, she tearfully replied, “I want to be remembered as someone who was always true to what I felt, my conscience, my musical taste, my politics, my anger, my frustration, my joy... to be remembered as an honest, earthy, confused woman who lasted a long time”.

She is all of that, and then some.