A hardworking road warrior who became an unexpected superstar when she entered middle age, Bonnie Raitt developed a distinctly soulful hybrid of blues, rock, and R&B, a sound that carried her through her long, varied career. The breadth of her vision was evident on her early albums, where she balanced her original tunes with covers of blues chestnuts and such singer/songwriter peers as Jackson Browne, John Prine, and Randy Newman. She’d maintain this template throughout her career, but perhaps perfected it on Nick of Time, the 1989 album produced by Don Was. Winning three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, Nick of Time gave Raitt her first unqualified success in nearly two decades and, after its 1991 sequel Luck of the Draw consolidated her success with its Top Ten hit “Something to Talk About,” she became an American roots rock institution. Over the next three decades, Raitt remained a popular concert draw and a fixture on the charts as she delivered a series of musically rich, mature albums that ran all the way to 2022′s Grammy-winning Just Like That.
Born in Burbank, California, on November 8, 1949, she was the daughter of Broadway star John Raitt, best known for his starring performances in such smashes as Carousel and The Pajama Game. After picking up the guitar at the age of 12, Raitt felt an immediate affinity for the blues, and although she went off to attend Radcliffe in 1967, within two years she had dropped out to begin playing the Boston folk and blues club circuit. Signing with noted blues manager Dick Waterman, she was soon performing alongside the likes of idols including Howlin' Wolf, Sippie Wallace, and Mississippi Fred McDowell, and in time earned such a strong reputation that she was signed to Warner Bros.
Debuting in 1971 with an eponymously titled effort, Raitt immediately emerged as a critical favorite, applauded not only for her soulful vocals and thoughtful song selection but also for her guitar prowess, turning heads as one of the few women to play bottleneck. Her 1972 follow-up, Give It Up, made better use of her eclectic tastes, featuring material by contemporaries like Jackson Browne and Eric Kaz, in addition to a number of R&B chestnuts and even three Raitt originals. 1973′s Takin' My Time was much acclaimed, and throughout the middle of the decade she released an LP annually, returning with Streetlights in 1974 and Home Plate a year later. With 1977′s Sweet Forgiveness, Raitt scored her first significant pop airplay with her hit cover of the Del Shannon classic “Runaway.” 1979 follow-up The Glow, appeared around the same time as a massive all-star anti-nuclear concert at Madison Square Garden mounted by MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), an organization she’d co-founded earlier.
Throughout her career, Raitt remained a committed activist, playing hundreds of benefit concerts and working tirelessly on behalf of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. By the early ’80s, however, her own career was in trouble — 1982’s Green Light, while greeted with the usual good reviews, again failed to break her to a wide audience, and while beginning work on the follow-up, Warner unceremoniously dropped her. By this time, Raitt was also battling drug and alcohol problems as well; she worked on a few tracks with Prince, but their schedules never aligned and the material went unreleased. Instead, she finally released the patchwork Nine Lives in 1986, her worst-selling effort since her debut.
Many had written Raitt off when she teamed with producer Don Was and recorded Nick of Time; seemingly out of the blue, the LP won a handful of Grammys, including Album of the Year, and overnight she was a superstar. Released in 1991, Luck of the Draw was also a smash, yielding the hits “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” After 1994′s Longing in Their Hearts, Raitt resurfaced in 1998 with Fundamental. Silver Lining appeared in 2002, followed by Souls Alike in 2005, both on Capitol Records. A year later, a bootleg-feel live set, Bonnie Raitt and Friends, was released, featuring guest appearances from Norah Jones and Ben Harper, among others. Raitt stepped back from the life of a professional musician over the next few years as she dealt with the passing of her parents, her brother, and her best friend. The break from recording and touring was redemptive for Raitt in many ways, and she returned focused and renewed in 2012 with her first studio album in seven years, Slipstream, released on her own new Redwing label imprint. The album debuted at number six on the Billboard 200 and would eventually take home the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Americana Album. In February 2016, Raitt issued her 20th studio long-player, Dig in Deep, again via Redwing. The album included an unusual cover of INXS’ “Need You Tonight,” as well as a Raitt original, “The Ones We Couldn’t Be,” dealing with the loss of her parents and brother. Raitt returned in 2022 with Just Like That, a self-produced album she made with longtime recording engineer Ryan Freeland. An unexpected breakthrough, it topped both the blues and folk charts and landed at number six on the rock albums chart. Its title track also won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year and Best American Roots Song, while the single “Made Up Mind” won Best Americana Performance. ~ Jason Ankeny & Steve Leggett