More than just a best-selling artist, respected guitarist, expressive singer, and accomplished songwriter, Bonnie Raitt has become an institution in American music. The release of Souls Alike, her eighteenth album, marks yet another brave, exhilarating step in a legendary body of work.
Born to a musical family, the nine-time Grammy winner is the daughter of celebrated Broadway singer John Raitt (Carousel, Oklahoma!, The Pajama Game) and accomplished pianist/singer Marge Goddard. She was raised in Los Angeles in a climate of respect for the arts, Quaker traditions, and a commitment to social activism. A Stella guitar given to her as a Christmas present launched Bonnie on her creative journey at the age of eight. While growing up, though passionate about music from the start, she never considered that it would play a greater role than as one of her many growing interests.
In the late ’60s, restless in Los Angeles, she moved east to Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a Harvard/Radcliffe student majoring in Social Relations and African Studies, she attended classes and immersed herself in the city’s turbulent cultural and political activities. “I couldn’t wait to get back to where there were folkies and the antiwar and civil rights movements,” she says. “There were so many great music and political scenes going on in the late ’60s in Cambridge.” Also, she adds, with a laugh, “the ratio of guys to girls at Harvard was four to one, so all of those things were playing in my mind.”
Raitt was already deeply involved with folk music and the blues at that time. Exposure to the album Blues at Newport 1963 at age 14 had kindled her interest in blues and slide guitar, and between classes at Harvard, she explored these and other styles in local coffeehouse gigs. Three years after entering college, Bonnie left to commit herself full-time to music, and shortly afterward found herself opening up for surviving giants of the blues. From Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, Son House, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, she learned first-hand lessons of life as well as invaluable techniques of performance. “I’m certain that it was an incredible gift for me to not only be friends with some of the greatest blues people who’ve ever lived, but to learn how they played, how they sang, how they lived their lives, ran their marriages, and talked to their kids,” she says. “I was especially lucky as so many of them are no longer with us.”
Word spread quickly of the young red-haired blueswoman, her soulful, unaffected way of singing, and her uncanny insights into blues guitar. Warner Bros. tracked her down, signed her up, and in 1971 released her debut album, Bonnie Raitt. Her interpretations of classic blues by Robert Johnson and Sippie Wallace made a powerful critical impression, but the presence of intriguing tunes by contemporary songwriters, as well as several examples of her own writing, indicated that this artist would not be restricted to any one pigeonhole or style.
Over the next seven years, she would record six albums. Give It Up, Takin’ My Time, Streetlights, and Home Plate was followed in 1977 by Sweet Forgiveness, which featured her first hit single, a gritty Memphis/R&B arrangement of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” Three Grammy nominations followed in the 1980s, as she released The Glow, Green Light, and Nine Lives. A compilation of highlights from these Warner Bros. albums (plus two previously unreleased live duets) was released as The Bonnie Raitt Collection in 1990. All of these Warners albums have recently been digitally remastered and re-released.
In between sessions, when not burning highways on tour with her band, she devoted herself to playing benefits and speaking out in support of an array of worthy causes, campaigning to stop the war in Central America; participating in the Sun City anti-apartheid project; performing at the historic 1980 No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden; co-founding MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), and working for environmental protection and for the rights of women and Native Americans.
After forging an alliance with Capitol Records in 1989, Bonnie achieved new levels of popular and critical acclaim. She won four Grammy Awards in 1990—three for her Nick of Time album and one for her duet with John Lee Hooker on his breakthrough album, The Healer. Within weeks, Nick of Time shot to number one (it is now certified quintuple platinum). Luck of the Draw (1991, seven-times platinum) brought even more success, firing two hit singles— “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” —up the charts, and adding three more Grammys to her shelf. The double-platinum Longing in Their Hearts, released in 1994, featured the hit single “Love Sneakin’ Up On You” and was honored with a Grammy for Best Pop Album. It was followed in 1995 by the live double CD and film Road Tested (now available on DVD).
After all the awards and honors and decades of virtually non-stop touring under her belt, Bonnie decided to take a break and enjoy some of the well-earned rewards of life off the road. Spending time biking, hiking, and doing yoga, enjoying family and friends, and traveling for fun instead of work brought her a great sense of renewal and purpose. Of course, she never really went too far away, continuing her activism and guesting on numerous friends’ records, including Ruth Brown, Charles Brown, Keb’ Mo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Bruce Cockburn, as well as tribute records for Richard Thompson, Lowell George, and Pete Seeger. She picked up another Grammy in 1996 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for her collaboration on “SRV Shuffle” from the all-star Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and continued her “dual career,” performing with her father, John, in concerts as well as on his Grammy-nominated album, Broadway Legend, released in 1995.
In 1998, she returned to the studio with a new collaborative team to create Fundamental, one of her most exploratory projects, signaling her growing desire to “shake things up a bit.” Inspired by the music of Zimbabwean world-beat master Oliver Mtukudzi, Bonnie wrote “One Belief Away,” the first single, with Paul Brady and Dillon O’Brian.
In March of 2000, Bonnie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; this was followed by her welcome into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame, along with her father, in June 2001. Over the years, Bonnie has appeared as a guest on over 100 album projects, as chronicled in the discography section of her official website. She continues to stretch the boundaries, performing with artists as varied as Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, and legends B.B.King, Tony Bennett, and Willie Nelson.
After the Fundamental tour and more inspirational travel, she returned to the studio with her veteran road band to record Silver Lining, released in 2002. Featuring Bonnie’s stunning interpretation of the David Gray-penned title track, the Grammy-nominated “Gnawin’ On It,” and the hit single “I Can’t Help You Now,” Silver Lining was considered by many critics to be one of the best albums of her career. She promoted the album with a lengthy world tour that included her Green Highway Festival and an eco-partnership promoting BioDiesel fuel, the environment, and alternative energy solutions at shows and benefits along the way. In 2003, she released the retrospective The Best of Bonnie Raitt on Capitol.
Raitt also stayed busy with more guest appearances, including the stunning duet “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” on Ray Charles’ final release, Genius Loves Company, which won the Grammy award for Album of the Year, and a duet on the Grammy-winning album True Love by Toots & The Maytals. Her 1989 breakthrough album, Nick of Time, was remixed for surround sound, and released by Capitol Records in 2004 as a DVD-Audio, garnering a Grammy nomination in the newly created category, Best Surround Sound Album.
In 2003, she also participated in Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed PBS series, The Blues, performing two songs in Wim Wenders’ film, The Soul of a Man, and joining the all-star cast of Lightning in a Bottle, the live feature concert film on the Blues directed by Antoine Fuqua. She also contributed songs for two Disney movies, The Country Bears and Home on the Range. Currently, she plays guitar on a track on the new Stevie Wonder album, A Time To Love, and appears in the upcoming TV/DVD tribute, Music l0l: Al Green. A DVD of her 1977 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival has also just been released.
All of Raitt’s experiences led her to Souls Alike, her first album ever to bear the credit “Produced by Bonnie Raitt.” The album, again recorded with her close-knit, beloved touring band and ace engineer/co-producer, Tchad Blake, is a collection of songs by lesser-known songwriters with whom Raitt feels a deep affinity and whose work she is eager to champion.
Featuring some surprising new directions and, as she describes them, “thorny, adult themes,” the ambitious and innovative Souls Alike reveals an extraordinary artist who’s never been content to rest on her laurels. “You gotta do stuff that stretches you,” Bonnie says. “I’d hang up my spurs if I didn’t have something new to play.” Sounds ranging from the stark fragility of “I Don’t Want Anything to Change” (written by Liz Rose, Stephanie Chapman, and Maia Sharp) to the swampy electronic loops behind John Capek and Marc Jordan’s “Deep Water” attest to Raitt’s desire to grow and find new things to say. The themes tackled in “The Bed I Made” (also by Batteau and Sharp) or Randall Bramblett and Davis Causey’s “God Was In The Water” are sophisticated, adult, and complex — hardly conventional material for pop songs.
“I Will Not Be Broken,” the Grammy-nominated lead single from Souls Alike (written by Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick, and Tommy Sims, the team behind Silver Lining’s “I Can’t Help You Now” and Eric Clapton’s “Change the World”) reflects Raitt’s mindset during the making of the record. “There was an element of being pushed to the wall with what was going on in my personal life, my family crises—and then there was the election,” she says. “So that song was like an anthem for me, and for everybody that wants to feel like they can stand up to getting pushed around.”
Souls Alike debuted at #19 on the Billboard 200 in September 2005, eliciting widespread critical acclaim and propelling Raitt back onto the road. (She’s resumed the Green Highway eco-partnership she began on the Silver Lining tour.) On September 30, 2005, Raitt performed a special concert at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, NJ, which aired as the premiere episode of VH1 Classic’s “Decades Rock Live” series. The innovative concert series pairs celebrated artists of rock and roll with some of today’s hottest recording acts who have been influenced and inspired by these legends.
Raitt has since been selected as the inaugural artist for the companion series of DVD/CD releases. VH1 Classic Decades Rock Live! Presents Bonnie Raitt and Friends Featuring Norah Jones, Ben Harper, Alison Krauss, and Keb’Mo’ was released in August of 2006 and features never-before-seen performance and interview footage, including four duets not included in the VH1 Classic broadcast of the concert. With two hours of concert and interview footage, the concert, which was filmed in Hi-Definition and is presented in 5.1 audio, features Raitt performing 17 songs with her longtime band – George Marinelli (guitar), James “Hutch” Hutchinson (bass), Ricky Fataar (drums) and Jon Cleary (keyboards). Included are such classic Raitt hits as “Something To Talk About,” “Love Letter” (with Mo’), “You” (with Krauss), and a knock-out encore of “Love Sneakin’ Up On You” with Raitt, Jones, Harper, Krauss, and Mo’ as well as highlights from Souls Alike, including “I Will Not Be Broken,” “God Was In The Water”, “I Don’t Want Anything To Change” (with Jones) and “Unnecessarily Mercenary” (a duet with keyboardist Cleary, who wrote the song). The accompanying CD features 11 tracks, including the radio single “Two Lights In The Nighttime” (featuring Ben Harper).
These last few years have also brought some personal challenges as well. After a prolonged illness, her father passed away in early 2005; her mother died unexpectedly from complications from Alzheimer’s just months earlier; and in 2009, Bonnie’s brother finally succumbed to his battle with brain cancer, which he valiantly fought with a macrobiotic diet program for eight years. During this time, she co-headlined with Jackson Browne and Keb Mo’ part of the historic “Vote For Change” tour leading up to the 2004 Presidential election, and then again for the 2008 election, staged a series of benefit concerts and fundraising receptions to help get out the vote and encourage voting in key Democratic Senate races. In 2007, Bonnie joined her MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) friends Jackson Browne and Graham Nash to launch a campaign to prevent the legislative bailout of the nuclear industry and developed http://www.nukefree.org, a website that serves as an information and networking hub for safe energy activists.
Bonnie continues to use her influence to affect the way music is perceived and appreciated in the world. In 1988, she co-founded the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which works to improve royalties, financial conditions, and recognition for a whole generation of R&B pioneers to whom she feels we owe so much. In 1995, she initiated the Bonnie Raitt Guitar Project with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, currently running in 200 clubs around the world, to encourage underprivileged youth to play music as budgets for music instruction in the schools run dry.
Her commitment to the redemptive power of music is expressed in the foreword she wrote to American Roots, the book based on 2001’s PBS series of the same name: “I feel strongly that this appreciation needs to be out there so that black, Latino and all kids can understand the roots of their own musical heritage,” she explains. “The consolidation of the music business has made it difficult to encourage styles like the blues, all of which deserve to be celebrated as part of our most treasured national resources.”
For Summer 2009, Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal—two leading lights of modern blues—are joining forces for their first-ever tour together. The “BonTaj Roulet” tour will be a coast-to-coast, 30+ date outing in August and September and will feature Bonnie and Taj on stage alone and together. Bonnie, backed by her always-dazzling group, and Taj, with the six-piece, Grammy-winning Phantom Blues Band, will play full sets separately, before closing each night with a collaborative, blow-out performance.
However, Bonnie and Taj are not just performing in each market they visit; they are giving back to these communities as well. They have created the BonTaj Collective Action Fund, which utilizes several initiatives to raise money for various causes. Ticketmaster, Musictoday, and Live Nation Ticketing have committed to matching the concertgoer and Artists’ contributions of $.25 on the price of every ticket. Collectively, this effort will raise $1 for every ticket sold on the tour. Concertgoers are encouraged to vote on which causes the BonTaj Collective Action Fund will support at the BonTaj.com website. Proceeds will be distributed in proportion to overall votes tallied, to benefit organizations that work on the following issues: Safe and Sustainable Energy; Environmental Protection; Social Justice and Human Rights; and Blues/Music Education. “This tour is just what the doctor ordered,” says Bonnie. “Taj and I have so much in common, but there’s so much unexplored territory between us. It’s been a long time coming, and now is the right time.”
For Bonnie Raitt, her new album, Souls Alike, represents the joining of two communities. Known throughout her career for unearthing great new songwriting talent, she has once again gathered an inspiring batch of songs from some relatively unknown artists. “A lot of my life’s eureka moments came when I heard people like John Prine, Fred McDowell, or Paul Brady,” she says. “And now I’ve found a new crop of songwriters that I connect with just as deeply.”