This was the interview in which Bonnie raved about Little Feat, though I didn’t use those quotes in my Melody Maker piece as everyone raved about Little Feat and it seemed superfluous to requirements. She got quite girly talking about Lowell George, admitting that her and Linda (Ronstadt) would do ‘anything’ to get him to play on their records. I never quite established what ‘anything’ was, but from the look on her face I don’t think it was cleaning his apartment.
Bonnie Raitt juggled happily between the various lines on the desk telephone in an office at Warner Brothers’ New York headquarters. She seemed to be relaying premature Christmas greetings to people who lived some distance away, and the Warner Brothers telephone enabled her to make all these expensive calls at no personal cost.
She giggled guiltily but chatted away regardless. Her father, John Raitt, had just left the office, the two of them having lunched together with a writer from the New York Daily News who was doing a joint interview with father and daughter.
John Raitt, strikingly good-looking despite his years, is a Broadway musical comedy singer of some renown, a Scottish-descended Quaker and, in his own circles, a celebrity.
Bonnie Raitt, by some curious quirk of fate, is a 26-year-old blues singer who takes the blues very seriously, has strong political convictions, and could become a very hot property for Warner Brothers in 1976.
A “hot property” is hardly the term Bonnie would use, but the company must be hoping for a return on their investment by now. She’s been making albums since 1971, but they haven’t sold particularly well. A massive tour just completed, however, the tide is turning at last.
Bonnie Raitt has long red hair and an infectious enthusiasm for music. While once she played second on the bill in clubs to veteran black blues players, she now uses her position to expose these same musicians to the wider audience she is gathering. Any form of injustice rankles her, especially injustice towards black US bluesmen.
She became a blues freak at college, collecting records and switching her folk-style guitar playing towards the blues. She also met Dick Waterman, now her manager, another blues freak who had connections with the artists. Through him Bonnie had access to her idols on record.
Their close relationship lasted for three years, and during that time Bonnie’s musical life took over from her college studies. To make money on the side, she began singing in clubs, and her free time was spent with Waterman, visiting festivals and hanging out with characters like Fred McDowell, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Arthur Crudup and Son House.
“They thought it was kinda funny that this 19-year-old girl with red hair was playing guitar with them. I was eating it up. I don’t mean to boast but I could play everything from the records,” she said.
Bonnie admits that she was rather lucky to be in the right place at the right time, not only to meet her idols but also to play clubs and, quite soon afterwards, concerts.
“Most women who were around didn’t play blues guitar, they played folk music, but I could do ballads and blues and James Taylor songs and Joni Mitchell, whatever... guess I could open a show for Fred McDowell or James Taylor without threatening either one of them.
“Someone like Linda Ronstadt or Tracy Nelson needs a whole band, so they were bound to be more expensive than me. I was just an all-round opening act, and gradually it was obvious that music would take over from college.”
Nevertheless, Bonnie was not, and still isn’t, a singer-songwriter. She’s tried recording a few of her own songs, but mainly she relies on others for material. There was no lack of it when it came to recording her first album, and she was happy to go with Warners because their label included many of her favourite acts: Randy Newman, Taylor, Little Feat and Ry Cooder.
“What I’ve tried to do is base my career on live performances, starting out as an opening act in a small club and working up to being a main act in a club, then opening concerts, and then working back up again to closing concerts. For the last five years I’ve put out a record every summer and toured in the autumn.
“I’m not aiming for any kind of commercially successful record and, thank God, Warners have been very understanding about that. I think I could have put out a commercial single already, but I don’t want one. If you have one and don’t have another, then you are washed up. Whatever your hit is, that is what you are expected to do, and I do lots of different things.
“Right now I think maybe I’m at a point where I wouldn’t mind a little commercial success, but I’m not sure. I guess I’m where I want to be, even though the tour I’ve just done didn’t sell out everywhere. One gold record might change that and that would mean I didn’t have to tour quite so much as I do now. I guess I’m getting a little tired from touring for eight months out of the year.”
Bonnie listens to thousands of songs before choosing material to record. She is deluged with unsolicited material from amateur songwriters, but she tends to take material from writers she knows personally. “I think I listened to over 300 tapes before the last album, and with five songs to a tape that’s a lot of listening. I didn’t use any of them.
“Usually it’s someone I know calling up and saying, ‘Listen, I think I’ve got something for you’. It’s getting harder to find material, though. For my first two albums I did songs that were in my repertoire, things that I’d always wanted to do, but by the third I had problems.”
The third album, Takin’ My Time, caused many problems for her and, in fact, she recorded it twice. First time with Lowell George, of Little Feat, which didn’t work out right, and then with John Hall, of Orleans. The delays resulted in Bonnie going well over budget, which meant Warners were calling the shots for her fourth, Streetlights. The company insisted that Bonnie use a proven producer and she came up with Jerry Ragovoy, the veteran R&B producer at New York’s Hit Factory.
“They had me over a barrel there and insisted that I did my next album, which I owed them, with a producer who had had a hit rather than one of my friends. I liked Ragovoy and so I chose him, but that’s the first time I’ve ever let myself be produced. I loved Jerry and I loved the material and I loved the musicians, but I don’t think it’s me.”
Five recorded songs – two on her first album and three on the second – have been written by Bonnie, but she writes on the piano and, because of touring hasn’t had the time or inclination to carry on. “I don’t consider myself a songwriter. I’m not going to record my own songs just for the sake of it, just because they are my own.
“It’s getting harder finding songs because there are so many others looking around... Linda Ronstadt, Maria Muldaur, Tracy Nelson, Rita Coolidge, Anne Murray, Emmylou Harris – the list goes on and on of other women interpreters.”
Bonnie spends much of her time with the other girl singers. Three years ago she moved back to Los Angeles from Cambridge. “It’s like Paris in the Thirties out there – Joni, Maria, Linda and everybody. We’re all close friends and get together a lot.”
Bonnie is, nevertheless, firmly anti-star in her outlook on the music industry but realises that if she wants to do benefit concerts for things she believes in, then she must achieve some kind of success. A dilemma.
“I do benefits now,” she said. “I am very much involved with the Womens’ Movement, but the only time you can do benefits is when you are successful enough to be a headliner. That’s why I toured so much. People have said I’m crazy to go on the road the way I do, but when I can headline on my own then I can be in a position to put older blues people on the bill with me, the people that I used to open up for. My two best friends from the old blues musicians, Fred McDowell and Arthur Crudup, have died. That’s my main ambition. If you asked me why I am doing this with my life, then that’s it – to use my influence to turn people’s heads onto these people. If I can really sell out halls, then I have a lot of influence about who is on the bill with me. I got my music from these people so I should be supporting them.”