Go ahead, laugh all you want... I know that Bonnie Raitt has a lousy reputation among the current hipoisie as a schmaltzy, yuppified soul balladeer. But so what? The hipsters are wrong. I grew up digging Raitt's early stuff, and it's still great... and to tell the truth, her new records don't suffer too badly, either. Bonnie's career dates back to the early 1970s when she was (literally) a freckle-faced little kid, foisting herself upon as many old bluesman as she could find, and soaking up all their musical skill and savvy. She was also Broadway star John Raitt's daughter, which may account for some of the ease with which she became such a well-beloved performer on the outskirts of the LA rock scene. Here's a quick look at some of best stuff...
This is a dazzling debut, solidly in the blues camp and packed with impressively first-rate performances. Bonnie burns through several classic blues covers, ranging from Robert Johnson to Sippie Wallace, as well as hippie-era types like Stephen Stills and folk-bluesman John Koerner. Top it off with her confident, lusty delivery and considerable chops as a guitar player, and you got yourself one heck of a nice record. Highly recommended!
This followup album may be my favorite Bonnie Raitt album, although it shows her swiftly branching out into more torchy terrain. Another Sippie Wallace tune (the wonderfully raunchy "You Got To Know How") is the main holdover from her traditionalist blues leanings, along with an irresistible New Orleans-style version of Barbara George's "I Know"... Bonnie self-pens a few nice new tunes, and introduces several nice up-and-coming roots-ish songwriters -- Eric Kaz, Chris Smither and Joel Zoss -- to the world at large. A solid album, which includes one of her best ballads, "Love Has No Pride," which is maudlin, but effective. Another highly recommended record.
The balancing act between ballads and blues opens up wide on this one, though still mostly with top-notch results. The blues stuff -- "Let Me In," "Kokomo Blues" -- is pretty killer, as are some of the newer tunes she covers, such as Jackson Browne's "I Thought I Was A Child", Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy," and a particularly nice version of Randy Newman's (!) "Guilty." The only blemishes on here are Eric Kaz's followup ballad, "Cry Like A Rainstorm" and Joel Zoss's "I Gave My Love A Candle," which are both too syrupy, and point towards problems further down the road. Still, another great record.
Things start to go soft here, and uncommitted listeners may have a hard time giving Bonnie the benefit of the doubt... The highpoint is her version of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery," which is the definitive version of this excellent song. But the rest of this album is pretty goopy, and even the bluesier material is starting to sound a bit forced. Her next album, 1975's Home Plate, is entirely negligible.
Bonnie Raitt "Home Plate" (Warner, 1975)
Bonnie's first truly bogus album, marked by overly-slick LA production, and not enough oomph to back it up. That may seem like a harsh assessment, but really, she was off her game on this one -- the soft numbers are way to goopy, and the "rootsy" stuff sounds forced and overly refined. You can skip this one.
A guilty pleasure, but also a nice rebound from Home Plate. Many of the dudes in her stable of favorite writers have worn out their welcom, particularly Eric Kaz and Jackson Browne, but Paul Seibel's classic tearjerker, "Louise" (which he originally recorded in 1973), is a stunner. And don't ever tell anyone I told you this, but I also like her version of Karla Bonoff's "Home" a whole lot... a very pretty song.
The 'Seventies closed out with a winner for Bonnie... Goopy, glossy, lavishly overproduced and sappy... but a winner. It's one of her most overtly rock'n'roll albums, with a healthy dose of Motown soul thrown in on top... Her version of Isaac Hayes' "Your Good Thing (Is About To End)" is wildly oversexed and over the top, but it works for me, as does the kitschy, gender-switched rendition of Bobby Troup's "The Boy Can't Help It"... It's definitely a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.
Teaming up with pianist Terry Adams from NRBQ, Bonnie dashes off a full-on rock album that's giddy and outlandish, raucous and largely unsubtle. I could understand why a lot of folks wouldn't like this album -- but I like it a lot. It's nice to hear Bonnie let her hair down, and just rock out in a goofy, unpretentious manner. Few of these songs stand out as classics, or even as mildly transcendant, but they're fun to listen to, and she's singing right in my range... so why resist? Eric Kaz makes a nice save for himself, with "River Of Tears", which doesn't have musch lyrical depth, but a nice comfortable chorus. Also of note is her irony-drenched reading of Bob Dylan's "Let's Keep It Between Us," which preaches the evils of gossip. This new wave-ish outing isn't for everyone, but from time to time it still makes its way onto the stereo at my house.
Bonnie Raitt "Nine Lives" (Warner, 1986)
By most accounts, the '80s were not a great time for Raitt's spiritual life -- touring hard and partying even harder took its toll, both personally and professionally. But the switch to a new label -- and a more clean-and-sober outlook -- helped turn things around. This album was hailed as a brilliant comeback, and indeed it won Bonnie Grammy Awards, and shot her to the top of the US charts. But it also signalled warning signs for old-time fans: the Don Was-produced ballads were even slicker, and more given to shimmering electric keyboards and synths, and the blues tunes had more of a musclebound, beer-ad forcefulness to them. You couldn't deny that Raitt had her chops, but some of us questioned the direction she was heading off on... Still, more power to her -- if anyone ever deserved the the chance to cash in, it was Bonnie.
Bonnie Raitt "Luck Of The Draw" (Capitol, 1991)
Bonnie Raitt "Longing In Their Hearts" (Capitol, 1994)
Bonnie Raitt "Road Tested" (Capitol, 1995)
Bonnie thunders her way through two live CDs worth of old favorites -- "Three Time Loser," "Love Letter," "Angel From Montgomery," "Louise," etc. -- and a few new tunes, including surprise entries such as a cover of the Talking Heads' "Burning Down The House." As the album title implies, it's a well-proven, highly professional crew that delivers the goods... Bonnie and her band provide a tough, muscular sound, while also sharing some of the limelight with guests such as Jackson Browne, Kim Wilson, Ruth Brown, Charles Brown, Bruce Hornsby and Bryan Adams. In terms of subtlety and emotional range, you're probably better off hearing these songs in their original versions, but this sure is a nice glimpse at her live performance style.
Bonnie Raitt "Fundamental" (Capitol, 1998)
In lieu of a full-on, multi-disc retrospective on Rhino, this is as good an overview of Bonnie's Warner years as we're likely to hear for a while. Sure, we could quibble -- there are plenty of great tunes that were passed over, and a few included that may be of lesser value -- but it's still Bonnie, and that's always a class act. One highpoint is a duet recorded live in 1976 with her idol, Sippie Wallace... Nice collection; I just wish it were a bit longer.
Ever wonder where Bonnie got that funky version of "Kokomo Blues"? Well, check out Fred McDowell's classic recordings from 1964, where he feels acoustic, but plays electric... A funky, slightly grungy electric style that is tremndously soulful. His slide work doesn't seem technically advanced, but it is charged with power, and completely arresting. Raitt took that power and smoothed it out a bit -- you might find you like the unburnished originals even more!
Sippie Wallace "Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (1925-1945)" (Document, 1995)
On her early albums, Raitt championed Sippie Wallace, an all-but forgotten blues singer from the early '20s. Here's a chance to hear Wallace herself, back in her prime. Classic!
Sippie Wallace "Women Be Wise" (Storyville, 1998)
Actually, Wallace didn't sound so bad when she was old, either. When Bonnie brought her back into the public imagination, Wallace came out of retirement and wowed the world by being every bit as saucy and robust as she was when she was in her teens. This disc has all her "hits" -- the tunes Bonnie Raitt made popular in the early '70s, such as "Women Be Wise" and "You Got To Know How." Check it out!
Blues & Jazz Index
Sisters Who Swung
Pop Music Index