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Blues-Rock Guitar Goddess

One of my favorites. She turned 70 this week.

Bonnie Lynn Raitt was born on 8th November 1949 in Burbank, California. Her parents were John Raitt, a handsome, strong voice star of many stage productions and musicals; Oklahoma, Carousel, Pajama Game, Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, to name a few. Her mother was Marge Goddard, not only a pianist but also a gifted musician, majoring in music at Redlands College. Bonnie was raised in the Quaker tradition and developed an interest in music as well as activism at an early age.

She started playing the guitar at the age of eight after she received one as a Christmas present, a $25 Stella, and in her teens gained notice for her bottleneck-style guitar playing. Her maternal grandfather, a Methodist missionary who also played Hawaiian lap steel guitar, taught her a few chords on the guitar, and her counselors at a Quaker summer camp in the Adirondacks turned her on to the emerging folk and protest music. In addition, Raitt was exposed to the blues via an album recorded at the 1963 Newport festival and a batch of Ray Charles recordings a family friend had given her.

Her family moved back east when she was 15. She graduated from Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1967, she entered Radcliffe College majoring in Social Relations and African studies. She said her plan was to travel to Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere was creating a government that was based on democracy and socialism.

During her sophomore year she left Radcliffe and moved to Philadelphia. She had become friends with Dick Waterman, a former photojournalist, and when she met him a blues promoter. He helped such bluesmen as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James resuscitate their careers in the wake of the Sixties blues resurgence. She lived with him and played music with other musicians in Philadelphia. What started as a weekend attraction to the blues turned more serious after Waterman, whom Raitt was soon dating, began adding her to some of his artists’ shows. She says it was the opportunity that changed everything. She was soon performing alongside the likes of idols including Howlin' Wolf, Sippie Wallace, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Bonnie had become a serious student of the blues and picked up various tips and techniques from the masters she was playing with. After one evening at the Gaslite Club in New York, when she received a very favorable review, she was offered a recording contract with Warner Brothers Records. Over the next 15 years her career grew and soon she had earned a reputation as a sizzling slide-guitar player, a superb singer who possessed excellent interpretive skills. Her music became a series of roots-influenced albums that incorporated elements of blues, rock, folk and country.

It wasn’t only the blues she was passionate about though. She had become one of the most outspoken political activists of the time. She was one of the founders of Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), which was a vocal anti nuke organization. She regularly set aside several weeks a year to play benefits for leftist causes, sanctuary movements, battered women’s centers, Indian rights groups as well as a host of others. She is also active in CoMadres, an organization made up of the mothers and wives of men who have disappeared or been killed in El Salvador, and she’s one of the board members of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, a nonprofit group intended to provide financial support and other assistance to some of rock’s forefathers.

During the late seventies into the mid eighties she suffered a downward spiral of depression and alcohol and other substance dependency. In 1987 she pulled her life back together seeking therapy and attending regular support meetings for recovering alcoholics. She discloses that what gave her the courage to admit her alcohol problem and stop drinking was seeing that Stevie Ray Vaughan was an even better musician when sober.

As for her own life, Raitt professes to be happier than ever. “I really feel like some angels have been carrying me around,” she says. “I just have more focus and more discipline, and consequently more self-respect. And that really feels great. I’m not worried about anything anymore. I don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Bonnie has participated as a special guest on over 185 outside projects over the years, including work with friends, on soundtracks, and for special benefit albums. Among the highlights are duets with John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, John Raitt, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett, and Ray Charles. She has released 17 albums. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Bonnie Raitt is ranked at number 50 in Rolling Stone’s 2010 list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” and at number 89 in the magazine’s 2011 list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. She has received ten Grammy Awards. Bonnie is widely considered as blues-rock’s only guitar goddess.

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