How Bonnie Raitt Fine-tuned Her Style With ‘Give It Up’

Stardom was never on Bonnie Raitt‘s radar. From the beginning of her career, she was mostly concerned with the craft of live performance.

“I personally have no ambition to be some big hot stuff,” she said Sing out! in 1972. “I like to act. I could play the second act or play at Jack’s [a bar and music venue] in Cambridge for the rest of my life. And that’s what I’m trying to do now, build a base on live performances instead of records.”

She started playing music from a young age with parents encouraging her interests. Raitt’s mother was a pianist and her father was a musical theater actor who appeared in productions of Oklahoma! and Pajamas game. Raitt first began honing her guitar skills while still a teenager at summer camp, then as a young adult on the Harvard campus, studying social relations and Africana studies.

In Cambridge she met Dick Waterman, a leader of the then growing blues revival movement. Not long after, she decided to leave school and move with him to Philadelphia. She began performing there locally as well as in Cambridge and New York City. “It was an opportunity that young white girls just don’t get,” she recalled in 2002“and as it turns out, an opportunity that changed everything.”

A 1970 gig at the Gaslight Cafe found Raitt opening for John Hammond Jr., son of the legendary Columbia Records executive. The New York City venue was once a haven for up-and-coming folk artists such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, but then turned his ear to the blues. Word began to spread about the unusually talented young guitarist, whose slide work particularly stood out from others.

Raitt eventually accepted a record deal with Warner Bros., and she released her first self-titled album in 1971. A collection of mostly covers with a few originals, the LP sold modestly but was generally well received by critics.

At the time, Raitt described the idea of ​​becoming a star based on albums alone as “redundant.” Still, when it came time to record give it up, she was grateful for the “complete control” Warner Bros. allowed her. “They just give me the money and I give them the tapes,” she said. “And I respect Warners for the fact that they would take an unknown artist like me and give me unlimited artist control.”

Listen to Bonnie Raitt perform ‘Love Has No Pride’

This second studio effort was recorded in Woodstock, NY, where Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Studios was just beginning to become a haven for musicians who wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of big-city studios. Raitt was already used to this—she recorded her debut album at an empty summer camp just outside of Minneapolis—but this time she had new musicians to work with, including Paul Butterfield, TJ Tindall, and Chris Parker, among others. (Many were from around the Woodstock area.)

She also had a new producer in the up-and-coming Michael Cuscana, then known mainly for his jazz radio programs and writing. He had heard of Raitt through Waterman, but knew nothing else when he first heard Raitt perform in Philadelphia. “I didn’t even know she played guitar or sang,” he said Joe Maita in 2019. Cuscana said he was “knocked out” by her performance.

Like Bonnie Raitt, give it up arrived in September 1972 littered with mostly wrappers. They included songs written by older blueswomen Raitt admired—Barbara Georges”I know“and Sippie Wallace/Jack Viertel’s”You must know how” – as well as the then just released “Under the Falling Sky” by Jackson Browne. The heavy presence of covers did not bother Raitt.

“I’m not a songwriter,” she insisted in 1976“and besides, just because I didn’t write a song like ‘Love Has No Pride’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like I wrote it. It makes no difference if I spread it using other people’s words or my own songs.”

Raitt recognized that a new era of interest in blues music was taking shape, but that the black musicians who pioneered it could still be left behind. “Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, they have no faith in white kids,” Raitt recounted Sing out. “They know that even if white kids happen to like the blues this year, they’d still rather watch Johnny Winter. They know that Janis Joplin made a certain amount of money and that Big Mama Thornton made maybe a fifth of it—and that’s why Junior Wells does James Brown songs.

“White people have been fickle before,” Raitt added, “and next year the blues might not be their thing: that’s why a lot of blues singers aren’t working anymore, why all those clubs closed.”

Listen to Bonnie Raitt perform ‘You Got to Know How’

Throughout the 60s and into the 70s countless rock ‘n’ roll bands suffer Led Zeppelinthat The Rolling Stones and Allman Brothers Band had often greatly enjoyed inspiration drawn from older blues musicians and albums. Raitt wanted to bring these artists – especially if they were still alive – closer to the forefront.

“It’s also true that people would rather see me or John Hammond do the blues than Fred McDowell. It’s ridiculous,” she added. “Eventually, it would be really nice to put some of the older blues people on the bill with me and try to educate people. I think that’s really important.”

That’s exactly what Raitt once did give it up began to attract more attention. Sales were again moderate, but this became her first chart album at No. 138 and it garnered widespread critical praise. She brought Buddy Guy and Junior Wells as her support act in 1975. Two years later, John Lee Hooker opened her shows. She also subsequently befriended Sippie Wallace.

They may have initially found it somewhat strange that a young woman raised in a Quaker family from Los Angeles could find such meaning in their music – but Raitt quickly won them over. “They thought her interest in the blues was some kind of freakish quirk,” Waterman said Rolling stones in 1975, “but she is proud of Buddy and Muddy [Waters] and Junior and [Howlin’] Wolf now considers her a true peer. Not ‘she plays well for a white person or a girl,’ but ‘she plays well’.”

In her eyes, the momentum she started with continues Bonnie Raitt was a feat. give it up featured much of what fans and critics liked about Raitt’s first album—her earthy singing style and top-notch guitar playing—but with a more polished, professional sound. “It’s a great collection of songs,” Raitt said in 1976“it had the same funky feel as the first album – only much better recorded on six tracks.”

Listen to Bonnie Raitt perform ‘Love Me Like a Man’

Especially in the early days of her career, Raitt inherently stood out among her male colleagues. How she fit in among her female predecessors was also still a point of discussion.

“Could Bonnie Raitt be the woman to fill the void left by Janis Joplin’s death?” one New York Times critic asked in a 1972 review of give it up. “Not that Raitt sounds like Joplin, but she is a talented singer who exudes a captivating energy.” (Incidentally, Raitt had a very different take on her vocals give it up: “I sound like Mickey Mouse,” she said in the 1995 biography Bonnie Raitt: Just in the Nick of Time.)

Raitt grew up with two brothers, so she was used to proving herself. Still, her goal was to do so in an understated way — and female fans relate to that attitude.

“I think women like me because they don’t have to be jealous,” she said Rolling stones in 1990. “I’m one of them, you know. I’m not ridiculously beautiful and I’m not rich and I’m not terrifyingly talented. I’m probably as close to a normal person as you’re going to find in the music business .”

They kept buying give it up, which eventually reached gold certification in 1985. Raitt was probably on stage at an intimate concert, doing what she always has. “I’d rather play small places that only charge a dollar, be on the bill with people I really like,” she shared Sing out. “That’s the only thing that matters to me is that it’s not a rip off for the people that come in and that I feel good.”

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