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Thursday, November 24, 2016

"Bonnie is Intimate Wherever She Goes"

Her first impression of Bonnie Raitt came after the funeral of Skip James.  Local writer Mary Niepold watched as Bonnie Raitt was sitting in the dining room of widow Lorenza James in West Philadelphia. She was sitting on the side next his upright piano, and she strummed the blues on an old guitar.  Softly.  All alone. Delta bluesman James had been buried that after noon.

In 1974, the Temple University Music Festival in Ambler welcomed Bonnie Raitt back to town; but she wasn’t alone and she was still playing the blues she learned from bluesmen like James, the late Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace.  She played them softly, sometimes audaciously. And on this visit to Philadelphia (in which she has performed many times in the last three years), she had nearly four thousand people moving to every beat and earthy nuance of her music.  Having already played in the Main Point, the Shubert, the Walnut and the Academy of Music, Raitt had no trouble reaching large houses.  She’s as intimate with thousands as she is with hundreds. Talking, smiling and cracking jokes between numbers, she holds you engagingly.  Not once during the hour or so performance, did she lose her composure.

“She prefers an intimate atmosphere,” according to her bass player, Freebo (formerly with Philadelphia’s Edison Electric Band), “but you can’t just play small houses and have them lined up around the block. You have to reach the large houses.”

There were a few problems. Her 20-year-old electric Gibson needed tuning between every number. She laughed about it, and perched on a black stool, complaining about her need for an assistant “to do my tuning.”  The lighting was burning her out, too.  “My freckles are melting.”  The biggest problem (of which the audience likely had no awareness) was the new group that gave its first performance.  With only three days rehearsal, it showed in the opening numbers, but on the whole the group came across well. The two new members, after several years with Van Morrison, were John Platanaia on guitar and Jeff Labes on piano.  Each had their moments.  Each played skillfully.  The rhythm section of Raitt, Freebo on bass (and harmony and kazoo) and Dennis Whitted on drums was as tight, as driving, as it always was.  But the real star was Raitt and blues isn’t the only thing she’s a star in.

Time has only refined Ms. Raitt’s ability to go up and down emotions like scales on a piano. She can slide in and out of a ballad and make it as pure as a solo guitar. A gut-grabbing plea for love can become as painful in its remembrance as it was the first time you felt it. A rhythm and blues number rocks the chairs, one and all.  Bonnie Raitt always comes off as a woman, a little bit wistful, a little bit brazen and all the time soulful.  She’s also a consummate musician.

Above article from Mary Niebold, “Bonnie is Intimate Wherever She Goes,” The Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, Aug 10, 1974.


Bonnie Raitt came up in the southern California atmosphere of Broadway show tunes and surfing music.  She always liked the best soul, folk and blues.  “I started playing guitar at ten or twelve, picked up folk and by the time I was 14 I was playing blues guitar.” She rushed East for college to be part of the folk scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts “Of course when I got there, it had closed. Rock music had descended.  “In 1968, I went to Europe. I thought I’d heard every blues record. In England they had some unreleased material.”  That’s where Miss Raitt first heard the music of Sippie Wallace.

“I recorded two of her songs on my first album. I got to meet her finally in 1972 at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. I do her songs mostly because I like them the best and she is alive. She is one of the few who could benefit from me doing her songs. She celebrated her 77th birthday recently. She is an elder black woman who lives in Detroit, but she was one of the classical blues singers of the twenties. Her lyrics are raunchy in a kind of refreshing double entendre, not bawdy—a lot more touching and a Randy Newman kind of off-the-wall lyrics.

Her political and social views grew from her involvement as a Quaker.  “It was a social orientation, hands around the world, pacifist, the American Friends Service Committee. I went to Quaker camp the last two years of high school and became a leftist , liberal progressive. Now it seems the radicalism of the ’60s has become the common sense of the ’70s.

“Right now I’m involved with helping Tom Hayden run for Senate in California. It is nice to run up and down the state doing benefits and including local musicians.”  She does about 50 benefit concerts a year, accepting expenses, no performance fee.  “I do them for women’s community health centers, legal assistance projects, listener-sponsored radio stations. They pass out information in the lobby. I think it’s important.”


Above article from Mary Campbell, “Singer Bonnie Raitt Has Roots in Blues,” The (Bakersfield, CA) Times, Jan 25, 1976.