Activism and Song: the Raitt Way to Do It


Bonnie Raitt may have left just in the nick of time.

Twenty-five years ago, Raitt, the Grammy-winning country and blues singer, could have marched with the Class of '72.

But by June 1972, Raitt was out of college and on the road to stardom--a road that would prove long and at times unpromising, but that would ultimately make her one of the biggest female pop stars of the early '90s.

Born in 1949 in Burbank, Calif., Raitt attended high school in Hollywood before flying the coop of her famous father, Broadway singer and actor John Raitt, and ending up 3,000 miles away in Radcliffe Yard.

Raitt had discovered folk music as a child in summer camp, listening to the tunes of Pete Seeger '40 and Joan Baez. She taught herself the guitar from the age of 12, and by the time she got to Harvard, she was ready to play amateur blues.

At 17, Raitt fit well into Cambridge's club scene with its folk music and activist bent. She frequented Boston clubs, became familiar with artists, managers and agents and soon began to perform gigs herself at venues such as Cambridge's Club 47.

On campus, meanwhile, Raitt lived in Cabot House and studied African culture because she had wanted to teach in Tanzania. She was also an active participant in protests against the Vietnam War.

In 1969, in her sophomore year, Raitt decided to leave Harvard to play folk and blues festivals around the U.S. She held engagements at the Gaslite in New York City and Philadelphia's Main Point; her audiences steadily grew.

Initially, Raitt planned to return to Harvard. Soon, however, she found herself caught up in the music scene and was never able to return to the College.

As a white female expertly playing the bottleneck guitar, Raitt was a rare bird who was quickly noticed. By 1971, when her classmates were entering their senior year, she had signed a contract with Warner Brothers.

Raitt's first, self-titled album was recorded in a garage on a Minnesota farm and contained two original songs and several blues covers. Although the album was critically acclaimed it did not sell well.

Sales improved with 1972's Give It Up, and Raitt left Cambridge for Los Angeles as her music began a shift away from the guitar and toward vocals. Raitt stayed with Warner Brothers for 17 more years, producing seven albums.

Still, despite winning a strong fan base, Raitt had spent 20 years in the music industry without attaining widespread commercial recognition.

A Thing Called Success

Not until 1989 did Raitt achieve mainstream success with the release of the album Nick of Time, which spawned the hit single "Thing Called Love" and which won Raitt her first six Grammys, including album of the year. The album became her best seller to date.

Raitt recorded Nick of Time on the Capitol label, and the album was her first with producer Don Was. The songs deal directly with relationships--successful and failed.

"I wanted to write about something really relevant to what my friends and I are going through--what it feels like to be at this point in our lives," she writes of the album.

The mass market success that Raitt met so quickly has been called one of the greatest turnarounds in modern music history. Commercial rewards continued to pile up with 1991's Luck of the Draw, featuring her pop hit "Something to Talk About," and 1994's Longing in Their Hearts, each of which also won a Grammy.

Raitt's most recent album, Road Tested, is a double CD of songs recorded live during a 1995 summer tour. Raitt continues to be an active performer, putting on more than 100 shows per year.

In addition to the 14 solo albums she has released, Raitt has gained a reputation as a "singer's singer," playing the guitar on numerous records of other artists. She has collaborated extensively with artists such as Jackson Browne and Bruce Hornsby.

As an entertainment star, Raitt's personal life has been made the subject of media scrutiny. She has been linked to numerous music men over the years, and it was not until she was near 40 that she wed the actor Michael O'Keefe--best known for his portrayal of Roseanne's brother-in-law on the comedienne's hit TV show.

Something to Talk About

Raitt came back to Harvard in 1986 to present a free Yard concert at Harvard's 350th anniversary celebration. She returned for Harvard's fifth annual Arts First weekend this May to receive the Harvard Arts Medal.

In a reception that weekend in Raitt's honor, President Neil L. Rudenstine said she was selected for the medal because of the impact her music has had.

"Bonnie has done this with enormous determination, with consistency and a really incredible generosity throughout her career," Rudenstine said.

In a speech for students at Radcliffe's Agassiz Theatre, Raitt said she did not feel deserving of the honor, but that she would accept it because of the community service with which she is involved.

"I just cannot believe that a rock 'n' rollin', blues-singing, rowdy-mouthed political activist would be standing up here at Harvard University," Raitt told the crowd.

Indeed, Raitt says she sees herself as an activist first and a musician second.

An active Quaker, Raitt is an strong environmentalist, an advocate for nuclear disarmament and a champion of social causes.

Raitt has put her music to good use, in special concerts for women's organizations and human-rights groups. In 1979, Raitt helped to organize five concerts by Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE). In 1985, she sang and appeared in the video of an anti-apartheid record titled Sun City.

Recently, Raitt began a partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America aimed at bringing music to women and children in economically deprived neighborhoods. Thirty-two clubs will participate in the Bonnie Raitt Guitar Project, receiving $1,500 electric guitars and funding for guitar lessons.

The project is funded by royalties Raitt receives from the Bonnie Raitt Signature Series Stratocaster--the first Fender-brand guitar to honor a female musician.

"I had a guitar as a kid because my parents and grandparents gave me one," Raitt has said. "But these days I don't think it's an option for kids--and certainly not in the inner city."