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.