The instinct to help people is ingrained in Bonnie Raitt’s DNA, likely somewhere near the gene that gives her the ability to play a mean blues guitar and sing like a soulful angel.
Even before the release of her 1971 eponymous debut, Raitt’s career track was oriented toward service. A social relations and African studies major at Radcliffe College in Boston, Harvard’s sister school, Raitt began playing the slide guitar and singing the blues as an evening hobby.
Fortunately for her legions of fans, Raitt found herself in the right place at the right time. With the backing of a local blues promoter whom she befriended, Raitt began sitting in with greats like Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace, a female blues great. She soon put her dreams of a service career in Africa aside, following her musical muse instead.
Over the four decades since first establishing herself as a blues singer, Raitt has dedicated her life to music and activism, maintaining a strong voice in the anti-nuclear, environmental and human rights movements. In Charleston, she has worked closely with the Coastal Conservation League, raising as much as $80,000 through two performances in the 1990s to benefit the organization.
“She is a dedicated environmentalist and a generous and gracious person,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, citing Raitt’s work to provide support for elderly blues musicians. “It is hard to imagine anyone giving back more to the musical community and the environment than she has.”
From organizing concerts against nuclear power in the 1970s to fighting South African apartheid in the 1980s and her continued commitment to donate proceeds from every concert she performs to local charities in the region, Raitt has never lost sight of her ideals, leveraging her fame to help individuals and the planet at every step along the way.
Now 63, Raitt, daughter of late Broadway musical star John Raitt, has cemented her legacy as one of the all-time greats in blues music. Rolling Stone includes her on both its lists of the top 100 singers and guitarists of all-time, thanks to her biting slide work on the guitar and her poignant lyrical delivery.
Irish songwriter Danny Ellis first heard Raitt’s music in 1989, when she released the classic album “Nick of Time.”
“My wife and I met around that time, and that was our go-to album when we were courting,” recalls Ellis, who opens Raitt’s concert on Friday at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. “Bonnie has an expression to her voice that really takes a lyric to a whole ‘nother place. When she sings a song, the lyrics go home to where the writer meant for them to go.”
Raitt’s ability to express herself and “get inside of a lyric when she sings” helped to inspire Ellis as he transformed himself from a pop and R&B songwriter into a singer writing personal songs with only a guitar to accompany him. In his own musical development, Ellis first emulated Dixieland jazz and the hit American bands of the ’70s, traveling with various groups around the European continent and to the United States.
It wasn’t until he settled in Asheville, N.C., that Ellis came to terms with his difficult childhood. At 8, his mother handed him and his four siblings over to the care of the state. He was raised in an orphanage that doubled as a correctional school until he was 16, exposing him to “thieves, tinkers, bullies and blackguards.”
In 2009, Ellis released “800 Voices,” a “devastatingly personal” album that traces his story growing up in the Irish orphanage. Ellis’ friend and fellow songwriter, David Wilcox, gave a copy of the disc to Nashville, Tenn., songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, who played it for Raitt during a vacation together in Malibu, Calif. Soon thereafter, Raitt reached out to Ellis in an email to let him know she was a fan and to invite him to her upcoming show in Asheville.
“I was over the moon. You can imagine how that would impact you,” recalls Ellis. “When my wife and I first met her and told her we had courted to ‘Nick of Time,’ she was genuinely bowled over and touched. She’s a really down-to-earth, straight-talking person.”
After booking this week’s date in Charleston, Raitt again reached out to Ellis, inviting him to perform. The timing worked out nicely; Ellis released his newest album, “Rest Yourself,” this month, blending his folk songwriting with the natural Celtic influence that permeates all of his work.
“When the Irish influence started to creep back into my music, it really felt like something was coming home,” said Ellis.
Raitt’s current tour also coincides with a highly successful new album, “Slipstream.” Released last April, the disc won a Grammy earlier this year for Best Americana Album, bringing her total count of gilded gramophones to 10.
The release of “Slipstream” followed seven years behind her previous album, 2005’s “Souls Alike,” and marked a difficult period in her life where she lost both of her parents, her brother and a best friend.
“I knew I needed to take some time to heal,” Raitt said in an interview about the album. “I took a yearlong hiatus from working on anything related to a new album or touring to find some balance in the other areas of my life. It was a very worthwhile and restorative time.”
For the collection of songs, Raitt drew from her own recent songwriting, tunes by Randall Bramblett, Loudon Wainwright and Al Anderson, and classics like Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line.”
“That song (“Right Down the Line”) came on the radio a few years ago, and the guitar part just came to me like a lightning bolt. I love that nexus where reggae and rock meet, and this song gets right into it,” Raitt said. “I’m so inspired and proud to carry on the styles of music I love, whether it’s reggae or a James Brown feel, ballads or the blues. I’m in the slipstream of those who came before me, and I’m creating one for those behind me, as well.”
Raitt said she’s also been drawing inspiration from newer acts like Bon Iver and The Black Keys, and was honored to hear Bon Iver, Adele and Kelly Clarkson cover her song, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” in recent years.
“There’s so much great music out there now, especially in the Americana format I tend to listen to,” said Raitt. “I’m really happy with the success of The Black Keys and some others that show real artistry and innovation. It’s great to hear so many young artists influenced by the same classic soul, blues, jazz and rock that means so much to me.”
Although “Slipstream” includes guest performances from luminaries like jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Raitt still relies on her band in the studio, some of whom have been with her since “Nick of Time,” including drummer Ricky Fataar and bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson.
Raitt’s keep-it-in-the-family attitude is underscored by the release of “Slipstream” on her own Redwing Records.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Raitt dealt with constant wrangling by record companies that would bid for rights to her next album, only to drop her when a release didn’t achieve the commercial success that they’d hoped. Despite being a recognizable name for 20 years, her first genuine hit didn’t come until “Nick of Time.” She followed that album with a series of hits throughout the ’90s, including “Something to Talk About” and “Love Sneakin’ up on You,” both of which accompanied platinum-selling albums.
“We did a lot of research on the different options for a legacy artist like myself in this very different music business of today,” Raitt said of the decision to self-release. “I think the biggest change is how streamlined and customized our efforts are. The narrowed focus of being the only artist on a label helps with that transparency and control, and we know these folks are passionate and aren’t being pulled in so many directions.”
Still, Raitt acknowledges that getting a foot in the door as an independent artist in 2013 would be far more difficult than it was for her in 1970.
“There are more inexpensive, populist routes to getting your music and image out through the Internet and indie labels and blogs, but wading through the explosion of new artists from nearly every format of music trying to break through is challenging,” she said. “You’re more at the mercy of luck and who you know.”
Fortunately for artists like Ellis, Raitt is more than willing to offer a hand to help music she believes in find a wider audience, just as every concert she plays is another step in her lifelong quest to improve the health of the planet and the human condition, one bluesy note at a time.