In John Raitt's Steps—but at Bonnie's Own Pace
She was born in a trunk, like Liza Minnelli and Jane Fonda and Lucie Arnaz. Unlike them, Bonnie Raitt, the daughter of Broadway musical star John Raitt (Carousel, Oklahoma!, Pajama Game) turned away from center stage. Years later, when she finally embraced show business, it was on her own special terms.
Bonnie Raitt is 25, and with four big albums (the latest: Streetlights), she is possibly the foremost white blues performer in the country. As a child, she was a relentless nonprofessional, although she began a nodding acquaintance with folk music at a Quaker summer camp in the Adirondacks and developed it as a hobby during two and a half years at Radcliffe. Her major was African studies, and in her spare time she did community organizing; her dream was to be a social worker in Tanzania. Gradually, however, she became absorbed in the Cambridge folk music scene, transferring her social concerns to exploited blues musicians in America. Shortly thereafter, she dropped out of school.
“With my gimmick of being a girl blues guitar player,” she recalls, “I became your all-around opening act. I wasn’t too ugly, I wasn’t too pretty, I wasn’t too threatening, I wasn’t too bad.” Her move into stardom has been consciously slow trying to avoid a career dependent upon capricious hits. “I’m more ready to accept the commercial than I was two years ago,” Bonnie claims. “I’ve relaxed into headline status—I can put my friends on as opening acts, drop ticket prices and do more benefits.”
While in Cambridge, Bonnie felt her privacy eroding to the point that she split for her native Los Angeles. “I found myself hanging out in bars too much—I like staying up late and I’m no teetotaler.” That, and a grueling work schedule, had led to bouts of pleurisy and pneumonia, but she appears to be in fine shape now. She is also more comfortable about the demands of fame, which she likens (though still single and childless) to parenthood: “You know you’re giving up your privacy for a few years, but you also know the kid will get old enough to go to school and you’ll get your privacy back.” Reluctant star Bonnie Raitt finds the moments before she goes onstage the calmest of the day. “I am,” she says, “most myself when I’m singing.”