Bonnie Raitt was born on November 8, 1949 in Burbank, California. Raised in what The Times of London calls “a politically active Quaker household” in Los Angeles and New York City, Raitt in the early 1960s attended what she would later describe as a “progressive Quaker camp … that had a lot of counselors from the East Coast colleges where a lot of interest in folk music and civil rights and the peace movement was mushrooming…. So that kind of tied music and politics together for me.” In her teens, she developed a passion for political protest songs, particularly those of Joan Baez.
In 1967 Raitt enrolled at Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, majoring in African Studies with the goal of eventually working in Tanzania, where, as she later recalled in a 2002 interview, “President Julius Nyerere was creating a government based on democracy and socialism.” “I wanted to help undo the damage that Western colonialism had done to native cultures around the world,” Raitt added.
Radicalized by the antiwar and civil-rights movements of the Sixties, Raitt began neglecting her studies and “hangin’ out with 70-year-old blues guys who drank at 10 in the morning.” She perfected her craft, however, by playing guitar with such blues legends as Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Sippie Wallace. In 1970 Raitt dropped out of college and signed a contract with Warner Brothers Records, which released her debut album, Bonnie Raitt, the following year. That album had a dedication “to the people of North Vietnam” printed on the back cover.
Alcoholic and overweight, Raitt was widely praised by critics but found relatively little commercial success during her first two decades in the music industry. Then in 1989, with renewed sobriety gained through the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and psychotherapy, she made the career-saving album Nick of Time for Capitol Records, which brought her four Grammys and instant stardom. Two years later, Luck of the Draw opened the way to three more Grammys.
As a political activist, Raitt has embraced a wide range of left-wing causes. In 1979, for instance, she co-founded the anti-nuclear-power group Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), with Graham Nash and Jackson Browne. In the early 1980s she endorsed the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, a Soviet-sponsored initiative that would have frozen the USSR’s military superiority over the United States in place.
Supporting the Soviet- and Cuban-backed Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua during the 1980s, Raitt performed at benefit concerts to raise money for “Countdown 87,” an umbrella group whose aim was to discredit and derail the Reagan administration’s aid to the Contra rebels in that nation. Raitt also performed with Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne at fundraisers on behalf of the Christic Institute, which backed the Sandinistas and spread communist propaganda against the U.S. military in Latin America.
During the ’80s as well, Raitt did concerts to support the Sanctuary Movement, through which local law-enforcement and other government agencies blocked federal efforts to apprehend refugees and immigrants who had entered the U.S. illegally from Central America.
Raitt’s reverence for the famed linguistics professor and America-hater Noam Chomsky inspired her to create music to accompany recordings of his spoken words. According to one report, in 1996 Raitt and a former producer for the Rolling Stones put together an album “with high-profile rockers pounding out rhythms to back Chomsky’s lyrics.”
In March 1999 Raitt performed in a concert at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana, where she sang “Cuba Is Way Too Cool!”—a song she composed in honor of Fidel Castro. The lyrics described Cuba as “a happy little island,” while the U.S. was a “big bad wolf” that “look[ed] the fool.” Raitt also met Castro and embraced him during her stay in Havana, and she told local journalists that it was “good to be here while Cuba is still not so under the influence of the West.”
In January 2003, Raitt joined more than 100 well-known Americans in signing a high-profile antiwar statement composed by Not In Our Name, a Maoist organization founded by Revolutionary Communist Party member C. Clark Kissinger. A box at the bottom of the ad urged readers to send donations to the New York-based Bill of Rights Foundation, best known for its impassioned defense of convicted cop-killer and Marxist icon Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In 2004 Raitt became a member of Vote for Change (VFC), a coalition of musicians and bands that raised money for America Coming Together‘s effort to help Democratic Senator John Kerry win that year’s presidential election. Among VFC’s other members were Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and R.E.M.
In 2007, Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Graham Nash revived their 1970s anti-nuclear message by urging Congress not to approve federal loan guarantees for the construction of any new nuclear power plants.
In October 2009 Raitt joined Pearl Jam, R.E.M., and other entertainment-industry luminaries in supporting the newly formed National Campaign to Close Guantanamo—i.e., the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba.
Raitt was a member of Actors and Artists United for the Freedom of the Cuban 5. The Cuban 5 was a Miami-based, KGB-trained, Castro spy ring whose members were arrested in 1998 and charged with espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, and attempted infiltration of U.S. military bases and Cuban exile groups in South Florida. Raitt signed an April 8, 2011 letter thanking former president Jimmy Carter for his recent calls for the release of the Five, who, according to the letter, “were simply trying to protect their country from terrorism.”
In the summer of 2013, Raitt was a signatory to a letter asking California Governor Jerry Brown to terminate his state prison system’s practice of placing incarcerated gang members, gang associates, and serious offenders in isolation cells for 23 hours per day. The letter depicted such cells as “extensions of the same inhumanity practiced at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.” Among the other signers were Noam Chomsky, Jesse Jackson, and Gloria Steinem.
That same year, Raitt and a number of like-minded activists teamed up with the Sierra Club in asking President Obama to “lead an effort on the scale and with the urgency we need to phase out fossil fuels and lead America, and the world, in a clean energy revolution.” Other participants included Alec Baldwin, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elle Macpherson, Edward Norton, Yoko Ono, Susan Sarandon, Russell Simmons, and Tom Steyer.
In 2015 Raitt recorded a song for Buy This Fracking Album, a two-disc musical compilation intended to warn listeners about the dangers of hydro-fracking as a means of accessing shale oil and gas. “One of the most critical environmental issues of our time is banning fracking everywhere because it destroys our water, our communities and our planet,” said Raitt in a statement.
Raitt currently has a net worth of approximately $12 million. Active in environmental causes, she has long supported Defenders of Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy, and the Rainforest Action Network. She has served as an honorary member of the Rainforest Action Network’s board of directors, and of the Liberty Hill Foundation‘s advisory board.
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