When Bonnie Raitt was 14 years old, she heard the album Blues at Newport and it lit her flame for slide guitar, blues music and the legendary masters who played it. By the time she was in her 20s she was the opening act for these legends, soaking up music lessons as well as life lessons. As a matter of fact, Sippie Wallace, Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker all played a part in raising this fiery-haired blueswoman.
It’s easy to see the profound influence they had on Bonnie Raitt, who to this day carries with her an unmatched soulfulness in all aspects of her life. “I’m certain that it was an incredible gift for me to not only be friends with some of the greatest blues people who’ve ever lived, but to learn how they played, how they sang, how they lived their lives, ran their marriages and talked to their kids,” she says.
One of the most admirable qualities Bonnie Raitt possesses is her unwavering commitment to people and causes she believes in. She doesn’t just talk the talk, she digs in and walks the walk. When she was made aware of the injustice in financial compensation to the blues musicians who had made millions for the recording industry, Bonnie joined forces with other like-minded souls and co-founded the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. Since its formation in 1988, the organization has launched programs and services to educate the public and provide financial assistance to those R&B community members in need.
For Bonnie Raitt’s birthday today, I’m shining a spotlight on the Rhythm & Blues Foundation with a conversation I had with her in 2000 about the program’s beginnings and the impact those blues giants had on her life. Thank you so much, Bonnie, for passing those lessons along to us, and for a lifetime of paying it forward. You’ve made such a difference in this world, and we’re so happy and grateful you were born.
How did you first become aware of the plight of the rhythm and blues artists and their failure to receive royalties?
My friend, Howell Begle, is an attorney in Washington who has long been a music fan of R&B and blues, and he informed me that he had approached Atlantic Records to find out why some of the giants that they had recorded over the years still hadn’t received any royalties: Laverne Baker, Ruth Brown, The Clovers, The Drifters. So he formed the Rhythm and Blues Foundation from an endowment from Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun.
A $1.5 million grant started a program to help with medical and financial assistance for these R&B pioneers who were basically the victims of unfair and dated royalty practices. At that time, artists were supposed to pay the entire cost of the recording out of approximately one percent—which was the standard royalty. And since then the record companies have sold and re-sold these masters to different labels without paying these artists. And even with each new format there’s been no way that these artists could ever make any money. So 20 and 30 years down the line you have an entire population that is the foundation of our music business—rock and roll, soul music, and every other form of music that we all make our living from—who’ve still never been paid.
When I heard about the situation, I—and most of the people in the world—didn’t know that every time we bought a new Sam and Dave record those guys didn’t get a piece of it. And it was not only rhythm and blues artists, it was all artists that recorded before about 1970 when royalty rates were customarily low. When the era of the singer-songwriter came in, the high-powered lawyers and managers started to negotiate for a more fair royalty rate.
So then you became involved with the program?
Yeah. Howell approached me and let me know about the situation, and then I became friends with some of these artists and he asked me to be one of the founding trustees. Luckily for me, my success at the Grammys in 1990 brought me a lot more access to the media, so every interview I did was about royalty reform and about the situation from the time I was first involved in the foundation. I felt like the town crier of the organization in terms of visibility, which was really, I think, almost why the Grammys happening at that time was so great—so that I could be able to publicize it.
You know, some people walk the other way when they see me coming. We’ve buried 60 people with the money we have. Some of those artists still went to their graves because they weren’t able to have a lifetime of health insurance. Pretty much all the greats except for a handful of superstars that have always made money have gone their entire lives without getting reimbursed for their work. And people like myself, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, or Rod Stewart, who cover Motown and R&B artists, have an obligation to share our income with those who didn’t get paid the first time around.
So without working for royalty reform and sharing your income, it’s another kind of exploitation. (Pause) Sorry that’s so heavy-handed, but I can’t smile about people going to the hospital that have no health insurance. And that 91 million bucks to build the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is great, but there’s also got to be money for health insurance to pay for teeth and instruments and financial help for the artists that put that building on the map.
You were traveling with a lot of those great blues artists when you were in your 20s. What kind of influence did they have on you?
I’d say what I learned from them primarily was their history, what their lives were like. The oral history of having somebody talk about what it was like when I asked a million questions like, “Did you know Robert Johnson?” and “How did you get the juke joint to shut up and listen?” And they’d say “This is why we have this resonator in the guitar,” “Electric guitar was so great because suddenly people could dance and hear and then you could have drums and bass.” You know, I got all this first hand.
The great gift, though, was their friendship and their tutelage about what it was like to be a black person in this century from that era, and how it felt to not have access to radio. Or when race records got pulled off the radio when the war and the Depression hit, how that made them feel to have to give up their careers and go be a farmer, or a Pullman porter, or a domestic, or in Sippie Wallace’s case just give it up entirely. Or to have white artists come and get a bigger hit off of songs they made famous. So it was more life lessons on how to be a man and a woman, and lessons about love, and how to drink, and how to dress, and all that (laughs). It was a lifestyle, and learning that was as important as soaking up every lick that they were playing.
You were right in the middle of the whole folk and blues revival, weren’t you?
You know, there were all generations of young white kids that fell in love with blues in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the folk music revival that was raging across college campuses and in England—this rediscovery of all these terrific folk artists, whether it was bluegrass or Bob Dylan celebrating the tradition of the Weavers and the political music of Woody Guthrie, and the labor movement…the bluesmen were rediscovered and it was just a fever to bring these guys out of the south. There were tons of white kids with legends about Robert Johnson and Son House, driving down on their spring breaks with tape recorders asking everybody on a porch, “Have you seen this guy.” It was this fantastic exploration and their appetite was whet by the Alan Lomax recordings and the fascination with all things that were blues.
I was a little pre-teenager in L.A. and I just caught the fever. I couldn’t wait to get old enough to go to Greenwich Village and hang out with John Hammond, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. I raced to get to Cambridge in time to hang out with them, and then Club 47 closed my freshman year. The Rolling Stones also had a huge influence on my generation getting turned on to the blues.
And it was an interesting thing the way that older black musicians who were suddenly brought back—and for the first time into national attention—played in night clubs in New York, Boston, Philly and California in front of white people. For the first time in their lives they got record deals where there was national distribution, and there they were mentoring their surrogate grandchildren—18-year-old college kids. Paul Butterfield played with Muddy Waters. Eric [Clapton] played with Muddy. And I studied with Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace. And their own kids weren’t interested in learning about blues, because the blues was their grandparents’ music. It represented poverty and backwoods. Something they were almost embarrassed about. American schools don’t teach appreciation of jazz and blues and their place in this culture.
So it seems that now you and a few of your peers have become the teachers to your teachers’ own grandchildren.
Yeah. You have this weird sociological leapfrogging where my own grandparents passed away when I was 19, but I inherited Sippie Wallace and Muddy and Son House and Fred McDowell, and that’s where I got my grandparenting—from them. And they probably really would have wished that their own children loved their music and took up in their footsteps, but because blues was negated from around the ’30s until the ’60s, the only people left to pick it up were the young white kids who romanticized black music and knew of the place in the culture it had.
So here we are going back, and now there’s a bunch of younger, black blues people coming up and saying to me and Eric and the Stones—as well as black artists like Robert Cray, Etta [James], Ruth [Brown], and Charles [Brown] and others that have been singing it—saying you turned me on to blues. You know, “I heard your records from the ’70s, and that’s how I got into blues—through you, not my family.”
From Performing Songwriter Issue 43, Jan/Feb 2000
Photo of Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker by Robert Matthew/Retna
More on The Rhythm & Blues Foundation
The Rhythm & Blues Foundation provides financial and medical assistance to Rhythm & Blues artists of the 1940s through the 1970s, as well as a support system to help identify other sources of assistance. Foundation grants have helped artists and their families cover the costs of emergency needs such as prescription medications, dental work, hearing aids, hospital stays and homecare, as well as assistance with burial expenses. To date, these programs have provided support to nearly 300 artists in need.
The Pioneer Awards Program
The Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Awards Program has recognized over 150 legendary artists whose lifelong contributions have been instrumental in the development of Rhythm & Blues music. This ceremony honors the career achievements of solo artists, vocal groups, songwriters and producers who are nominated and selected by members of our board of directors. As part of the Pioneer Awards, most recipients receive an honorarium. Since 1989, the Pioneer Awards Program has given over $1.5 million to worthy honorees and will continue to celebrate legendary Rhythm & Blues artists.
Doc Pomus and Founders Fund Financial Assistance Grant Program
Named in honor of the legendary songwriter and other founding directors, the program provides emergency assistance to any Rhythm & Blues artist who charted between 1940 and 1979.
Motown/Universal Music Group Fund
Established by Universal Music Group, the program provides grants to Rhythm & Blues artists who were affiliated with one of its labels from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Gwendolyn B. Gordy Fuqua Fund
Providing financial assistance to former Motown artists of the 1960s and 1970s, this fund was established by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy to honor the memory of his sister Gwendolyn, a talented producer, songwriter, entrepreneur and pioneering music executive.
Education and Outreach
The R&B Foundation brings together generations by offering Rhythm & Blues-themed educational and community outreach programs to the public. Whether it’s summer enrichment programs for elementary school students, workshops for seniors, panel discussions for music scholars or festivals for the entire family, the Foundation uses these opportunities to foster the public’s appreciation of Rhythm & Blues music. These events also provide performance opportunities for Rhythm & Blues artists.
Legacy Scholarship Award
The Foundation has established the Legacy Scholarship Award to encourage artistic excellence among future generations of Rhythm & Blues musicians. The annual award is intended to further the education and nurture the career development of aspiring young artists.
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