Classic Tracks: Bonnie Raitt's "Thing Called Love"

Apr 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson

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Bonnie Raitt and Ed Cherney discussing the album's direction with producer Don Was (far-right)

Bonnie Raitt and Ed Cherney discussing the album's direction with producer Don Was (far-right)

When I call engineer extraordinaire Ed Cherney about the recording of Bonnie Raitt’s commercial breakthrough, “Thing Called Love,” the first thing he says is, “Isn’t that a little recent for a ‘Classic Track’?” “Dude,” I said, “it was recorded 22 years ago!” He got a laugh out of that; it does seem like it was just yesterday in some ways. But it was cut in 1989 and was a keystone of her album Nick of Time, which won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1990 and sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. alone.

Raitt’s success was a long time coming. The daughter of Broadway singer John Raitt, Bonnie Raitt started playing guitar at an early age, but didn’t turn serious about music until she was living in Cambridge, Mass., and going to Radcliffe College (Harvard’s all-girl “sister” school) in the late ’60s. It was in Boston that she met and befriended Dick Waterman, who had been deeply involved in the early ’60s Cambridge folk scene and “blues revival,” putting on shows by recently rediscovered bluesmen like Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt, personally “finding” the long-retired Delta singer Son House (in Rochester, N.Y., of all places) and later starting a booking agency that handled those three and such greats as Skip James, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Boy Crudup. Raitt immersed herself in the blues, learning what she could from these living legends, and soon was opening for them on occasion. With a powerful voice that could be gritty one second, delicate the next, and serious guitar chops (especially on slide), the beautiful redhead was a striking and different artist, interpreting traditional blues and folk in her own way.

She dropped out of college to devote herself to music full-time, and by 1970 had been signed by Warner Bros. Records. Her self-titled debut came out in 1971 and was a critical success, if not a commercial triumph. It, and her next album, Give It Up, established a formula of sorts, offering a mixture of blues by the likes of Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace; tunes by up-and-coming songwriters such as Jackson Browne, Chris Smither and Eric Kaz; and a sprinkling of a couple of her own compositions in the mix. Later albums championed writers like John Prine (“Angel From Montgomery” was an FM favorite), J.D. Souther, Karla Bonoff and many others, and she earned a reputation as a truly dynamic and personable live performer, as well. From her earliest days, she was politically active, giving her time and energy to many causes. Her first minor hit was a bluesy reading of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” in 1977 (on Sweet Forgiveness), but she was unable to follow it up to Warner’s satisfaction, and in late 1983, Warner Bros. abruptly dropped her (along with several other “prestige” acts), even though she had recently completed an album at tremendous expense.

Raitt says this was a particularly low time for her and that both her health and personal life were in bad shape, but during the next couple of years, she managed to pull everything together, and she continued to tour successfully and play a number of major benefits. Raitt signed with Capitol Records in late 1988 and was soon in Ocean Way (L.A.) Studio 2 working with producer Don Was and engineer Cherney on Nick of Time. She had met Was—who was leader of the quirky but cool band Was (Not Was), and branched into production with albums by Carly Simon and The B-52s—when he produced a version of Raitt singing “Baby Mine” from the film Dumbo for the hip 1988 album of Disney film song remakes called Stay Awake. Nick of Time marked the first time Cherney worked with either of them, and it proved to be a turning point in his career.

Cherney had cut his teeth as an assistant engineer for Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien (among others), but by the early ’80s was mostly recording and mixing jingles, which he says gave him invaluable experience working fast and in different music styles. He landed a Delco car-battery spot featuring music by Ry Cooder, which led to recording and mixing Cooder’s entire Get Rhythm album. Cherney followed that with a disc for Cooder’s buddy David Lindley, the superb Linda Ronstadt–produced Very Greasy. “I knew that Bonnie was going to be doing a record,” Cherney recalls. “I’d been a big fan of hers for a long time, and at that point, having done Cooder and Lindley, I was really into slide guitar and also listening to a lot of blues. So I lobbied everyone I knew that knew Bonnie and pleaded with them to tell her that I was the perfect guy for her.” Evidently, Cherney’s plot was successful because he soon got a call from Was and, after a lunch with him and Raitt, landed the gig. “We laughed the whole meeting and I just fell in love with both of them,” Cherney says.






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