Everybody loves a redemption story. The short version of Bonnie Raitt’s goes something like this: critically-acclaimed musician falls prey to the fast-living, hard-drinking rock ’n’ roll cliché. After nearly washing up, she dries out. Then, deus ex machina makes a blockbuster “comeback” album and walks away with a truckload of Grammy Awards.
The problem with these kinds of narratives is twofold. First, they’re not that simple or correct; they fail to reveal the whole picture in its messy, complicated humanity. Secondly, they discount everything that came before. It’s as though the artist had to renounce anything associated with their dark night of the soul to be rewarded with a lucrative career revival.
Raitt’s salvation came with 1989’s Nick of Time, which would produce three hit singles, win three Grammy awards, and go platinum five times over. This year Raitt was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Icon Award from Billboard’s Women in Music. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Nick of Time may have been the start of a brilliant second act, but it would not have been possible without the groundwork laid by Raitt’s early records. Among them is Sweet Forgiveness, released 45 years ago this month.
By 1976, Raitt had made five albums in as many years with Warner Bros., who offered her a record deal at age 21. Before signing with Warner Bros., she apprenticed herself to surviving blues greats like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Sippie Wallace while still enrolled at Radcliffe in the late 1960s. The albums established her as a devotee of traditional blues, folk, R&B, and rock and an inventive interpreter of other people’s songs. Her distinctive slide playing made Raitt a guitar slinger to be reckoned with, one who was competent and comfortable in any genre. Over the course of these early albums, Raitt’s esoteric tastes amalgamated into a style wholly her own.
On 1974’s Streetlights, producer and Hit Factory founder Jerry Ragovoy favored a sound that was less back-porch blues and more uptown R&B. It was the first album not to feature Raitt on slide guitar, a hallmark of her sound from the beginning. Even though Streetlights yielded what would become one of Raitt’s signature songs (the John Prine-penned “Angel from Montgomery”), widespread radio success eluded her. Pre Internet, a hit single was a prerequisite to mainstream recognition.
Nevertheless, Raitt persisted, building a fanbase through steady touring and regular play on progressive FM stations. She recruited Paul Rothchild (Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Doors) to produce her fifth LP, 1975’s Home Plate. The album mixes grittier blues numbers with heartrending ballads by the likes of J.D. Souther and Eric Kaz, two songwriters Raitt would return to on subsequent releases. Recorded with the first full band she assembled, Home Plate slid into number 43 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. However, a hit single remained out of reach.
After Home Plate, the stage was set for a breakthrough at last. When it came time to record Sweet Forgiveness, Raitt again tapped Rothchild to produce and entered the studio with the same players. Song selections included tracks from favorite writers Kaz, Jackson Browne, and Karla Bonoff.
Sweet Forgiveness’ lead-off track, the gnarly, bluesy “About to Make Me Leave Home” (Earl Randall), sets the tone for the album. Its opening slide guitar riff, full of slink and swagger, indicates that the LP is going to go hard. Raitt’s voice is throatier here, and she sings in a lower register on several songs. That was by design. She told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast, “I was a little shrimp. I couldn’t stand the way I sounded. I was smoking and drinking, trying to get my voice older … because I had this little soprano voice.”
After the steamy opener, the album does not let up, going straight into “Runaway”, a cover of the 1961 Del Shannon hit. Raitt’s driving, sludgy version makes the original sound more like a throwaway than a runaway. Norton Buffalo—inexplicably uncredited on the album cover—contributes a harmonica solo for the record books that is at once ecstatic and profane. Seeing the solo performed live, with Buffalo deftly swapping different harps throughout, is wondrous. A live performance from the band’s 1997 Midnight Special appearance is preserved on YouTube.
As on Raitt’s previous albums, Sweet Forgiveness’s hard-driving blues tracks are rounded out by a selection of ballads equally powerful in their quiet intensity. Among them is “My Opening Farewell”, a deep cut from Jackson Browne’s debut LP. Raitt transforms its mournful chorus into something that manages to be both poignant and defiant. “Two Lives” transcends its soft-rock inclinations with Raitt’s soulful singing, a restrained backing arrangement, and Michael McDonald’s distinctive harmony on the chorus. The title track, written by Daniel Moore, fuses funk and gospel into a song that is greater than the sum of its parts.
On the rousing “Three Time Loser”, Raitt’s playing is the epitome of what the New Yorker calls the “fugitive emotions” of the slide guitar. Vying with “Runaway” for the album’s hardest rocker is “Gamblin’ Man”, written by Kaz. First recorded by the band American Flyer, Raitt turns its SoCal country-rock up to 11.
“Runaway” came within spitting distance of the top 40 but failed to crack it, peaking at 57. Still, it was Raitt’s first bonafide hit single, and the radio play brought more fans to the fold. As she told Classic Rock in 2004, “It was certainly the closest I’d got to a hit record. But it was the first time the national press put me on the map, and I got on the cover of Rolling Stone. That was a big deal to me at age 27. It was great to get some radio play.”
A follow-up hit didn’t materialize, but Raitt was always more of an album-oriented artist anyway, preferring the long haul over transitory fame. Her subsequent two albums, 1979’s The Glow and Green Light from 1982, garnered Raitt her first Grammy nominations. The Academy’s endorsement didn’t seem to be enough for Warner Bros., though, who dropped her from the label in 1983.
Those looking for a timeworn story of debauchery and hitting rock bottom will be disappointed. There was no “come to Jesus” moment that prompted Raitt to give up drinking. Raitt’s move to sobriety came in the form of another divine intervention: Prince. After Warner Bros. showed her the door, Prince got in touch in 1986. He floated the idea of working together and Raitt signing to his label, Paisley Park. As she tells Maron, “I just got heavy and wanted to lose some weight ‘cause I was going to work with Prince in the mid-’80s. I said, ‘you know, if we make a video together, I’d better drop some weight.’ So that’s when I quit drinking.”
Nothing came of the Prince collaboration. “By the time we got our schedules lined up,” she tells Maron, “He had already recorded some songs in the wrong key, with lyrics that didn’t really fit me.” Raitt canceled her summer tour that year to work with him, but he forgot to let her know he’d extended his own tour and couldn’t make it.
Everything worked out in the end, which is an oversimplification, just like the rest of the story. Nick of Time may have been a new beginning, but so was Sweet Forgiveness in many ways. Its legacy lives on in Raitt’s affinity for blending muscular blues-rock and potent ballads into a coherent—and yes, commercially successful—whole. Its presence was also felt in Raitt’s live shows, with “About to Make Me Leave Home”, “Three Time Loser”, and “Louise”, all staples in her sets well into the 1990s.
Listeners who only know Raitt from Nick of Time and beyond would do well to give Sweet Forgiveness a spin. The album has more in common with Raitt’s 1989 breakthrough than any hackneyed narrative would suggest. Serving as a blueprint for her later success, Sweet Forgiveness proves there can be no second act without a hell of a first one.