How Bonnie Raitt Got Started Playing Music

During her impressive career, famed singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt has won 10 Grammy Awards for her blues-infused rock music (via the Grammy Awards). She has released more than 20 albums over five decades and shows no signs of slowing down. But Raitt didn't start out thinking that she would be a singer and musician.

Born on November 8, 1949, Raitt grew up on a different type of music than she would later record, per AllMusic. The music that was a part of her life early on came from theatrical musicals. Her father, John Raitt, had starred in such Broadway shows as "Carousel" (1945) and "The Pajama Game" (1954), according to Playbill. Her Quaker faith was another important part of her upbringing, and it influenced her thoughts on her future. She saw herself as an activist, telling Rolling Stone magazine that "I was going to save the world from the time I was 11."

Music was a hobby for Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt got her first guitar when she was only 8 years old, according to her official site. The instrument had been a Christmas present. Before that she had been more interested in the piano, but her grandfather, who knew how to play Hawaiian lap steel guitar, taught her a few chords, which inspired her to take up the guitar, per Rolling Stone magazine. 

Another important early influence was the album "Blues at Newport 1963," which sparked her interest in that genre of music and in playing slide guitar. During the summers, Raitt learned about the rising folk music scene as well as current songs of protest from her summer camp counselors. Still, music was a pastime for her, not a vocation. She went to a Quaker high school in Poughkeepsie, New York, and then headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts for college. There she studied at Radcliffe College, which was the all-women school associated with Harvard College.

Bonnie Raitt dropped out of college

In college Raitt chose to major in Social Relations and African Studies, per her official site. She picked African Studies in part because of her interest in Tanzania (via Rolling Stone). Outside of her class, she explored the different political movements of the late 1960s, including the efforts to end the war in Vietnam and the fight for civil rights. When she wasn't studying or being involved in politics, Raitt started to play a few gigs at local spots.

Raitt met Dick Waterman, who had helped to revive the careers of such blues performers as Skip James, and Waterman began having Raitt play at some of his shows. After three years in college, she abandoned her studies to follow her emerging passion for the blues. Instead of studying for tests, Raitt was getting her own first-class tutorials from great blues artists. But she never believed that it was going to lead into a serious career in music.

Bonnie Raitt landed a record deal

Managed by Waterman, Raitt soon developed a following. She played with Howlin' Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the word out about what a great performer she was, per AllMusic. Before long, Warner Bros. signed her to a contract. She released her first album, "Bonnie Raitt," in 1971, which earned her accolades for her powerful vocals and her impressive guitar skills. On that first record, Raitt offered up her own interpretations of songs by blues legends Sippie Wallace and Robert Johnson, among other tracks.

The 1970s were an incredibly busy time for Raitt as she followed up that first album with record after record. These releases not only showcased her soulful voice and deft playing, but her talents as a songwriter. While she received a lot of praise from critics over the years, Raitt had her first real taste of commercial success with 1977's "Sweet Forgiveness." The album featured her take on the Del Shannon hit "Runaway," which became her breakout single.