The Making of a Modern Standard
That’s the kind of song that gives you super-stardom ubiquity; that’s a Bonnie Raitt song you hear everywhere. But there was another one, too, one that shouldn’t have been a major radio hit yet became one anyway.
Capital Thinking · Issue #963 · View online
It was just one of those moments where the studio disappears, and the whole world disappears, and all that’s there is the emotion of that thing.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s what great music and great art is. It just pulls you into the moment and the feeling and emotion of it.
I felt like I could feel her heart.
“I Can’t Make You Love Me”: A 25th Anniversary Oral History
OK, so we’re really talking 30th year anniversary, but this article is too good to miss. -Ed.
The Backstory Of A Modern Standard
The year Bonnie Raitt turned 40, she became a pop star.
Judging against most people’s careers, Raitt had already lived a pretty full life. There were a bunch of records in her discography; she had been dropped by Warner Bros.; she had gotten sober.
She already had a story.
Having been performing and releasing music since the early ’70s, she had gradually accrued devoted fans and critical praise, though little commercial success on a mainstream level.
It’s strange to think about, for those of us who grew up with Raitt as one of the legendary names, one of the big established artists of the Baby Boomer generation. Yet at one point in time, she didn’t have songs that were played on pop radio.
She didn’t have songs that you’d hear in any given situation as you wandered through your daily routine. She didn’t have that ubiquity that comes with superstardom. That changed in 1989, when she released Nick Of Time.
Nick Of Time marked the first time Raitt had worked with producer Don Was and engineer Ed Cherney on one of her records, a partnership that would continue for years.
She and Was had first connected in ’88, when the two of them worked on a song called “Baby Mine” from Dumbo, for a compilation called Stay Awake: Various Interpretations Of Music From Vintage Disney Films. Despite the inherently odd nature of that collaboration, the two really clicked.
“I felt like I’d known her all my life,” Was recalls. “I just felt a real bond with her.” With Raitt wanting a particular kind of producer — a musician’s producer, the kind who says “That’s the take!” but doesn’t enforce a particular stylistic vision on an artist when they already know what they want — Was made an ideal partner in crime. They decided to work on her next album together.
Hearing them speak of it now, the process of making Nick Of Time almost sounds like a young, scrappy artist trying to break down the door into the industry. Raitt had some demos, and no record deal.
They continued working on demos in Was’ basement, never imagining that they were crafting the album that would garner Raitt a belated commercial breakthrough. They just wanted to make back the money they spent on it, so that they could make another record after it.
Was recalls a moment when Raitt’s A&R man, Tim Devine, came to talk to him after Nick Of Time was completed. “He came down to the studio and he said something like, ‘Better get a tuxedo, you’re going to the Grammys!’ I wanted to punch him,” Was remembers, laughing. “I thought, ‘OK, man, just say it’s good. Just say you dug it. But forget the hyperbole.‘”
In the end, it wasn’t hyperbolic at all — the record was already selling well beyond any of their expectations, and then, just under a year after Nick Of Time came out, it won the Album Of The Year award at the 1990 Grammys.
“When that happens, it’s just the fucking greatest,” Cherney says. “It came out of nowhere. We knew we made a good record, but that kind of accolades…it came out of nowhere for us.”
When it came time to follow that success, Raitt once again worked with Was and Cherney for the record that would become 1991’s Luck Of The Draw. Despite Raitt’s sudden mainstream clout, none of them describe the time as particularly pressurized.
There wasn’t necessarily a weight to following up the biggest record of Raitt’s career thus far. They were just making some more music together, and looking for the right material.
“When you get the right people who really vibe with each other, you don’t have to say much at all,” Raitt says. “It’s all about respecting each other’s artistry. It’s getting out of the way and letting a moment happen. It’s all about a great song, and that’s what we got.”
Luck Of The Draw wound up surpassing even the heights reached by Nick Of Time. Part of that was thanks to its lead single, “Something To Talk About.” That’s the kind of song that gives you super-stardom ubiquity; that’s a Bonnie Raitt song you hear everywhere.
But there was another one, too, one that shouldn’t have been a major radio hit yet became one anyway.
That was “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which was released as a single on 10/22/1991.