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Bonnie Raitt Does Not Want to Be a Pop Star

Bonnie Raitt does not want to be a pop star -- Rock music's great survivor tops the charts on her own terms

It's four minutes before the taping of The Arsenio Hall Show, and Bonnie Raitt has lost something.

''Where's my honey?'' she asks plaintively, striding down a Hall hall. Following Raitt is her manager, Danny Goldberg, who has his own problems. He's not sure he wants a reporter hanging around in the nervous minutes before the taping; then, too, another of his clients, Rickie Lee Jones, has shown up suddenly, and he wants to make sure she receives some of his dutiful attention as well. Nonetheless, Goldberg narrows his eyes and tries to concentrate on Raitt's question.

''Now, Bonnie,'' he says with a grim smile, ''by 'honey,' do you mean the stuff that soothes your throat, or that wonderful husband of yours?''

Raitt and Goldberg turn a corner in the maze of this Paramount television studio in Hollywood and the question is abruptly answered. ''There he is!'' Raitt hoots, nearly bumping into actor, writer, and, yes, a real honey of a husband, Michael O'Keefe, who has been roaming the halls looking for his honey. They kiss, they grin, they look like what they are: newlyweds, married since April.

Everyone retreats to a tiny dressing room, where Goldberg is happy to report that in next week's Billboard Raitt's new album, Luck of the Draw, will remain a hit top-10-with-a-bullet success. With the first single from the album, ''Something to Talk About,'' moving into the Top 40, Raitt has her second smash in a row — and her amazing comeback continues.

Before Bonnie Raitt released Nick of Time in 1989, she had received strong critical praise and the fervent admiration of a loyal following, yet in 18 years only two of her 11 albums had sold the 500,000 copies needed to make them gold records. Nick of Time changed all that by selling more than 2 million copies and bringing her a remarkable three Grammy awards — Album of the Year and best female vocals in both the rock and pop categories. At a time when many pop icons would rather prance and pose than play music, Raitt has come to stand for something more than just the great songs and progressive attitude that have always been her hallmarks. For the baby-boomer audience that has grown up with her and for the legion of younger fans she's now attracting, the veteran of folk, blues, rock, hard times, and hard-won triumph transcends stardom: She embodies an emotional and artistic honesty and a survival instinct to be admired. And because of that, ironically, Bonnie Raitt has become a star at last.

She didn't set out to be a pop star or even, exactly, a pop singer. Despite being the daughter of musical-comedy star John Raitt (Carousel, The Pajama Game), Raitt never embraced mainstream show biz. Given a guitar at the age of 8, she got hooked on folk music and the blues. By the time she was a teenager attending Radcliffe, she was moving up through the late-'60s Boston and Philadelphia folk scenes to establish her distinctive combination of bottleneck-guitar playing and no-bull frankness about romance, heartbreak, and bitterness.

From the start, Raitt was more wittily eclectic than any of her folk or blues heroes — her first two albums, Bonnie Raitt (1971) and Give It Up (1972), included songs from the Marvelettes, Robert Johnson, and Jackson Browne. Working out of Los Angeles, she struggled to achieve the commercial breakthrough that singer-songwriter contemporaries like Browne, Joni Mitchell, and the Eagles were enjoying, but without compromising her adventurous aesthetic. She made great music, but one after another, the albums flopped. The closest she came to a hit was a No. 57 single in 1977 — a cover of Del Shannon's ''Runaway'' that didn't begin to suggest the depth and passion that her fervent following knew characterized her best work. The modest success of a song so atypical of her style seemed to throw her. ''Why the hell was that a hit?'' she still asks. ''It made no sense to me.''

What followed was a series of increasingly uneven releases, each containing a few glowing high points. It wasn't until Don Was, who produced Nick of Time, that she connected with someone who knew how to extract hits from her while clearing the way for her to make the straightforward, soulful music she'd always wanted.

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