Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Bonzai interviewed Don Was and Ed Cherney about the Grammy Winning album “Nick of Time” by Bonnie Raitt. It was released on my birthday in 1989, won three Grammys (including Album of the Year), is ranked number 229 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and was recently inducted into the Grammy hall of fame. It’s an incredible record. The songs are terrific, the production and arrangements spectacular, and the engineering absolutely first rate. I’ve listened to this recording hundreds of time and have never grown tired of hearing Bonnie sing from her heart about the trials and tribulations associated with middle age.
I’ve been a fan of hers since near the beginning. I took my high school sweetheart (later my wife and even later my ex-wife) to the Masonic Temple in downtown Detroit in 1971 to hear her and bassist Freebo (who I met many years later) entertain and amaze an auditorium packed with music lovers for almost 2 hours. Her repertoire was more up-tempo, slide guitar, blues, and raucous compared to “Nick of Time” but I was hooked. It never ceases to amaze that an individual with a guitar and a bunch of great songs can entrance an audience with heartfelt performances. I seen Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, John Gorka, Paul McCartney, Jackson Browne, and Tom Rush do their magic in intimate settings and feel blessed that music can do what it does.
Don Was produced “Nick of Time” He hadn’t met Bonnie before this project but was certainly aware of her talent. He invited Bonnie to his home in Sherman Oaks where Don was hosting a party. There were, “about a 100 people there and everyone was line dancing to Motown hits”. Don is a fellow Detroit native (I interviewed him for Warner New Media years ago and we’ve run into each other a number of times…the last time on a plane headed to Detroit) and I feel very fortunate to know him. He is an amazing musician, producer, and now President of Blue Note Records. I told him after the session that I wanted to chat with him about high-resolution audio…we’ll see.
He told the group at the NAMM show that he and Bonnie developed a friendship and started imagining the new record. Ed Cherney had just finished a record with Ry Cooder that both Dan and Bonnie knew and were impressed by so a meeting was held at Musso and Frank’s in Hollywood to get the project off the ground. Things clicked…they spent more than 3 hours at that lunch meeting.
“Nick of Time” was Bonnie’s 10th record. She had a very solid reputation in the business but had recently struggled with alcohol and wasn’t at the front of the Capitol Records roster of hitmakers. Don was given $120,000 to produce the record, which may seem like a like of money by today’s recording budgets but at the time it was barely enough to pay the costs of musicians, studios, engineers etc. Ed told the audience that the project was completed in about four weeks.
Don and Bonnie worked on selecting the tunes for a few weeks at his home. The culled the list down from over 50 songs to the eleven that finally made it to the record. They went into the studio (Ocean Way, Capitol, Hollywood Sound, and the Record Plant), lined up musicians to come and play, booked background singers (including David Crosby and Graham Nash), and assembled the tracks from the rhythm tracks onward. Don used numerous guitarists on the same tracks until he had exactly the feel that he and Bonnie thought worked best. The proof is in the way the songs feel so sparse and simple…but they are actually supported by a couple of dozen musicians and singers. The arrangements are straightforward and not overblown. There’s emphasis on Bonnie’s voice throughout with the instruments accenting points of articulation and the usual turnarounds.
The tonal norms of the time had instruments in many layers backing up a song…with lots of reverberation. Ed had the insight to reveal more of the raw sound by avoiding the excessive use of reverb. The record had all the right parts and the ideal mix to bring the sentiment and soul of the music to the listener. There’s nothing “in your face” or “punchy” about the tracks, the sound, of the engineering. This is a record that found the ideal balance and one that went on to sell 5 million copies. And it brought Bonnie back in to the spotlight.
The engineers and producers of today…and the want to be engineers of tomorrow…would do well to explore this album. It deserves it place in the Rolling Stones top 500 albums.