SKF NOTE: Bonnie Raitt is one of my longtime favorite musicians. Very much looking forward to hearing her new album, Dig In Deep. Helping to kick off that album, the Wall Street Journal published the backstory to Bonnie Raitt’s hit song, Nick of Time. Keep ’em coming, WSJ. These music stories are terrific.
ARTS ANATOMY OF A SONG
Bonnie Raitt’s Turning Point: ‘Nick of Time’
‘Nick of Time’ was written out of an appreciation for newfound optimism
In 1988, a year after becoming sober, Ms. Raitt wrote “Nick of Time,” a soulful midtempo ballad about aging and rebounding that became a personal turning point.
Bonnie Raitt: By the end of the ’80s, I was closing in on 40 and decided it was time to re-evaluate my health and lifestyle. I saw what my peers and I had been getting away with—indulging in eating and partying without exercising. None of it was wearing well.
My downslide started around 1983, when Warner Bros. records dropped me just as I finished a new album.
… in ’86, I was mad and hurt, and I internalized everything, relying more and more on alcohol and drugs to numb the pain.
By early 1987, I’d had enough. With the help of some sober friends, I was able to stop drinking, lose weight and get in shape. Almost immediately I felt I’d had a spiritual awakening and physical rebirth. I felt optimistic for the first time in years.
I wanted to kick back and reflect on all the changes of the past year and maybe write some music honoring how grateful I felt to have made it through.
In Mendicino…I began thinking about the most poignant aspects of my life. That’s when the first verse of “Nick of Time” came to me.
…I had brought along my Yamaha portable electric keyboard. I also had my guitars and a little four-track Fostex cassette recorder. For a beat, I used a Roland TR-606 Drumatix, a compact drum machine from the early ’80s. Unfortunately, the “Philadelphia Soul” beat I liked on there had Syndrums built in.
After I signed with Capitol in 1989, I wanted Don Was to produce my first album for the label. I told Don about this song I had written, and he asked to hear the demo. When I put it on, the groove was there but so were those hilarious Syndrums. [H]e loved the song and understood immediately that cool soul inspiration.
We recorded “Nick of Time” at Ocean Way Recording in Hollywood. The song’s arrangement was the same one I had used on my demo, except we used Ricky Fataar on drums, James “Hutch” Hutchinson on bass, Mike Landau on guitar and I played the keyboard. Ricky is an astonishing drummer. He got a kick out of the demo with the disco effects, but he knew exactly how to translate the basic elements I had written.
[W]e wanted to add that heartbeat pulse you hear on Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” but we didn’t have a hand drum. So Ricky picked up a burlap sandbag used to hold down mic stands and put it on his lap. They miked the bag and he played the heartbeat of the song with his hands.
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