BOSTONGLOBE.COM — A show at Fenway gives Taylor and Raitt something to talk about
By Lauren Daley
When James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt team up at Fenway Park Friday night, they’ll feel like they’re playing for the home crowd.
“The Boston audiences have been so passionate and loyal,” says Raitt, who lived in Cambridge for six years in the ’60s and ’70s, cutting her teeth at area coffeehouses and soaking up the blues at Jack’s and Paul’s Mall. “Playing Fenway is a thrill.”
“Boston feels like home,” adds Taylor. “I have a very strong connection with the place.”
Boston-born Taylor, 69, summered in Martha’s Vineyard as a kid, attended Milton Academy, and met his wife Caroline “Kim” Smedvig — who was then working for the Boston Symphony — at a Pops concert. The couple settled in the Berkshires; their twin boys, Henry and Rufus, attend school in Boston.
Friday’s concert is Raitt and Taylor’s second at Fenway — they played there in 2015 — but their shared musical history goes back almost 50 years. It was in Cambridge that they first teamed up in 1970.
“I opened for him at Harvard Square, at Sanders Theater at Harvard University,” recalls Raitt, 67.
The two have played together at various benefits over the years, but Raitt says they “never really toured together” until 2015. “One reason we wanted to play Fenway [in 2015 is] because we both started out in this area.”
She’s got a friend in Taylor, who adds: “I love her songwriting; I think she’s fantastic live. She feels like a sister by another mother. She’s definitely in the same musical genome.”
Taylor was born at Mass General in 1948 to Isaac Taylor, a Harvard Medical School graduate, and Gertrude Woodard, a New England Conservatory of Music student. He and his siblings — Kate, Livingston, Hugh, and the late Alex — were raised in North Carolina and Martha’s Vineyard. Taylor first picked up a guitar on the island around age 11.
“There was a lively, happening music scene there,” Taylor recalls. “People like Tom Rush, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band — just dozens of acts that used to come through. l loved it.”
About 10 years after teaching himself a few chords, Taylor was on the cover of Time magazine, proclaimed, quite literally, as the face of the new brooding singer-songwriter movement (“The New Rock: Bittersweet and Low,” the cover said).
But greater recognition would follow. The multiple Grammy winner and Songwriters Hall of Famer was awarded the National Medal of Arts by then-President Barack Obama in 2011, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2016.
After decades of hit records, Taylor and Raitt were both inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
Part of what makes both Taylor and Raitt endure as popular artists — popular enough to fill baseball stadiums — is that their voices haven’t lost an inch: Taylor’s is still a buttery warm baritone, and Raitt has the same smoky purr of her 20s.
Just a few years back, Taylor Swift told her fans at a Madison Square Garden concert that she was named after James Taylor. Then Taylor himself walked onstage, and the two broke out into his 1970 hit “Fire and Rain,” as an audience of tweens, teens, and millennials sang in unison: “I’ve seen sunny days I thought would never end/ I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.”
And both Adele and Bon Iver have covered “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” the heartbreaking ballad that Raitt made a hit.
The daughter of Broadway performer John Raitt and musician Marge Goddard, Raitt was raised in Los Angeles. After getting a guitar at age 8, it became her passion.
“I started playing Joan Baez and Odetta and Pete Seeger songs, fell in love with Bob Dylan, and found some country blues records when I was 14 and I fell in love with the blues,” Raitt says.
In 1967, Raitt moved to Cambridge to enroll at Radcliffe College as a social relations and African studies double-major.
“I was already interested in working for the American Friends Service Committee. I was raised Quaker, and we were very much interested in promoting across cultures conflict resolutions,” Raitt says.
“I thought it was a thrilling idea to go to Tanzania and see if I could be of service,” she says. But “Tanzania said, ‘We have enough college students for a while,’ and they closed the program.”
So Raitt took a semester off to play guitar and sit at the feet of blues legends “who weren’t going to live forever.”
“I played a bunch of folk clubs and coffeehouses in Worcester,” she says. “There’s a myth that I played in Jack’s. There’s a myth that I played in Cambridge on the street. And there’s a myth that I played in Club 47, but Club 47 closed my freshman year and I’d already left by the time Passim started up.”
She did, however, open for Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sippie Wallace, Son House, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, among others.
Soon everyone, it seemed, was noticing the redheaded blueswoman — including Warner Brothers, which offered the 21-year-old a record deal.
“Instead of going back to school my junior year, I started recording. I took what was going to be a semester or two off, and it turned into a career,” says the 10-time Grammy winner.
And instead of going to Tanzania, she married her social activism with her music. A founding member of Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), Raitt has performed for an extensive number of causes, from protesting nuclear power to preserving ancient forests.
With fond recollections of her college days — “I think one of my greatest memories was riding bikes everywhere” — Raitt says she’s always happy to come back to the city.
“James and I are just pinching ourselves that we get to do this.”