Family & Companions
Though in his later years he joked that he had become best known as singer Bonnie Raitt's father, John Raitt enjoyed his own long trajectory through stardom as the tall, robust baritone at the center of such beloved Broadway musicals such as"Carousel" and "The Pajama Game."
Born Jan. 10, 1917, in Santa Ana, John Emmett Raitt excelled in track (enough to earn college scholarships) and his deep, resonant voice resulted in singing for Rotary Club luncheons and churches throughout Southern California. His professional debut came in 1940 as a chorus singer in "HMS Pinafore" with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, and he quickly became a well-known presence on the West Coast. With little operatic training, he sang lead roles in "The Barber of Seville" and "Carmen" at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, which led to a fateful meeting: In 1944 he was invited to New York to try out for the role of Curly in the road company of "Oklahoma!," rushed into an audition with Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers. Although there were concerns that at 6'2" Raitt was too tall, his melodic, powerful voice lanced him in the company.
Rodgers and Hammerstein had been working on their second collaboration, "Carousel," and chose Raitt for his star-making role as the doomed anti-hero Billy Bigelow, a cocky carnival barker who falls in love with and marries a factory worker in a New England fishing village, until their impoverished life drives him to attempt a robbery in which he is killed. The performer astounded the opening-night audience in 1945 with his dynamic "Soliloquy," Billy's meditation on his impending fatherhood written especially for Raitt, which he called "practically a one-act opera which took six and a half minutes to sing." Raitt brought a rough-hewn realism to the musical stage that anticipated the flawed, vulnerable characters played by Marlon Brando and James Dean, and his performance in "Carousel" was so memorable that he came to epitomize a distinctively modern breed of rugged, blue-collar Broadway leading man.
After the long run in "Carousel" he appeared in less-successful outings "Magdalena," "Three Wishes for Jamie" and "Carnival in Flanders." His star rose again in 1954 with "Pajama Game," by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, a musical comedy that explored the union doings of workers in a pajama factory in the Midwest with Raitt as a just-hired mill executive smitten with a union activist played in the original production by Janis Paige.
He got some movie work in the 1940's, appearing in "Flight Command" and "Billy the Kid," two vehicles for Robert Taylor, as well as a low-budget movie starring Benny Fields called "The Minstrel Man." But He lacked a big crossover to film until "The Pajama Game" became a successful 1957 movie with Raitt and Doris Day, choreographed by Bob Fosse. Despite his good notices, it was Raitt's only starring movie. Also in 1957 he played opposite Mary Martin in a television production of "Annie Get Your Gun." The show did not get very good reviews but Raitt's voice did.
Raitt remained a top musical star, touring with Mary Martin in "Annie Get Your Gun," and lead roles in "Destry Rides Again," "Man of La Mancha," "Kismet" and "Zorba" as well as "Oklahoma!" "Carousel" and "The Pajama Game." But by 1966 Raitt complained that there were few new stage roles for a commanding, romantic leading man and said new composers seemed to not have the musical talents of their predecessors. He played in summer stock from 1959 to 1984, keeping his fee moderate so theaters could afford him because he simply enjoyed the work. Indeed, his dedication for his vocation became clear in 1979, when a hurricane forced cancellation of "Man of La Mancha" in Hyannis, Mass., and Raitt sang "The Impossible Dream" to three busloads of disappointed theatergoers "so they wouldn't go back empty-handed."
Raitt's voice remained both sweet and powerful into his eighties and after his rocker daughter Bonnie became a sensation in pop music in the 1980s he collaborated with her on the road and in television specials, singing duets with her song "Blowing Away" and his "Hey, There." In his eighties, he continued touring with a one-man show, "An Evening with John Raitt."