There was a time when if you were a Twin Cities singer putting together a new band, the first person you'd call was sound engineer Steve Raitt.
"He was a singer's soundman," said Patty Peterson, a prominent Twin Cities singer since the 1970s. "He could really make vocals sound like velvet."
Maybe that's because Raitt, son of Broadway star John Raitt and older brother of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bonnie Raitt, was a pretty fair singer himself.
"He would sing one or two songs a night and people would wonder why he didn't sing more," said Peterson, who worked with Raitt in the T.C. Jammers. "He didn't have the ego to be a star. Steve was comfortable being the support guy."
Raitt, an integral force in the Twin Cities music scene from the 1970s to the '90s, died Saturday in Los Angeles from brain cancer. He was 61.
"While we are very sad that he lost his valiant eight-year battle, we are relieved to know his struggle is over and that he's now truly free," Bonnie Raitt said in an e-mail Sunday. "Since last summer, he was fighting paralysis on his left side and then blindness since the holidays -- all due to a second tumor diagnosed last summer.
"I was closer to Steve than anyone in my life so you can imagine how I'm feeling.
"We've been showered with calls and messages since we shared the sad news and I'm so incredibly moved by the impact he had on so many lives."
After being given six months to live by doctors at the Mayo Clinic in 2001, Raitt switched from Western to Eastern medicine, said Minneapolis drummer Bobby Vandell, one of his closest friends, who spent much of the past three weeks with him. "He went on a macrobiotic diet. As Bonnie always said, that guy had the discipline of a yoga master. The cancer went in remission. He became a competitive water skier and looked like a body builder."
Raitt, who was born in Van Nuys and grew up in Los Angeles, moved to the Twin Cities in 1971 when his sister recorded her first Warner Bros. album in a barn on Lake Minnetonka with Twin Cities blues stalwart Willie Murphy (producer) and Dave Ray (engineer). After falling in love with the Twin Cities' biggest lake, Raitt stayed on as sound man for Willie & the Bees before working with the Lamont Cranston Band, the Doug Maynard Band and the T.C. Jammers, among others.
When Vandell heard the Cranstons, he wanted to meet the engineer mixing this special sound. "The way he carried himself, the way he dressed, his body language, his charisma was intoxicating," Vandell recalled.
Raitt co-founded T.C. Jammers with Vandell, Melanie Rosales and others. "He drove the bus, fixed the bus, mixed the sound, road managed, booked the band, made sure everything was safe and sang a couple of songs each night," Vandell said. "He could fix anything. Once while his parents went on vacation to Europe, he rebuilt the family Jeep to the point that it was a four-page spread in Hot Rod magazine."
In the early 1990s, Raitt helped start Proline Integrated Systems in Minneapolis and began a career designing state-of-the-art home entertainment systems. Among his clients: bicycling hero Greg LeMonde and basketball superstar Michael Jordan. His designs twice made the cover of Audio Visual magazine.
About three years ago, Raitt moved back to California to a private water-skiing lake in Sacramento. A week and a half ago, Peterson and her brothers Ricky and Paul visited Raitt. "We had a great hour because we got him to sing with us," Peterson said.
His little sister summed him up: "Steve was a big hearted, fun-loving, talented and powerful guy; full of life, humor and a very unique sense of style. He loved skiing, boats, cars, funk, R&B and smooth jazz, the woman in his life. ... He was a beloved friend and father, amazing brother and son, hopeless romantic, a funky singer and a brilliant sound man."
In addition to his sister, Bonnie, Raitt is survived by his partner, Catherine; a daughter, Ruby; a son, Miles; a brother, David, a grandson, Tyler; his stepfather, Jim; his stepmother, Rosemary, and two stepsisters, Dee and Sally.
A private service will be held today in California, and Vandell is organizing a tribute in Minneapolis.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719