Bonnie Raitt never played in the NFL (though she knocked ’em dead at Super Bowl 37), so you’re probably wondering why I’m bringing her up. Answer: Because a guy who did play in the NFL — Mike Reid, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the Bengals in the ’70s — co-wrote, with Allen Shamblin, perhaps her best-known song.
I Can’t Make You Love Me “has become something of a modern standard,” according to the Los Angeles Times’ Mikael Wood, “a go-to source of grown-up melancholy for established stars as well as the young hopefuls on televised singing shows “American Idol” and “The Voice.” It became a hit for Raitt on her 1991 Grammy-winning album, “Luck of the Draw,” and has been covered over the years by the likes of Prince, George Michael and, most recently, Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves for their new “Crossroads” series on CMT.
I knew immediately when Mike Reid sent me the song that it was absolutely one of the most honest and original heartache songs I had ever heard. It was a point of view that I had been on both sides of, and it struck me deeply; I knew immediately I wanted to sing it.
There’s just something so soulful about the combination of the keyboard part and the lyrics and the melody. It’s a marriage that comes together once in a while, where the music really sounds like what the person’s singing. Part of it for me is Bruce [Hornsby]’s beginning. The way Bruce plays — he calls it Bill Evans meets the hymnal — he’s one of those piano players where there’s just so much intrinsic soul in the way they play. And it’s the simplicity of the arrangement that we wanted to do when [producer] Don [Was] and I were talking about it. It just didn’t need any gussying up, you know? The song is best naked.
The following rendition — with Hornsby on the lead keyboards — might be closest to perfect. Bonnie just seems to hit every note right. As you’re listening, keep reminding yourself: an NFL defensive tackle wrote this.