“I Can’t Make You Love Me” is a virtually perfect song. It combines incredibly powerful lyrics with an arrangement that captures the song’s emotions, and amazing performances by Bruce Hornsby on piano and singer Bonnie Raitt. Rolling Stone named it number 331 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. I have a lot of respect for that list, but it only got this one wrong by about 325 spots.
I remember the first time I heard “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” like I remember where I was when I heard that Kennedy was shot and learned that Elvis was dead. That’s some impact for a song to make, but this one delivers the goods.
Songwriter Mike Reid read about a man who was sentenced to jail after getting drunk and shooting up his girlfriend’s car. The judge asked if he’d learned anything. The man said, “I learned, your honor, that you can’t make a girl love you if she don’t.” He then penned the song with Allen Shamblin. Reid, if you don’t know, was the 1969 winner of the Outland Trophy as the best defensive player in college football, and an all-pro in the NFL. Hard to believe such sensitive and powerful lyrics from a former jock, isn’t it?
Raitt recorded the vocal in just one take. Not only was it a difficult song to sing due to its range, but she couldn’t maintain the emotional intensity it required. As for performing it in concert, she said, “I love that song, so does the audience. So it’s almost a sacred moment when you share that, that depth of pain with your audience. Because they get really quiet, and I have to summon … some other place in order to honor that space.”
As the song says, “Turn down the lights” and listen to this song “here in the dark.” It’s still extremely moving, no matter how many times you’ve heard it.