John Raitt was born on January 29, 1917 in Santa Ana, California. The family’s Southern Cali fornia roots went back to 1885, when John’s grandfather arrived to work on the Newport-to-Santa Ana railroad. His father Archie stayed in the area, running a YMCA camp. Although this allowed John the opportunity to join in on campfire sing-a-longs, his real interest was in athletics. He excelled in track and field, setting many state records while attending high school in Fullerton. (His state record for the football throw still stands as it was never bested before the event was discontinued). John went to USC on an athletic scholarship and later transferred to the University of Redlands, but college athletics took a back seat as he became more interested in theatre and singing.
John made his professional debut in 1940 in the chorus of the Civic Light Opera production of HMS Pinafore, followed by roles in Rose Marie, The Vagabond King, and Die Fledermaus. An MGM scout happened to see John perform in The Merry Widow and brought him to the Culver City studio as a contract player. He had bit parts in a number of films, including Flight Command, Billy the Kid and Ziegfeld Girl. After six months at MGM his option was not picked up and John returned to building his growing career as a singer on the legitimate and concert stages of Southern California, adding The Barber of Seville and Carmen to his repertoire. He went before the cameras again in 1944, appearing as himself in the low-budget musical The Minstrel Man.