Raitt, the father of Grammy-winning singer Bonnie Raitt, died at his Pacific Palisades home of complications from pneumonia, his manager, James Fitzgerald, told The Times.
"Overnight, he became very, very celebrated," said musical theater historian Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical, who saw Raitt perform in "Carousel" in 1945.
"He was tall and good-looking and had a marvelous masculine quality as a leading man, and his voice was so breathtaking that he was just simply phenomenal," Kreuger said. "There was nobody like him on Broadway at the time."
Mary Rodgers, the daughter of composer Richard Rodgers, told the Dallas Morning News in 1996 that "John Raitt had the most glorious voice in the world, and he was a great big handsome sexy hunk."
Raitt went on to give memorable performances in the Broadway musicals "Magdalena," "Three Wishes for Jamie" and "Carnival in Flanders," but those shows were not successful.
It was not until 1954 that he had his second Broadway hit, playing opposite Janis Paige in "The Pajama Game," in which he introduced the classic ballad "Hey, There." Raitt reprised his role of the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory superintendent in the 1957 film co-starring Doris Day.
Also in 1957, Raitt was the leading man opposite Mary Martin in a national tour of "Annie Get Your Gun," which became an NBC-TV special that year.
In the decades since making his Broadway debut, Raitt was known to have missed only a few leading roles in American musicals on tour or in summer stock.
Among many others, he played Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha" and Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." He also starred in "Zorba," "Shenandoah," "South Pacific" and "Kiss Me Kate."
"I don't think anybody's ever played more performances of Broadway musicals than I have. I've never stopped," he said with pride in a 1995 Times interview before celebrating the 50th anniversaries of his and "Carousel's" Broadway debut by singing many of the Rodgers & Hammerstein songs from the musical at the Hollywood Bowl.
"John Raitt epitomizes the golden years of the great American art form, the American musical," John Mauceri, the director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, said at the time.
Born in Santa Ana, Raitt developed a love of singing at the YMCA camp run by his father, a founder and longtime director of the North Orange County YMCA. He attended high school in Fullerton, where, as a senior, he sang in the chorus of the musical "Desert Song."
But he made his mark in high school as an athlete, not a singer. He set state records in javelin, shotput and discus. He went to USC on a track scholarship but transferred to the University of Redlands, where he further developed his interest in music.
By 1940, he was singing in the chorus of "HMS Pinafore" with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company. A year later, he played the roles of Figaro and Count Almaviva in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium production of "The Barber of Seville" and played Escamillo in "Carmen."
About the same time, he became a contract player at MGM, where he had uncredited bit parts in about half a dozen movies but failed to make a mark in Hollywood.
In 1944, his agent arranged a meeting with a New York producer who was visiting Los Angeles -- a hasty meeting in a cab in which he didn't even sing. The producer nevertheless asked him to go to New York to audition for the role of Curly in "Oklahoma!"
Within two months, he received a registered letter offering to pay his way to New York and back to try out as the replacement for Broadway's first Curly, Alfred Drake.