Harmonica-blowing Phoenix legend has No. 1 album heading into music venue’s 30th anniversary
Last year was tough on Bob Corritore, same as for everyone trying to find their way through COVID.
It’s a different tune in 2021, with all the right notes. Much like the blues itself — a genre steeped in feeling “blue” and longing for better, yet full of uplifting musical expressions.
“You can’t have joy without sorrow, you can’t have positive without negative, you can’t have a yin without a yang,” he said, during a recent chat over coffee just down the street from his music club, The Rhythm Room, at 1019 E. Indian School Road in Phoenix. “It all has to to together, and that’s just part of life.”
The pandemic effectively shut down the Rhythm Room, and Corritore is still untangling the financial reversal of fortunes in order to reopen one of the city’s premier blues clubs by this September. The re-opening will time harmoniously with the 30th anniversary of when he first opened the Room, on Sept. 18, 1991.
So things are definitely bouncing back for the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame musician, who, at 64, has blown his harmonica on stages all over the world and on records all over blues radio. He asked for a modest $15,000 through a crowd-sourcing GoFundMe drive to support the shuttered Rhythm Room, and instead received from generous fans a whopping $45,000 (and counting). He used the downtime to focus on his recording archives, and released four albums in 2020.
And his latest record, “Spider In My Stew,” recorded between 2018 and 2020 with an assortment of blues veterans, was released this spring and reached No. 1 on Living Blues Radio’s album chart, while two cuts from the record were among the top six on The Roots Music Report’s Top 50 Blues Song Chart the week of June 5.
“I want to make sure in this pandemic that it wasn’t wasted time,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that I had something to show for it.”
Some quick hits with Bob over coffee:
Earliest memory of the blues?
“When I heard Muddy Waters, I was like 12 years old. It was on a rock station. It was a song called ‘Rolling Stone.’ It was just Muddy Waters alone with his guitar. I heard that song, and I was like ‘This is the purest part of what I like about music, right here. This is the stuff.’”
What’s your go-to listening music at the moment?
“Any of the stuff Little Walter did. All the Muddy stuff. All the classic Chicago blues stuff. The Staple Singers. Early stuff on Vee-Jay (record label). I’ve been playing this wonderful Hank Crawford record that I think was done at the same time he was in Ray Charles’ band.”
Do you play the harmonica every day?
“Yeah. Sometimes if I’m working on something that I want to prepare for the studio, I’ll study different ideas or options to put into that. I listen to something and I’ll learn it verbatim, but then I’ll try and learn it more for the intention of it and the attitude of it. I’ll try and learn the language and hear my own conversation with it.”
Corritore was born in Chicago.
“When you’re from Chicago you’re always from Chicago,” he said. “I was 25 when I moved out here. I’ve actually spent the majority of my life in Arizona, but you’re never gonna undo the Chicago in you.”
It was back home where he discovered the roots of blues that would shape the course of his life and artistic expression — especially the revolutionary harmonica of the late Little Walter, the only artist to date to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a harmonica player.
“I was just hearing this interplay between Muddy Waters and Little Walter, and it was like nothing I had ever heard before,” Corritore recalled. “The synergy, the energy, the soul, the feeling was just so powerful. So that was my North Star from that point forward.”
When he opened the Rhythm Room, the opportunity to draw national touring acts wasn’t just to keep the live music community swinging. Corritore reasoned that with a pipeline of friends and musicians passing through Phoenix, he’d be able to offer them live gigs as well as book some sessions with them during their stay. It’s been his formula and, to a greater extent, his lifestyle ever since.
“Everybody coming to L.A., or leaving L.A., is going to be able to stop in Phoenix,” he said. “Especially at that point in time when everybody was still doing the van tours.”
Corritore, who also hosts a weekly blues radio program on KJZZ, invited Lurrie Bell into the Phoenix studio during a recent stop. One of the greatest living Chicago blues guitarists — and the son of famed blues harmonica player Carey Bell — asked Corritore if they could work up “Spider In My Stew,” written by Willie Dixon and popularized by Buster Benton the late 1970s.
It ended up being the title track on the new CD, and they nailed it in just one take.
“So all of a sudden I found the spirit of Carey Bell entering into me while I’m playing with his son,” Corritore said. “And Lurrie, of course, because he grew up playing with his dad, he knew exactly how to set up the space and the time and the vibe. All of a sudden ‘Spider In My Stew’ happened.”
Corritore isn’t sure when the Rhythm Room will officially reopen, although he does have the weekend of Sept. 3 booked with Phoenix’s own The Sugar Thieves set to play that Friday night. Billy Bob Thornton’s band, The Boxmasters, are expected when the Room returns, as is the legendary Guitar Shorty. Even the heavy metal mariachi band, Metalachi, is on the Room’s expected roster when the stage heats up once again.
Meanwhile, Corritore is setting sights on the next phase of his “in the vault” series, which has captured sessions with musicians passing through over the years. Look for three more installments by early 2022.
Not bad for a blues man who thought the signs were telling him something quite different a year ago, between the pandemic, the Rhythm Room closing its doors, and touring coming to a sudden halt.
“Is this my cue to retire now? You get so distraught with the boundaries. How am I gonna re-open? How am I gonna get this thing started?” he was left wondering. “It was like ‘Oh my God, look at how the community has come through for me.’ I owe this to the community. I guess I’m not done yet.”
– Steve Stockmar