By Jaine Rodack
“Every now and again something happens that changes the direction of your life,” says Bob Corritore. “A point when your fate is determined or changed forever, though you don’t know it at the time.”
It’s a statement that just about everyone can identify with if they’ve lived long enough.
Corritore has had more than a few such moments in his life, beginning with the good fortune to be born in Chicago, a blues town if there ever was one.
Add to that the fact that it was at a time when some of the greatest harp players of all time were playing in the now legendary blues clubs, most of which were just a short elevated train or bus ride away from Bob’s home in nearby Evanston.
But while Corritore didn’t find the blues until his pre-teenage years, he did enjoy playing a little flute, guitar and “some fiddle” as a boy, but says that none of them spoke to him, or, in his words “had a voice.”
And then, when he was 13 or thereabouts, his brother John brought home a harmonica that came with a booklet covering the basics. After a quick tour of the instrument, Bob recalls, “he showed me how to bend a note, and when I did, he said, ‘You’re pretty good at that,’ and he gave it to me. And I have pretty much played harmonica every day since.”
By the time Bob was in high school, he had listened to a good bit of music and was gaining a healthy respect for both blues and rock, and the major artists of the day.
It was a pivotal time in radio land, with the major stations moving from the AM to FM band. Recalls Corritore, “There was a rock station that played Rollin’ Stone. It didn’t have any harmonica on it, but it had just about everything else I loved about rock music — but in its purest form. And I loved it so much that it led me to ride my bike to Paul’s Recorded Music, [a well-known record shop in Wilmette], where I bought my first Muddy Waters record: Sail On.”
Bob Corritore with his father and grandfather.
That was the start of Corritore’s love affair with the blues. And, like a rollin’ stone, once it started, it kept on rollin’.
“Then I heard Little Walter,” he continues. “I’d already heard Cream, and the Doors had harmonica on their blues songs, and there would be people playing harmonica on street corners and in high school. And it was so artful — so expressive.”
Over time, Howlin’ Wolf and Sunnyland Slim’s music would provide further inspiration and dedication, both to the harmonica and the genre. When a high school friend who fronted a band invited him to join the group, he jumped at the chance.
“They would play all these parties on weekends. They were more jam sessions than paying gigs, but they were a lot of fun, and it was great to have that as an outlet while still in high school.”
When he wasn’t studying or jamming, he was listening, soaking up the great music that was all around him, including The Blues Revival with Eddie Taylor on guitar and a full revue. The line-up included legendary guitar player, Sam Lay. “Seeing Sam was pretty amazing,” says Corritore, who notes that he would later have the chance to play extensively with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
The show was yet another one of those moments where, as he says, “someone you see or meet ends up being someone who will be a close associate years later.”
As time went on, Bob spent more and more of his free time on Maxwell Street, where, he says, he had the chance to sit in a bit. And there were times when he would go to a rock concert, not to see the main act, but the blues artist who opened for them, like the day he saw Big Walter Horton open for John Mayall.
“It was a time when I became increasingly aware of all the great blues that was around me, and there were Saturday nights when I stayed home to listen to my favorite blues radio shows on WNUR and North Western University’s radio station rather than go to social events.”
He was also starting to build a huge blues record collection, a collection that has continued to grow through the years.
When it came time to choose a college, Bob opted to go to the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he would major in business, a choice that would serve him well through the years. Why Tulsa? “It seemed like an adventure,” he says, adding that he really enjoyed the warmer climate, which was in stark contrast to the frigid Chicago winters he would leave behind.
Once there, he set out to carve out a place in the local music scene, despite the fact that, at 18, he was a year shy of the official drinking age. “I managed to get a fake ID,” he says, “and before I knew it I was playing with the Tulsa Blues Band, which led to other bands.”
It didn’t take long for him to recognize that being from Chicago and having that “Chicago sound” had its advantages. “People from Tulsa were really intrigued by that particular flavor,” he recalls, and as he was the only player in town with that sound, he got a good bit of work.
And so it was that during his Tulsa years he lived what he refers to as “a wonderful dual life: being a student by day, and a musician by night.”
Bob would return to Chicago during holiday and semester breaks, where once again he immersed himself in the local blues scene, sitting in with the likes of The Aces (Little Walter’s band), Lonnie Brooks, Mighty Joe Young, Sunnyland Slim and the aforementioned Eddie Taylor.
A part-time summer job at Sound Unlimited led to a full-time, post-graduation gig as part of the management team that oversaw the record wholesaler’s transition into the computer age and the way they sold and boxed orders.
The following year, while still working full-time at Sound Unlimited, Corritore launched his own record label: Blues Over Blues. It would be the first step in a life commitment to record (and therefore preserve) what he refers to as “the sounds of otherwise obscure blues artists.”
“I always looked at a recorded piece of music as something sacred,” he explains, “and there were all of these great harmonica players who were undocumented.
“My first record was with Little Willie Anderson. He was Little Walter’s valet, and he played in the rougher stylings of the later part of Little Walter’s career.”
The album, which brought together several of Little Walter’s former band mates, was a minor hit, but, says Corritore, “It was my first experience in a recording studio, and I loved it.
“I had a lot of help from the people who had done this before me,” he recalls, among them Steve Wisner, Dick Shurman and Bob Koester.
Corritore’s one-man-band of a label produced a second record a year later featuring another great harmonica player: Big Leon Brooks.
That’s Brooks on harp and vocals, along with Louis Myers on guitar, Bob Stroger on bass, Moose Walker on piano, and Odie Payne Jr on drums.
The experience of producing these albums and getting to work with and know these musicians was only secondary to the satisfaction that came from helping to preserve their music. “I realized that I was making a major statement in their lives, knowing that at that point they had yet to make an album of their own.
“Those records became historical markers for generations to come. People who are deep into this music still refer to them. So it’s gratifying that three or four generations later, people tell me that they love those records.”
And, as Jack Benny used to say, “A funny thing happened on the way to the studio.” Bob found that working with and alongside those artists played out in the way he approached his own music. “I became a student of their teachings,” he says. “And I started working gigs on the south and west side and making a little name for myself as a harmonica player. Willie Buck was my first employer, and I would often play at the Delta Fish Market on the west side. It was a big happening each weekend: Fresh fish and a blues stage.”
The converted gas station had a huge parking lot, on which the owner (who was, himself a musician) had built a bandstand, and during the late 1970s and ’80s locals would gather, hopefully order up some fish, have a beer or two, and bask in the music of newbies and pros alike.
It was a special time. On any given weekend, you might hear Sunnyland Slim, Walter Horton, Eddie Taylor or Bob Corritore, sharing the stage with James Yancey Jones, aka Tail Dragger.
“It was my first paying gig,” he says, but of more import was the fact that at 23, he was getting known as a harmonica player in his own right.
And yet, he says he was feeling conflicted. “I loved music, but didn’t see that I could make a living with it, and my day and night life were not cohesive. My brother John had graduated from Arizona State University, and he invited me to come out and stay with him for a while in Arizona.”
And so he did. Of that time he says, “I was just trying to figure out who I was trying to be in my life. Because my parents had taught me that music was not the kind of life I should leed.
“But I went to Arizona with the attraction of having another adventure in life, and I found a whole other music scene there, and before I knew it, Chicago followed me to Phoenix.”
It is a reference to his friend and blues guitarist, harp player and singer, Iverson Minter, better known as Louisiana Red.
“I had played with him in Chicago and, after I moved, he called (after getting my forwarding number) and I told him where I was living.” Red happened to have a lady friend in Phoenix, and told Corritore that he had been thinking about moving there.
That conversation led to a musical partnership, with Corritore and Louisiana Red working as a duo in small southwestern clubs.
“But after a couple of weeks his girlfriend kicked him out,” says Corritore, leaving Red to find new quarters. “And so I took him in and had a roommate.
“Red was orphaned as a youth, and had drifted from one place to another throughout his life. He didn’t really know what having a home was like.”
The fact that Bob gave his friend a place to hang his hat meant a lot to the musician but, says Corritore, Red wasn’t the only one to benefit from the arrangement. “It made me a better player,” he says, “and brought me to the place of being in touch with my unwavering love of the blues.”
It was that certainty that erased whatever doubts Corritore may have had about his career choice.
That was in 1982. Red married and moved to Germany the following year.
1984 was a landmark year for Bob in that it was the beginning of an enduring relationship with NPR’s KJZZ, in Mesa, Arizona, as the host of Lowdown Blues.
When the station moved to Tempe, Bob moved with it. “That show just turned 35,” he says with some pride and wonder. “The Sunday night 5-hour blues fest is based on blues history. I have people from all over the world who listen to it.”
You can tune into the show by going to KJZZ.org on Sunday nights between 6-11pm mountain standard time.
Corritore added another link to his musical chain when a fan who was interested in revamping a club that Bob had played at when it was known as the Purple Turtle contacted him about rebranding the business. And so it was that the newly-christened Rhythm Room opened in 1991.
Bob eventually bought out the owner, offering the artists who played there a recording session in addition to the gig.
And so it was that over a period of some 12 years, Corritore stockpiled the resulting recording sessions, a conglomeration of artists with Bob’s harmonica providing the connecting thread.
The resulting album, Bob Corritore/All-Star Blues Sessions, was released in 1999. It would be his first national CD.
The launch caught some people by surprise, says Corritore, with just the slightest hint of sarcasm. “Seemingly out of nowhere I put out a record with 12 years’ worth of recording sessions.”
The record included a host of blues legends, folks like Bo Didley, and Jimmy Rogers, R. L. Burnside, Pinetop Perkins and Henry Gray.
In addition to giving these musicians a chance to get back in the studio, it allowed Corritore’s name to be known “in a bigger blues world.”
Still reluctant to be “a front person”, Bob followed up that first release with a record by Henry Gray, where he was a part of the band, rather than the featured performer.
“I toured a little bit, but not as much as I could have or should have,” he says in retrospect. “But I was hesitant to accept that role as a band leader or marquee name.” He says it was out of respect to the elders of the blues.”
But, as Corritore became more confident, he came to realize that he had developed a name for himself and had a following where his name meant something… and “important to record sales.” His last 12 releases have featured him as the headliner or co-headliner.
Getting from here to there, be it from Chicago to Phoenix or novice to pro, is, says Corritore, a lifelong process. “We are all students of our instrument.” The prowess he brings to the stage is the result of listening and learning, watching and working, and taking in the sights and sounds garnered over a lifetime and making them his own.
That passion for and dedication to the harmonica has not gone unnoticed. Over the years, Bob Corritore has received a number of accolades for his work, including 2012’s Living Blues award in the Most Outstanding Musician/Harmonica category, and a Keeping the Blues Alive award from the Blues Foundation, which, he says, “was a huge statement, reflecting on any number of things I had done.”
2012 was also the year his image fronted the box of Hohner’s 532 blues harp. Says Corritore, “That’s like being a baseball player and having your image on a Wheaties box.”
He is equally proud and grateful to have appeared alongside some of the blues’ greatest musicians, as he did back in 2016 when he shared the stage with Bob Margolin and the then 96-years-old Henry Gray at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis.
In all, Bob Corritore has played on close to 100 albums/videos, and provided the music and memories that make the Rhythm Room a special place.
It is altogether fitting that, today, students of the instrument look to him and his music, as he did to those who came before him, played with him, encouraged, motivated and stirred him.
Slated for a May 2019 release, Corritore’s latest offering, Do the Hip-Shake Baby! does all that and more.
For more about the man and his music — including Bob’s new album — go to Bobcorritore.com. Get information on upcoming artists and events at the Rhythm Room at rhythmroom.com or call (602) 265-4842. Those outside the listening area can catch Bob’s weekly radio show (Lowdown Blues) online at KJZZ.org.