“A Put-‘er-Together-Guy” — Bob Corritore”
Delta Snake web magazine (February 2000)
by Cathi Norton
The following article also appeared in American Harmonica Newsletter August 2000 and was the cover story of Harmonica World Magazine (U.K) October/November 2000, and is re-printed with permission of the author.
What if you decided at age 12, for some reason you never really figured out, that you loved playing pool with an overpowering passion? Everything about it excited you: the smoky poolrooms, the not-quite respectable settings, the way-cool players hang around telling whoppers over beer, awaiting their turn to “smoke” all comers? What if you then discovered that your dad secretly admired pool players, so he drove you around to seedy neighborhood pool halls after school? What if after studying strategies and experts, you discovered that most of those very same incredibly cool professionals actually lived right in your town?!?
If you can imagine this, you’ll have a hint of what it must have been like for Bob Corritore, who at age 12 found himself completely bowled over not by pool, but by the blues–as delivered on the radio by Muddy Waters. Born in Chicago, 1956, Corritore was in the right place at the right time. He immediately began collecting blues records, filching his brother’s harmonica, and a Tony “Little Son” Glover harp book. Before long he was bending notes and “that was it!” Attending a Chicago-area school also had its points: Sam Lay performed there during Bob’s sophomore year; Muddy played there when he was a senior; and Luther Allison played Bob’s senior prom!
Bob’s passion for blues was clear. So much so that his dad drove the under-aged Bob to the EL (elevated train) on Tuesday nights so he could ride to an Evanston pizza place called “The Spot” that featured blues. “Northwestern University also put on some great shows,” commented Corritore, recalling one with the Memphis Blues Caravan, and Maxwell Street (the famed Sunday market) was another great resource. “You’d go down there with a long cord (to run through someone’s window to a power source) and there were all these people to jam with. I remember Floyd Jones on one side of me singing a capella ‘Standin’ Around Cryin”–those memories are priceless.”
When at last Corritore reached age 18, he became a regular at popular blues clubs. “Biddy Mulligan’s,” the “1815 Club,” and “Louise’s” were favorites. Sitting in on the jams was a dream come true. Corritore found himself playing blues with the “Aces” and Magic Slim, getting tight with Howlin’ Wolf’s band members, and getting “treated right” by Eddie (Shaw) in his club. It was a blues-lover’s dream. “The thing that really impressed me was I’d been listening to these people on records a long time before I got to meet them. Then they just took me in! I mean I’d hang out at the Kingston Mines (nightclub) and sit in Louis Myer’s car listening to stories. Once they found out you were a player and into the right stuff; they’d nurture you and call you up to play.”
Corritore was always cognizant of his companions’ impact on the blues. “I had to pinch myself now and then to remind myself that it was reality.” Bob became a regular house party guest on the south side, spending time eating spicy rib tips with Louis Myers, Eddie Taylor, Lester Davenport, Big Leon Brooks, and Little Willie Anderson. “These were my friends,” he said, “but I looked at them in a larger-than-life way. They were so great I always looked at them like friends who were above me. These were THE guys!”
All along, Corritore honed his harmonica skills. Backing Honeyboy Edwards or Mighty Joe Young, etc., provided blues challenges not found everyday. A fan of the legendary Little Walter, Bob added what he could to his harmonica studies by gleaning little tips from other Chicago players, like Big Walter (Horton). “I’d ask him for little tips and he’d show me things occasionally, you know? I mean he just had tone beyond control. But being around Big Walter was a lesson in itself.”
Corritore got work in the music industry at Sound Unlimited, a record sub-distributor, and when he turned 21, decided to put his money where his interest lay: starting his own record label (“Blues Over Blues”). His first release was Little Willie Anderson’s, “Swinging the Blues” (subsequently released on Earwig, 1979). “He was spectacular and could hearken up the spirit of Little Walter, creating this real exuberant band thing because it was about tension and release–a gorgeous way of playing. He’d never cut a record, so I took it upon myself to be the guy.”
After only a couple of blues releases, however, Corritore found himself increasingly frustrated by the business end of the blues and the difficulties of working with distributors. Finally in 1981, with a rep as a solid harp player on Chicago’s Southside and an on-going project of compiling recordings of several of his favorite blues harmonica players, he abandoned the label. He availed himself of his brother’s invite and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona to ponder his options.
Phoenix had its own blues scene going. “They were probably playing a bit more of an urban ’60s thing, but I could relate to them on the same level as Chicago blues.” Corritore jumped right in and before long got a call from Louisiana Red (Iverson Minter) back East, who decided on a visit to Bob (and a Phoenix lady friend). Out of that visit came the Louisiana Red recording, “Sittin’ Here Wonderin'” (Earwig, 1996) which earned a W.C. Handy Award nomination.
Corritore built a solid rep in the blues community as a player, promoter, and producer. He started his own blues radio show in ’83. “Those Lowdown Blues,” still offers five hours of great blues every Sunday night on KJZZ 91.5 F.M. His blues savvy and Chicago contacts provided him with players to book into local clubs like “Chuys,” the “LP Club,” and the “Mason Jar,” until in September of ’91 he opened his now famous “Rhythm Room” with a silent partner. “The second night we were open, we had Junior Watson playing,” he said fondly. “Shortly after that it was Jesse Mae Hemphill — the kind of stuff nobody else even knew about.” The club continues to set a standard for quality blues and Sonny Gaines’ barbecue. As they passed through the Rhythm Room, Bob often produces recording sessions of old, and new, musical friends.
Over the years, Corritore has produced recordings of the work of Little Willie Anderson, Big Leon Brooks, R.L. Burnside, Louisiana Red, Mojo Buford, and various Arizona blues artists, as well as performed on recordings of Texas Red, Chico Chism, Lucius Parr, etc. Last October Corritore released a compilation of recordings he’d produced over a 12-year period (1986-1998) entitled, “All-Star Blues Sessions” (HighTone Records’ HMG, 1999). The CD is a knockout, featuring his harp playing behind a staggering cast of players that includes Jimmy Rogers, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Henry Gray, Clarence Edwards, Bob Margolin, Pinetop Perkins, Bo Diddley, Rusty Zinn, Richard Innes, Dino Spells, Jimmy Dotson, Nappy Brown, R.L. Burnside, King Karl, Kid Ramos, and others. Corritore’s understated harmonica supports each artist with tact and skill, and the sheer firepower of the talent on the disc propels it to the “must-have” category.
Typically people fill a single role in music, or at most a couple. Yet Bob somehow keeps a toehold on performing, promoting shows, producing records, working as a blues radio DJ, and running his own blues club. “My curse is that I’m a put-‘er-together-guy,” he laughs. That he regularly “puts ’em together” with class is probably just one reason he was elected to the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame in 1997.
He’s now working on a CD with Henry Gray, recorded a “Live from the Rhythm Room” disc with Kim Wilson, Billy Flynn, and Rusty Zinn, and I suspect there are plenty more recordings in the can like the ones on “All Star Blues Sessions.” I’ve begged him to send me a jar of whatever vitamins he’s taking.
CATHI: When you were growing up, you didn’t get sidetracked from your love of blues by rock or popular music?
BOB: Well, blues was just the pure ingredient. Everything I liked in rock, was there (in blues) undiluted. I mean why use margarine when you can use butter?
CATHI: It must have been great hanging with those great players. It’s cool they had no problem with color. It was more about whether you were into the music.
BOB: You know, that’s what it was all about. These were people who didn’t have many financial opportunities, but it wasn’t about that. It was about the pure joy of life. They would find anything to make light of and have fun. It taught me a lot, not only about music, but about life. There was a real fraternity among all the blues guys that had been through the whole popularity of the blues in the ’50s and ’60s. When I was involved it was in the ’70s.
CATHI: So you missed the Siegel/Schwall band at the Quiet Knight?
BOB: I never saw Corky there, but I did see Muddy there quite a bit. I remember seeing the Siegel/Schwall Band at a roller skating rink near my house.
CATHI: (laughter). Great. So did you get to know Muddy?
BOB: Well, Muddy, kind of like Jr. Wells to me, had this greater-than-human aura about him. I just looked at them in awe. They had so much charisma I think it was intimidating for me to get tight with them. But some of the other people were easier, like Hubert (Sumlin), Bobby Anderson, and Chico Chism–who eventually moved to Phoenix and works with me now.
CATHI: How about my favorite, Willie Dixon?
BOB: You know I got to know him more after I moved to Phoenix. I did a wonderful interview with him that later appeared as a two-part interview in Living Blues. They combined it with two others to make that happen. Willie was an easy interview. Before you finished a complete sentence, he was off and running (laughs), and I was blessed to play with him too.
CATHI: Tell me about your label. What happened with that?
BOB: Well, I started it when I was 21. Actually three labels started at the same time: Rooster Blues, Earwig Music, and Blues Over Blues. I put out a couple of releases and got absolutely disgusted with the shape of distribution. I often found myself having to get real assertive just to get paid. I could just see that it would make me a bitter person if I stayed in that industry. It worked well for me as far as knowing the world from that viewpoint though. People like Bob Koester (Delmark Records) really looked after me like a newly adopted son. They were there for me.
CATHI: So why the move to Arizona?
BOB: Well, I was in between jobs, wondering what I wanted to do, and spending a lot of time in the ghetto (laughter). That was not exactly a place I wanted to see my future cut in. It had the type of blues I loved, but what I loved wasn’t commercial in most peoples’ minds. I left Chicago with love and respect, and a great pride that I had grown up there as a person in the blues. After I got to Arizona, I started developing roots here even without knowing it (laughs).
CATHI: It wasn’t too long before you attracted others here too, huh?
BOB: Yes, Louisiana Red called to track me down. The next thing I knew I was cooking eggs in the morning and there was Red rocking back and forth in the kitchen playing the most heavy Muddy Waters! Unbelievable. We played together for about a year. Then I played with Big Pete Pearson’s band off and on and got the radio show started. It’s 17 years old now.
CATHI: Chico Chism moved down here too didn’t he?
BOB: Yeah, 13 years ago. We play a lot together with Johnny Rapp, who moved here from New York, and Paul Thomas–we’ve got that Chicago feel.
CATHI: All this time — both in Chicago and Phoenix–you were kind of collecting recordings of your favorite blues players?
BOB: Well, I did a harmonica anthology CD, “Low Blows” (Rooster Blues 2610) of master tapes I acquired while living in Chicago
CATHI: And you got artists coming through Phoenix to record too? “All Star Blues Sessions” is a marvel. How did it work that all these folks could be on one album? Did you have to get permission from their record companies?
BOB: You know most of them weren’t associated with record companies. In most situations, you would just have them sign a release. And a lot of these guys I played with prior to recording, so they knew me. The one I was really happy about getting to do it was Bo (Diddley). I thought, “You will!?! Great!”
CATHI: How do you do all these separate things?
BOB: I guess I’ve kind of grown into them. I never consciously thought about it; the path just naturally laid them out before me.
CATHI: Tell me about your playing. Are you a diatonic player for the most part?
BOB: Well, I love both chromatic and diatonic. On “All Star Blues Sessions” there are four tunes that feature chromatic. The album has two numbers in third position, four on chromatic and the rest in second position. I’m endorsed by Hohner and play a 64 Chromonica and Marine Bands.
CATHI: I have to say I appreciated the way you didn’t try to grandstand on harp on that CD.
BOB: I’m not a front man, and for me on harp, it’s about making the tune work. I guess as a harmonica player I like to feel that I’ve got a good traditional base in the sound, that I’m supporting the tune, and saying my own thing with it. I like to think there are some things on the record that are uniquely mine and that I have a sense of how to compose a solo and make a statement. But I’d say that all the different things I do in the blues, it really all comes from the cornerstone of me loving the music and being an artist. That is who I am and from there all other things have just kind of come about.
CATHI: Well, it amazes me that when all these opportunities arise, you somehow pull it together to take advantage of them. It takes a certain wherewithal to do that. I guess you really are a put-‘er-together-guy!
BOB: Which means I get to do all the work (laughter).
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Copyright © 2000 by Cathi Norton. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission from the author.