“Bob Corritore’s blues, period”
Get Out (Mesa Tribune), December 24, 1998
by Thomas Bond
Live music clubs rarely inspire loyalty. Fans travel from venue to venue to see favorite groups. Phoenix’s Rhythm Room is an exception.
“I wouldn’t still be here in Phoenix if it weren’t for the Rhythm Room,” says patron Todd Johnson, a blues lover who says his affinity for the music would have led him elsewhere to live.
That kind of devotion is directly attributable to the tireless work of one man. In the Valley music scene, no person’s name is more directly tied to a genre of music than Bob Corritore’s is to the blues. Since he moved to Phoenix in 1981, Corritore has played harmonica with virtually every notable band, hosted a 15 year-and-counting weekly radio program dedicated to the music and helped establish the Rhythm Room as one of the country’s finest blues clubs.
“He’s synonymous with the blues in the Valley,” says Scott Williams, program director of KJZZ (91.5 FM) — the home of Those Lowdown Blues.
With the geographical good fortune of growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Corritore soaked up the music of the Windy City as a young man and has spent his adult life immersed in the blues.
Bob Corritore was born Sept. 27, 1956, in Wilmette, IL. The music that would engulf his life hit him at the early age of “12 or 13.”
“I first heard blues when I heard Muddy Waters on the radio on a rock station,” Corritore says. “There’s a song that Muddy did called, Rolling Stone — which the Rolling Stones named themselves after. I heard it and it was everything that I’d been listening for in music; it was great. That was it for me — I knew what I wanted out of music when I heard that. It was wonderful. It was so immediate and so tough, and at the same time passionate and lurking and ominous. It really got to me.”
The effect was instantaneous.
“Right after that, I bought my first Muddy Waters record and started playing harmonica — inspired by Little Walter’s harmonica work on that record. It was also the start of my blues record collection.” Corritore says. Today that collection — “a work in progress,” he says — would easily fill an independent record store.
The boy’s parents, Sam and Bernice, supported their son’s interest in the blues.
“They accepted it fine — it wasn’t quite as noisy as rock ‘n’ roll,” Corritore laughs. “They probably found it a little bit of relief when it was on my stereo.”
Corritore spent much of his time playing harmonica along to records and jamming with friends during free periods at school. Before they were even of drinking age, he and his brother John saw many of their heroes perform at blues festivals and shows at nearby colleges. Bob did his junior thesis on Muddy Waters and saw the legend perform at his high school.
“He was the foundation of all my interest (in the blues),” Corritore remembers.
Living in the Chicago area, long a blues hotbed, afforded the young Corritore the opportunity to see blues players such as Otis Rush, Hound Dog Taylor, Luther Allison and Bukka White.
“I didn’t realize how privileged I was to be able to see those old guys at that point, because a few years later, many of them had passed,” Corritore says.
After he graduated from high school — with Luther Allison performing at the graduation dance — Corritore headed to Oklahoma to attend the University of Tulsa.
He was performing form the very beginning of his collegiate career. “I played in bands from my freshman year on and I couldn’t believe they were actually paying me to have all that fun,” he says.
Corritore also gained his first experience working at a club, bartending at Cain’s Ballroom, which had been the home of the legendary Bob Wills. On breaks from school, he’d return to Chicago and “absorb all the blues I could.” At one point, he was asked to audition for Pops and Koko Taylor’s group.
“The band would let me play a few numbers with them before Koko got up and I got to know them fairly well. At one point, Pops Taylor took me aside and said, ‘We’re thinking about adding an extra piece to our band and we want you to come to a rehearsal and give it a try,’ ” Corritore remembers.
“I went home and asked my parents to borrow the car to do it and they threw a little reality my way — ‘No, Bob, you cannot borrow the car to go to the South Side of Chicago. And what would you do if you joined the band? You’d have to quit to go back to school.’ Not that I would have been good enough to get into the band, but I had a possibility of that. Who knows what would have become of it.”
In 1978 he graduated with a business degree and moved back to Chicago to begin working at Sound/Video Unlimited, a music sub-distributor that supplied record stores. “I got to see a lot of aspects of the music business and how it worked,” Corritore says.
He also continued to perform with several bands and patronize all the blues spots.
“I got to know a lot of guys that became personal friends and I was as close to blues as anybody could be. My phone book had sprinklings of the most legendary names in the blues and they were people that I knew personally,” Corritore says. “I would go to their houses and sometimes even take lessons from them.”
He started his own record label, Blues Over Blues Records, and as “a one-man operation” produced, mixed, pressed, designed the covers and found distribution for albums by Little Willie Anderson and Big Leon Brooks. Both albums were released on CD by Earwig Records in 1994.
“I really wanted to capture some of the great sounds of some of the more obscure harmonica players that I looked up to,” Corritore says.
In 1981, Corritore had the kind of epiphany a lot of Midwesterners have when they first experience the Valley of the Sun.
“My brother lived out here and I came out to visit and I loved the warm weather. I decided to come out here for a year,” Corritore says. “When I came here I fell in love with the place. It presented an invigorating challenge.”
He met the challenge of introducing a new city to the music he loved. After he had lived in Phoenix for a month, Corritore got a call from Louisiana Red, a friend from Chicago.
“I said, ‘Red, what are you doing? Why don’t you come out here?’ The next thing I know, Louisiana Red has moved to town and we’re playing together and having a blast. He was here for a year and it was wonderful,” Corritore says.
“Phoenix wasn’t really ready for a raw blues guy at that time. He was playing his low down blues and the people that loved it, loved it, but a lot of clubs wouldn’t even hire us and here was a guy that had been in movies, that had hits and a dozen albums to his name.”
It wouldn’t be the only time Corritore invited a Chicago friend to move to Phoenix. In 1986, after stints with rockabilly band Grant and the Geezers and Big Pete Pearson’s band, he telephoned another.
“I called my friend Chico Chism from Chicago, whom I’d met in 1974 when I went to see the Howlin’ Wolf play. I asked Chico if he’d want to come to Phoenix and form a band,” Corritore says.
“He’d seen me with Howlin’ Wolf and all the big bands in Chicago, so when he called me up I said, ‘Hey, I’ll give you six months,’ ” Chism remembers.
They formed Chico Chism and the Chiztones. “That band was probably the most Chicago blues band that Phoenix has ever seen,” Corritore says. The group went their separate ways after about a year, but Chism has been a fixture in Phoenix ever since.
Meanwhile, Corritore had found another avenue to pursue his love of the blues. In February 1983, he started hosting Those Lowdown Blues on KMCR (91.5 FM), later KJZZ. More than 15 years later the show is one of the longest-running programs in town, airing Sunday nights from 6 to 11.
“I had a great collection of blues records and I wanted to share that. I also had a little personal thing, because I was so frustrated with the way Louisiana Red was accepted in this town that I really wanted to present blues in its earthiest form and all the other great styles that encompass the blues,” Corritore says. “But I really wanted to capture the low-down blues, and hence the name of the show.”
For the first year, he worked as a volunteer. “After that, they took me in the office and told me that they wanted to put me on the payroll and expand the hours of my show,” Corritore says. “So they moved it from Sunday morning as a pre-taped show to Sunday night (live).”
He has never had a contract with KJZZ — “They can have me as long as I have strength to do it,” Corritore says — but there’s no question how much the station appreciates him.
“He’s one of the most dedicated radio hosts I’ve ever run across,” says Scott Williams, the station’s program director for the past eight years. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s here 15 years from now, and I hope he is. There’s nobody around who knows the blues, particularly the Chicago blues, like he does. He has not only a knowledge, but a love for the music that comes across.”
Although he uses compact discs as well, Corritore is “the last person using a turntable at the station. We actually roll one in there for him on Sunday nights,” Williams says.
While he presents new and old recordings on the program, Corritore’s philosophy for the show has remained constant from the outset.
“I would hope that I present things that are stimulating to the audience and things that will open their minds and change their points of reference as to what blues is. I present the blues from a purist standpoint and in doing so I hope that people can see the blues in its purest form,” he says.
The program is appreciated by blues players and listeners alike.
“I love the radio show because it’s dedicated to the blues form and it’s not just 30 minutes — he’s got five hours!” Chism says. “Bob is the No. 1 blues DJ in the country and I’ll tell anybody that on a stack of Bibles.”
“He has really single-handedly enriched Phoenix to the point that I think he has helped create a niche in the Phoenix market for blues music,” listener Melissa Testa says.
In this decade, Corritore’s dedication to the music he loves has found a home in the Rhythm Room. The space at 1019 E. Indian School Road in Phoenix, once known as the Purple Turtle, had endured several failed ventures by the turn of the ’90s.
“In 1991, out of the blue I got a call from the guy that owned the property and he was having a hard time finding a tenant and he wanted to develop a business on it. It was four walls at the time, but we got together and came up with a strategy and just did it,” Corritore says of the creation of the club that has become the prime spot to see blues in the Valley.
“I didn’t really have any lessons in how to do it, but I’d played in enough bars before that I felt that I had a sense of what needed to happen for a bar to be successful and I added my own imagination to it,” he says.
He had gained promotion experience by handling the job for most of the bands he’d been in, and he had booked shows at other clubs around town.
He’s not the only one that’s worked — and continues to work — for the club’s success.
“I’ve been blessed with my partner, Ken Cahill, and his assistant manager Liberdy Laliberte. They handle the bar side of the business and allow me to just do the music and promotion,” Corritore says.
“What we are at the Rhythm Room is a lot of who and what Bob is,” Cahill says. “He’s a traditional blues appreciator and lover and he really likes to bring something special to the community — that in many cases, otherwise would not be brought here.
“It’s not always the financially sound thing to do, but it’s the artistically right thing to do.”
Corritore does much more than promotion. He often books obscure artists, arranges a group of local players to back them and rehearses the band with the artist’s material.
“That’s the fun of it, really,” Corritore says. “I enjoy presenting music that I love and I enjoy building bands in the market — bands that I believe in, that’s very satisfying. It’s also very satisfying to have a place that stands for all those things. It’s really all about music, and if it weren’t it wouldn’t be worth it.”
“Bob knows the music really well and follows it and he knows what’s out there. He’ll bring in things for people to hear that they haven’t heard before,” says longtime Valley blues guitarist John Rapp.
“He has the ability to see the real value in things. The music business is an incredibly cynical, hard kind of place to be. From a management aspect and a player’s aspect it’s a pretty lousy place to live, and Bob’s made it a better place for a lot of people.”
“Because Bob is a blues fanatic himself, he always bring in all the best people — not always considering whether or not he’s going to make money on it,” says patron Todd Johnson. “That’s why there’s no doubt in my mind that the Rhythm Room is one of the top blues clubs anywhere in the world.”
Corritore also produces recording sessions with artists he brings to town. He hopes to release a collection of more than 12 years of recording sessions, many of which were done with engineer Clarke Rigsby.
“His passion is blues and he knows way too much about it,” Rigsby chuckles. “He always comes up with these great artists because he knows who’s who and what’s what and we’ve done some great sessions.
“A lot of these guys are passing, weekly, now. Jimmy Rogers comes to mind — that was a great thing to able to do (Rogers, Muddy Waters’ right-hand man and one of the architects of the Chicago blues, died at the end of last year). Bob’s a master at putting those kinds of things together.”
Corritore has also gone through all the necessary paperwork to create an arts foundation that he hopes to use “to raise funds to bring in acts that financially would be impossible to bring in otherwise — focusing on the blues and jazz idioms. I also hope to bring these artists into the schools for seminars and residencies.”
As a musician, Corritore has not been an official member of any group since a two-year stint with Buddy Reed and the Rip It Ups before the Rhythm Room opened. But that doesn’t mean he’s not keeping his harmonica chops up.
“Rarely does a week or two go by that I’m not up onstage performing with all these wonderful artists that I know that are traveling through,” Corritore says. “I consider myself an accompanist. The harmonica is an accompanying instrument, and me greatest joy in playing is to accompany artists that I really enjoy and make my playing a sympathetic part of the song.
“I’m more into the song than a solo. It’s an indescribable feeling when you can connect with that part of you that’s right at the soul of your music. It’s a great thing and I hope to be able to continue to experience it,” he says.
“He’s a true believer in deep blues and the idea that the blues has an emotional and aesthetic content which transcends the form,” says Rapp, who has played and recorded with Corritore. “It’s music that comes from the heart. When I hear Bob play, I hear somebody playing from the heart. The whole point is to play yourself and he really tries to do that.”
From his youth, a love for the blues has guided Bob Corritore throughout his life. As a performer, DJ, promoter, producer and all the other hats he’s worn, Corritore has immersed himself in the music.
“I can’t say enough about him and he’s really good for the music, not just here in Arizona, but all around the country,” Chico Chism says.
Corritore is modest about his accomplishments and confident in the future of the music he loves.
“I’m just trying to hold onto whatever is still there of that old, wonderful, classic sound that inspired me,” he says. “There are some great new artists that are presenting it and that will take the reins, but let’s face it, you’ll never replace a Muddy Waters or a Lightnin’ Hopkins or an Albert King and when John Lee Hooker and B.B. King pass, that will really be a sad time for the blues because it will be the end of an era.
“But the blues will survive, it’s just too strong not to, and the message that’s brought about by the blues will always be meaningful. There’s no question. Once the blues gets in your veins, that’s it. You’re going to want it the rest of your life.”