There’s no hesitation in the voice of Bob Corritore. The owner of The Rhythm Room, disc jockey behind Sunday night’s blues program on KJZZ, and renowned harmonica player/producer/impresario fires off an answer to the question I was certain would stump him.
What’s your all-time favorite record?
“The very first record I bought, Muddy Waters’ Sail On, remains my favorite,” Corritore says in a drawl KJZZ listeners may know well. “From that, I just expanded. You can go into Texas blues, like Lightnin’ Hopkins; the more urban blues, like BB King, Big Mama Thornton; go back in time to Robert Johnson; go off into the early soul music; and the great new releases that keep this music alive. I love all these recordings, but I will always love that Muddy Waters record on Chess — it was the awakening.”
Corritore celebrates the release of his new record, Harmonica Blues on Delta Groove Records, with a show this week. The album is a compilation created by plundering over 20 years of his personal recording archives, including performances by many of Corritore’s longtime associates, people like Louisiana Red, Chief Schabuttie Gilliame, Big Pete Pearson, and the late Chico Chism, as well as artists Corritore has long admired from a distance, such as Little Milton, Eddy Clearwater, Koko Taylor, and Honeyboy Edwards.In many ways, it’s a representation of Corritore’s story, a curious mix of old-time Chicago blues and the energy he got in moving to Phoenix 29 years ago.
“I guess early on, early on in my life, I realized the value of recording. It’s such a sacred thing, to put music into a form that can live forever,” Corritore says. “When The Rhythm Room opened up, in 1991, I found myself in the wonderful position of having a great house band, The Rhythm Room All-Stars, which at that time had my longtime friend and musical partner Chico Chism and other great Phoenix-based players like Johnny Rapp, and Paul Thomas . . . I’ve always loved the old-school blues, and when some of the blues greats would stop in on their tours — on the way to California or back from California — I was not only able to offer them a gig at the Rhythm Room, I could also offer them some studio work. We’d do these little three- or four-song sessions, and within each of these sessions was one or two nuggets of gold — something that would just happen, and it would be gold. The album Harmonica Blues is a collection of that gold.”
“I moved to Phoenix in 1981. I came to Phoenix for what I thought would be one year. I left Chicago and came out to see my brother. I was between jobs and just wanted to enjoy the warm desert climate. And before I knew it, the Chicago blues just followed me,” Corritore says. His longtime pal Louisiana Red soon joined him in the desert.
“He had a friend here, Eunice Davis, and he said, ‘I’m thinking about coming out; let’s get some gigs.’ And a week and a half later he was here. About week after that, I got a call from Eunice — and she said, ‘Bob, you better come pick up Red. I kicked him out.’ So I go to Eunice’s house, and there’s Red on the porch, and next thing you know, I have a new roommate — which was the best experience of my life. We became like family. We played music together everyday.”
It wasn’t long before another Chicago pal joined him in Phoenix: Chico Chism, whose résumé as a drummer includes work with Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Albert King, Bo Diddley, and Willie Dixon. “Chico [who died in 2007] was the blues, and he fell in love with Phoenix, and Phoenix fell in love with him. When people saw Chico, they saw this wonderful animated character, filled with this old-school blues charm. And oftentimes in the blues nowadays, the thing I worry about . . . So many of the characters of the blues, with that personality, are gone. Without that, it’s just not the same.”
The Chicago transplants immersed themselves in the local flavor: “There were some cool players here. I loved Bill Tarsha’s harmonica playing. Small Paul was a great R&B singer. I was really knocked out by Tommy Dukes and a guy called Chief Schabuttie Gilliame, Midnight Blues, Hans Olson — all of these players were part of the Phoenix blues scene when I first came. I stopped by the RJ showcase, at 16th Street and the river bottom — got to see Little Milton, Bobby Blue Bland. So, really, Phoenix was pretty cool and developing.”
Corritore found himself in the unique position to impart what he’d learned growing up in the Chicago blues scene to the Valley scene. After being invited to spin records on noted Phoenix music historian John “Johnny D” Dixon’s program on KSTM 107 FM, Corritore found himself wanting to do his own radio program. He approached the program director at KMCR, which later changed its call letters to the familiar KJZZ, which airs original programming during the evening and serves as Phoenix’s NPR news station during the day.
“I’d put together an extensive blues LP and 45 library and I felt that I had something to share with a radio audience.”
That program, Those Lowdown Blues, debuted in 1984, and continues to this day. Originally slotted as an hour, the program has since expanded to a five-hour Sunday-night tradition, with Corritore spinning all varieties of blues, from raw originators like Robert Johnson to brand-new releases.
In 1991, Corritore was given a chance to cement his place in Phoenix blues in a big way, by opening his own venue. “I get a phone call out of the blue, from the guy who owned the property. His name is Lenny Frankel,” Corritore says. “Lenny proposed I start a blues club with him, that I would be the figurehead and the visionary, with of course his business savvy. So we put together a plan, which became The Rhythm Room, which years before was the Purple Turtle, where I had played with Louisiana Red. So I had a real connection to the building.”
“During the week, we’ve opened it up to other types of music. And, as such, it’s become a great place to see jazz, singer/songwriters, indie rock, classic artists of the rock era. It’s been great, but I can take only a small part of the credit for The Rhythm Room, because it’s such a team of people, including the Phoenix market,” says Corritore, who purchased the building from Frankel in 2001.
With his radio program and venue in place, Corritore has established himself as Phoenix’s premier blues authority. None of it would have happened, he says, if he hadn’t experienced the blues firsthand in Chicago, hearing the harmonica on a random street corner and becoming enamored with the tones of Little Walter and that first Muddy Waters record. Surrounded by blues, Corritore began playing the harmonica endlessly. Within years, Corritore was playing with legends like Eddie Taylor, Mighty Joe Young, and Lonnie Brooks.
And though Corritore says his heart will always be rooted in Chicago blues, he’s particularly fond of his adopted home.
“In Chicago, whatever niche you could hope to occupy, there’s probably 20 or 25 people in line to take that spot,” Corritore says. “You would wait for your turn; but in Phoenix you could fast-forward that and work with as much energy as you had possible. I found myself doing many things in Phoenix I never would have been able to do in Chicago. I’m thankful for Phoenix and all of the opportunities and supportive people that have allowed me to do these things I’ve been able to do.”
– Jason P. Woodbury