By Ed Masley
Bob Corritore doesn’t like asking for help.
It’s just that the Rhythm Room hasn’t been able to make any money since closing its doors on March 16 in response to the global pandemic.
With no relief in sight from Congress and the state demanding that he catch up on his past due sales tax, the club owner realized he was running out of options.
“I was just at a point where I felt my back was up against the wall,” he said. “And I had to do something.”
On Saturday, Dec. 12, he launched a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of $15,000 to help the Rhythm Room catch up on all the unpaid bills that had been stacking up these past nine months.
“I didn’t see any other way out,” he said. “And I thought $15,000 would probably get us enough to get by. It’s a lot of money. But when you’re running a club, it’s not all that much, actually.”
Within two days, that GoFundMe had already generated $30,000, leaving Corritore a bit overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
“I’m going, ‘Oh my god! How does this happen?!,'” he said.
“I’ve been so isolated now for nine months that I’ve lost touch with the community. Normally, I’m at the club, presenting music and just being part of the community. So it’s just incredibly gratifying that the show of support and love has been so great.”
The Rhythm Room is part of the Phoenix blues community
It makes him feel like that community he’s worked so hard at building is behind what he’s been trying to accomplish at the Rhythm Room for nearly 30 years now.
“It’s just satisfying to my soul to see the comments and the people who have gone out of their way to make donations,” he said.
“Every one of them is like a symbol of love to me. I am feeling like the most blessed person in the world today. It’s just a beautiful situation.”
A harmonica-playing bandleader who grew up in Chicago and launched his musical career in a city famous for its blues, Corritore left Chicago in 1981 for Phoenix.
He opened the Rhythm Room a decade later on the former site of a music venue called the Purple Turtle, where he’d booked his first show in the Valley with Louisiana Red.
The venue quickly earned a reputation as a go-to place for fans of the blues. As the sign on the side of the venue outside the stage entrance puts it, it’s “Phoenix’s Roots & Blues Concert Club.”
“We present all different types of music, but somehow it all feels like home to us,” Corritore said.
“Whether it’s a cool singer-songwriter or the 5678s doing a garage-rock surf thing or some of the best blues music that ever existed or Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys playing their wonderful brand of rockabilly, it all seems to be what we stand for.”
Blues fans also know Bob Corritore for his KJZZ radio show
Through the years, the Rhythm Room’s employees and its regulars have come to seem like part of one big family to Corritore, who also hosts his own radio show, “Those Lowdown Blues,” Sunday evenings on KJZZ-FM (91.5).
“For a lot of the employees, this will be part of their lives that they’ll never forget, because they’ve been turned on to the music and the culture of these bands,” he said.
“They’ve been turned on to the melting pot of all the different people who come here and the joy of hosting a musical presentation that’s meaningful to a lot of people.”
For Corritore, the Rhythm Room is an extension of his personality and how he sees himself.
“Being a musician and producer and a person who loves music, I get to extend who I am through the Rhythm Room,” he said. “It adds a completion to the package that I’m trying to present in my life.”
There’s also a bit of a labor of love involved in having kept the venue running all these years.
As Corritore says, with a laugh, the Rhythm Room has managed to survive this long, in part, “because we’re stubborn.”
He’s in it for the lifestyle, not the profit margin, which is slim at best.
“It certainly would not be considered a lucrative business,” Corritore said. “You have a bad month or two, and it will linger for maybe a year or more before you can pay off the bills, because the bills don’t go away. That’s just how it is.”
Corritore was hoping Congress would provide some relief
In 2020, he’s had nine bad months.
And with no money coming in, the cost of keeping up on all the standard operating expenses that go into owning a nightclub quickly went from challenging to practically impossible.
“Even though I’m not open, I’ve kept my lights on,” he said. “So I’ve got a few thousand dollars of APS bills and a bunch of different things like that.”
Things really bottomed out when Corritore received a letter from the Arizona Department of Revenue saying he needed to be caught up on his sales tax by the first of the year to continue to have the permits he’ll need to be able to reopen
“I called and they gave me a little bit more leniency than that,” he said.
“But even with a payment plan, I had to have some way of making payments on this past due sales tax. On top of that, property tax is coming due and things like that. So there were just some really impossible situations.”
Corritore had hoped the federal government would come through in the clutch with some relief for businesses like his.
“But that doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen by the first of the year,” he said.
“And I’m getting competing messages from various parts of the government. ‘There’s no relief for you and it might not be happening anytime soon’ from the federal government and ‘You need to pay these bills’ from the state.”
The way Corritore sees it, it’s in the government’s best interest for a venue like the Rhythm Room to make it through this situation.
“I’ve looked at my old ledgers,” he said. “And I’m thinking, look at all this money that I generated for utilities, for sales tax, for musicians, for advertisements. The Rhythm Room creates a whole economy in and of itself. And all that is on hold right now.”
Corritore himself, he said, is able to get by.
“Not well,” he adds. “I’m living very poor. But there’s a thing that’s much bigger than me in all of this.”
The money Corritore has raised through this GoFundMe campaign will go a long way toward helping him catch up on those unpaid bills.
But for the Rhythm Room to truly make it through this crisis, things will have to get to where Corritore feels he can safely reopen the the venue.
“The basic concept of what we’re trying to do is to get a bunch of people together in a fairly crowded space and enjoy each other’s company while there’s a mutual love of the music,” Corritore said.
“And, sadly, this virus takes away from all that. I see people trying to justify altered versions of that concept, and it just seems to fall short.”
For Corritore, knowing he can safely pack that room the way he used to is the first step to reopening.
“I would never want to put the patrons, the employees, the bands and the public at large in any danger,” he says.
“This pandemic is not something to mess around with. It’s very deadly. And I would not be in a situation for any amount of money where I would open up at the risk of hurting people. That just makes no sense to me.”