Ed Masley Arizona Republic
It’s been 30 years since Big Pete Pearson took the stage for the opening night of a blues joint on East Indian School Road in Phoenix run by a local harmonica player and host of a long-running blues show on KJZZ-FM.
Now, he’s preparing to mark the venue’s anniversary by reopening for business for the first time since the club was forced to close its doors in March 2020 due to COVID-19.
The entire month of September will be a celebration, including a show on Saturday, Sept. 25, that will double as a birthday bash for Corritore and a CD release show for his latest album, “Spider in My Stew.”
It hasn’t always been an easy ride, but Corritore has kept the venue running for decades due in large part to what he refers to semi-jokingly as his “ignorant stubbornness.”
Running a club is “too much of a rollercoaster ride for most people to look at as a business investment,” he says.
But that’s not how he sees it.
“I’ve looked at it as a lifestyle investment,” he says. “We get to be in a world filled with music, filled with people who love music, filled with celebration. And that right there is a lifestyle I have chosen for myself.”
A harmonica player walks into a bar
The Chicago-born bluesman has a history with the building that predates the Rhythm Room.
“I used to play that same location back when it was named the Purple Turtle,” he recalls.
“One of the first shows I ever booked in Phoenix after moving here in 1981 was with Louisiana Red at the Purple Turtle. So that room had a special place in my heart to start with.”
He was doing some promotion work around the Valley when he got a call from Lenny Frankel, who at that time owned the property at 1019 E. Indian School Road.
“We were ready to go from that first meeting,” Corritore recalls. “I pretty much knew what he wanted. And I was the person to do the job.”
That job, initially, was something closer to “a visionary” for the venue.
“I wasn’t the owner, but he put it in my hands to book it, to conceptualize it and to market it. So I got to try on a new hat. And it seemed to work out pretty well.”
Part of that vision was to give the room the vibe of a Chicago blues bar.
“You know, nothing fancy, nothing too slick, but at the same time, to be a really great music room,” he says.
It was designed with acoustics in mind, with 10 tons of sand buried in compartments beneath the stage and the room angled in such a way that there would be no square corners for the sound to bounce back and forth.
Rhythm Room was always more than a blues club
From day one, the idea was to bring in a variety of genres.
“It’s fun to sometimes book something that you would’ve never expected in your life that you would’ve been able to book,” Corritore says, recalling the night they were able to fit Maynard Ferguson’s big band with a grand piano on that sand-filled stage.
But blues has always been the building’s cornerstone and Corritore is thrilled to rattle off the names of legendary blues acts that have played there through the years, from Jimmy Rogers to Bo Diddley, R.L. Burnside, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells and Bobby Rush.
One name that clearly means the world to Corritore is Chico Chism, the local blues great who famously drummed for Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Otis Rush and other legends of the blues before moving to Phoenix in the ’80s.
Corritore laughs at the memory of Chism in Chicago, asking the local musicians when they planned to come and play his club in Phoenix.
“It was Chico’s club,” Corritore says. “He was just such a presence. Every time a blues musician came through town, they’d say, ‘Where’s Chico?’ ‘Oh, he’ll be coming shortly.’ Everybody knew Chico and loved him. That was a beautiful part of our legacy.”
For Corritore, having his own club to play has been a pretty sweet part of the bargain.
“I’ve got my corner of the stage I always set up on,” he says. “I have my sound in the room, which is pretty easy to dial in. I surround myself with musicians I love and I get to perform. There’s nothing like it.”
‘We found our way to survive’
Corritore bought the Rhythm Room in 2001 on the eve of the club’s 10th anniversary.
Then 9/11 happened.
“For about a year and a half, the whole collective consciousness of this community and the whole country was of sadness,” Corritore says. “So it took a while to get past all of that. But we found our way to survive.”
There have been times when Corritore has had to “really watch my pennies,” he says.
“But what’s really wonderful is that we have a fantastic group of loyal fans that have supported us through thick and thin.”
There’s a sense of community among Rhythm Room regulars that Corritore has done his best to nurture.
“For a club to have character, you need to have characters in it,” he says.
“And we have just enjoyed our characters and celebrated them. When they come to the Rhythm Room, that’s their place. We’ve had weddings. We’ve had funerals. We’ve had people who met the love of their life at the Rhythm Room and will tell me all about it.”
In December, that community came together to support the Rhythm Room when Corritore launched a GoFundMe campaign to help the venue catch up on the unpaid bills that had stacked up for nine months.
In June, he launched a re-opening fund and was able to raise an additional $15,000, which allowed him to start hiring back the employees he credits with being in sync with the Rhythm Room vision, led by manager Lynsey Curtis.
“When everything is going, we are all a team and it’s a really well-oiled machine,” he says.
“We have a staff that understands what we’re trying to get across. And they’ve been working diligently to get this thing going again.”
Reopening the Rhythm Room with ‘another layer of feeling safe’
Six months ago, he wasn’t sure if he could even have an anniversary celebration.
And as happy as he is to be reopening, that happiness is tempered somewhat by concern that COVID-19 numbers have been moving in the wrong direction.
“As somebody who gathers people together to celebrate music,” he says, “you want to make sure that you always have the well-being of your customers, bands and employees in mind.”
The Rhythm Room recently joined with 16 other independent Arizona music venues in requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test to end by Sept. 20.
“I think what that does is it just gives people another layer of feeling safe,” he says.
“But there’s some people who will just reject all that. They don’t believe in all the worry and concern. So I’m stuck in the middle of all of that.”
Corritore would love to see things go back to the way they were before the industry shut down.
“But right now, in the middle of this moment, it’s better to err on the side of caution.”
The Rhythm Room reopening events
The Rhythm Room reopens Friday, Aug. 27, with a CD release show by the Atomic 44’s. The official relaunch party is Saturday, Sept. 4, with Jimmy Primetime Smith, the Bob Corritore Blues Band and more.
The Rhythm Room is at 1019 E. Indian School Road, Phoenix. For a full calendar or to purchase tickets, go to rhythmroom.com or call 602-612-4981.