Cover photo © 2023 Jim Hartzell
In 2016, Delmark Records released a self-titled album from the Corey Dennison Band. The record received much critical acclaim, including nominations for 2016 Blues Blast Music Awards in the New Artist Debut Album and the Sean Costello Rising Star categories. The album featured thirteen original songs, most written with band-mate Gerry Hundt. The following year brought a second album on Delmark, Night After Night, with more striking original songs and a handful of covers.
Two albums on one of the premier blues record labels, in addition to a killer band, had Dennison’s career rolling along. Playing live, Dennison captivated audiences with his fiery intensity and stinging guitar work. His powerful voice would ring out with equal amounts of grit and soul, marking him as a man with future.
Six years ago, Dennison starting working out on a regular basis. At the same time, he found himself falling out of love with music. He vowed to get in shape, and rekindle his passion for music.
“How does one fall out of love for music? It has to do with the quality of music, and over-stimulating oneself with music. So I stopped listening to music for a week, only listening to Tibetan monks on a YouTube video as I worked out walking on the treadmill. The next week I put together a playlist for the elliptical machine that ranged from Motown to death metal. I love 80’s metal bands like Slayer, Kiss, and Iron Maiden. That helped me regain my love for music. There is so much good, old music out there. My six year old son has playlists with Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Ozzy Osbourne, James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, and the Monkees. My daughter is the same. She is named after a Stevie Wonder song. It’s great when your four year old wants to hear “Crazy Train”. My oldest son is a semi-professional wrestler. I can teach him about James Brown, but I don’t know anything about Hulk Hogan. Never liked wrestling to this day, but my son is doing an amazing job.”
But Dennison could not escape the demons rattling around in his head, leading to a decision to “retire” from music for what ended up being a three year hiatus.
“I was done, couldn’t do it any more. It was necessary to let go of a lot of weight that I was carrying around for things I held myself responsible for. It felt so good to let it all go. There was too much negativity. Covid hit, everybody got hit differently, but I believe kids and musicians got hit harder than people realize. Musicians lost their minds. We went from being out there giving everything to, at the snap of your fingers, getting totally shut down. That sucked bad!
“Gerry Hundt is my band leader. He is one of the baddest musicians I have ever met. Gerry shines in all settings, whether playing for 10,000 people or playing for virtually no one, which we have done. I was so envious of him when Covid hit. Gerry does this amazing one man band thing that was perfect for streaming shows during the lockdown. I just couldn’t get into that, found it hard to connect with the camera.
“So I lost my mind, had a breakdown. That lead to me seeing a psychologist, who diagnosed me with bi-polar disorder. The first three medications they prescribed made me feel like a zombie. We finally found one that slowed the world down, gave me a chance to take a deep breath, leaving me wondering what I had been doing up to that point. So I spent three years hanging out with my kids. I also lost my heart. A lot of people don’t know what that means. My girlfriend moved to her sister’s place, and then she wasn’t here any more.
“A lot of musicians died, friends of mine like Eddie Shaw, Walter Scott, Jimmy & Syl Johnson. The one that crossed the line was Angie Leon Smith, who was Carl Weathersby’s ride or die drummer for many years. I went to his visitation. There were no other musicians there, until Pooky Styx (Melvin Carlisle, another drummer) showed up. I was so mad that other musicians weren’t there. Maybe they were at his funeral in Chicago. Carl Weathersby, “Pops,” told me to let it go, that those moments show you who the real people are. We lost some other people like Marty Sammon that hit hard.
“The other thing that knocked me down was the day I got a call from my bass player, Aaron Whittier. He wanted to quit the band. I begged him not to. My heart dropped. I told him that if it was a money thing, I would give him what I was making. Aaron was worried about the pandemic, and he didn’t know what to do. He just couldn’t do it. From there, it was a downward spiral.”
Eventually Dennison started feeling the urge to make some music. He connected with a couple of guys, and they did several shows that did not quite live up to his standards. But the music was calling him home.
“I finally realized that I couldn’t let all of my friends, from Tyrone Davis to Marty Sammons, go like this. They taught me too much. It is time for me to go back to work. I got ahold of Gerry, told him to fire up the website, let’s go back to work. It would be nice if it was a turnkey operation, where you walk in and start things up. I built up my career over 35 years, then lost it overnight. It took three years to wake up, and say I was ready to work. I’m playing for myself now. I make music that makes me happy. I’m doing the jam night at LeRoy’s Hot Stuff in Porter, IN on Sunday nights. We have had plenty of cool guests, making that an uplifting experience. This has been my rebirth.”
Then Dennison reformed his band with Hundt on guitar, Whittier back in the fold on bass, and Rick King on drums. He also made the decision to flesh out the sound with an organ player, often using either Anthony Space or Daniel Souvigny, a member of Joanna Connor and Buddy Guy’s band.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1975, Dennison’s family moved around quite a bit, with stops in Georgia, a brief stay in Florida, and finally settling in Chesterton, Indiana, where he remembers getting a Michael Jackson Thriller jacket for Christmas. After his father was killed in an auto accident, his mother’s friend rescued them from homelessness.
“We lived with her for a few years until my Mom got her house in South Haven, IN when I was a sophomore in high school. My Dad worked construction with my uncles. They moved around to work on big projects, going where the money was. My Dad was killed in an accident in 1985 during the construction on the Klein Avenue Bypass heading into Chicago from Indiana.”
“We were coming home from a gig one night. My cousin, who was Carl’s road manager, was driving. I told him not to take Klein Avenue, that I hate that road. Then I fell asleep. When I woke up, we were on Klein Avenue. I got pretty upset. Carl asked me why I was so upset about that road, so I told him. Carl was surprised. He told me that he had been driving to work that day at US Steel. When he saw the accident, he ran over to help pull bodies from the wreckage. One of them was probably my Dad.
Carl had stuck around to talk with the wives of some of the people killed. When he first met my mother, he thought she looked familiar, but he couldn’t place her. Years later I am playing guitar in Carl’s band. It’s a strange world.”
Dennison’s love of music springs from his maternal grandmother’s passion for gospel music as well as Elvis and the Statler Brothers, while his mother was a child of the 1960s decade, listening to a wide variety of music that her son soaked up as it played in the house. He also had an uncle who had plenty of records to play.
“My grandmother use to own a couple of beauty salons. I would hang out there, where the music would be playing all day long, Motown and Top 40 stuff. Blues music didn’t come along until later. It just kind of found me through a couple of records in my uncle’s collection. The first one that I liked was The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions. The cartoon-like cover appealed to me. One listen and I was like, holy shit, what is that? I wanted more of that, so I looked through more albums, but didn’t find any more with that sound. So I started doing some research.
“Through the local library, I found a copy of the Freddie King greatest hits album. It had a yellow cover. I was introduced to Albert King by my uncle, who was a harmonica player. He would play at a club called Bugsy’s in Highlands. He would sneak me in, and I got to see Albert King several times before he passed. One day I went to my uncle’s house. There was this huge titan of a man sitting at the breakfast table. I asked him where my uncle was, and he replied, went to the gas station.
“I went downstairs and started practicing. Later, my uncle said it was time to go. We went to Bugsy’s, and that giant man was on stage. It was Albert. I didn’t know what he looked like, as they didn’t always have pictures on a lot of album. He was a friend of my uncle. I had heard his records but didn’t know how important he was. My uncle was also knew Big Daddy Kinsey. I had a really blessed childhood, as a lot of the cats I know today are people I listened to when I was a kid.”
Getting a toy plastic guitar as a present from his grandmother after a trip to Mexico, Dennison fooled around with it starting at age five. Then at the age of nine, he started learning how to play in earnest, his Uncle Wade teaching him his first real guitar chord and song.
“ I had never had a real lesson until Covid. I am a big fan of Jon Cleary and The Absolute Monster Gentlemen. I noticed on Facebook that his guitar player, Derwin “Big D” Perkins, was offering to do guitar lessons if anyone was interested. I messaged him, and we set up a time for a FaceTime call. It started at 5 pm, and ended at midnight. We played a bit and talked a lot. I sent him more money than he was asking for. I got more out of that lesson than he realized.”
Anyone who has heard Dennison walks away knowing that he has an abiding passion for blues music. But listen closely, especially to his vocals, and you will come to appreciate how soul music has added layers of rich texture to his musical artistry.
“I stumbled upon soul music. I remember hearing “My Girl” by the Temptations, and Curtis Mayfield for the first time. They grabbed me, made me stop, slow down, and take a breath. That’s where my heart lies. When I started playing for Carl, that is when I really dug deep. Carl loves soul music. Once we were playing a gig in Philadelphia. I asked him why we weren’t playing more blues songs. He said, we are in Philadelphia, it’s a soul town. Everywhere we go, we will change it. Pay attention. It wasn’t always as hardcore blues with him all the time as people might think. When we went down south, we did more soul oriented sets. In Chicago, we would fire on every cylinder.
“Traveling with him, or through phone calls at home, he would hit me with stuff. Hey, you need to listen to Isaac Hayes. Ok, which song? He’d say, Isaac Hayes. In those days, it was Napster. I would download every album I could find by Isaac. Playing with Carl turned me on to a whole different world of soul music. I got to meet and play with artists like Tyrone Davis, Otis Clay, and Syl Johnson. They didn’t know it, but those experiences were shaping and molding me into who I am. These days I tell the younger kids today that they will never get the experience and education that I got. I feel terrible about it. I guess it is my turn to give them that education, but a lot of the young kids don’t listen. I was truly blessed.
“Paul Hendricks was Carl’s old guitar player. We were good friends. We also had a mutual friend, who right before he died, told Paul, ”Corey’s got it in him. You have to help him find it.” Kirby was a cool old dude. My song “Phone Keeps Ringing” is about him. A lot of folks think it is about my dad, but it is about Kirby. So Paul gave me a lot of stuff to listen to, including some of Carl’s stuff. It was cool stuff. I had already been in a couple bands at that point. Then around 1999, Paul invited me to the Blues on the Fox festival in Aurora, IL. That was when I met Carl. He came out on stage in a cream colored suit with a black shirt. I fell madly in love. I had a bromance moment. I told my girlfriend at the time that I was going to play guitar for that guy.
“Carl’s voice overwhelmed me. I feel peoples’ energy & vibes. It felt like I needed to be around the guy. So I chased Carl for several years. I would get asked to sit in with him, but I would always beg off. One night I saw he was playing at Legends, so I decided to go. When Carl asked me me to sit in, I decided to do it, and played all night long. He tried to pay me at the end! I refused to take the money. He did something for me that no one else could do. Then he asked for my phone number. The next night, he called and we talked for something like six hours. Then he offered me my first gig with him for the Toronto International Beaches Jazz festival. That was where I first met Gerry Hundt, who was with the Nick Moss band.”
“To me, a lot of music out there lacks that heart. That is what surprised me on my recent trip to Florida. (Dennison was part of the band backing Nora Jean Wallace at the 2022 Bradenton Blues Festival). I wasn’t expecting what I heard. Doug Deming is the shit! I was floored because those guys were playing the real stuff. Usually when we go somewhere, we go out to check out the scene, but often I quickly end up going back to the hotel or hitting up Planet Fitness. Then I find out that Florida has their own Joel Paterson and nobody told me about him.
“In my view, no one of my generation of musicians is taking it to the next level. Omar Coleman is one of the baddest blues artists out there right now. He’s got it all – attitude, the sound, the songs, and he is a great harmonica player. He is groovy, and people dig it. Mike Wheeler is a force to reckon with. Guitarist Nate Manos is another name to remember. He has a unique voice that sounds amazing. I don’t know why he doesn’t have his own band.”
For equipment, the guitarist has a number of Gibson models in his collection, including a ES-335, and ES-345. The ES-335 has had the head stock broken about 20 times, but still feels like home. The sunburst ES-345 was ’64 reissue that he bought from fellow guitarist Linsey Alexander with the money Air France gave him for breaking the head-stock on his ES-335 while Dennison was flying to France to accept the 2016 Le Prix Blues Award for his first album on Delmark Records. The guitar now looks like it has been through WW II, definitely a guitar with stories. For amplification, Dennison uses a Quilter 101 Mini Head with a Laney Cub-212 cabinet.
“No pedals, just the cord, the amp, and the guitar in my hands. I call that combination “the truth”. I love the way it sounds, and it will be the sound I want to get on my new record. It has made me a better player. Gerry got me a reverb unit some time ago. It broke, so I have been playing dry for awhile. It has taught me how to really dial in a good sound, to learn the volume and tone knobs on the guitar, and to listen to a room to understand it’s reverb characteristics. I don’t play as loud as a result”
The band opened for Buddy Guy recently at Legends as part of Guy’s annual residency at the club. They also will be playing four festivals in Europe later in the year. Once they heard that Dennison was playing and available, the festival promoters all immediately sent offers for appearances.
“I am very thankful that they didn’t give up hope on us, and neither did the clubs. We just needed a vacation. We are building things back up. I have new songs on the way. There will be a new album eventually. I haven’t had a cigarette in ten months, so I have been retraining my voice on how to sing. I have been listening to soul singers plus a lot of newer R&B vocalists. I noticed that many of those artists are doing singles, not doing full albums. Gerry and I have been talking about doing something like that. Bottom line is that I love music. And I hope my fans understand that, along with the fact that I am not as crazy as I may look in some of the pictures you see!”