Featured Interview – Bob Corritore

bob corritore photo 1Folks in the blues world recognize Chicago-born Bob Corritore as one of the foremost traditional harmonica players on the planet, but he’s much, much more.

The niche he’s carved out as a musician since setting foot on stage for the first time is beyond reproach. He served as the face of Hohner’s 532 line of harmonicas around the same time in 2012 that Living Blues magazine honored him as its harp player of the year. And, this past September, he took home traditional album of the year honors in the 2019 Blues Blast Music Awards.

Despite six nominations for Blues Music Awards, including the historical album of the year prize in 2011 for Harmonica Blues, Corritore remains modest and understated about his own contributions, working tirelessly at the grassroots level to promote the music and the folks who continue to breathe new life into the Chicago blues tradition.

Based out of Phoenix, Ariz., since the early ‘80s, where he owns and operated The Rhythm Room, a must-visit club on the blues highway, he’s a staunch proponent of the old-school sounds. In his spare time, he spreads that love via a five-hour radio show. And he also publishes the occasional newsletter.

Still vigorous at age 63, he rarely refuses an opportunity to hopscotch the earth to spread the Chicago blues gospel, all the while preferring to remain more of a footnote than a star.

“I humbly try to be a servant to the music that I love so much,” he told Blues Blast in a recent exclusive interview. “My job as a harmonica player is to create the soundscape for whoever the focus person is to sound great.”

He’s been hooked on the blues since listening as a child to a radio broadcast of Muddy Waters singing “Rolling Stone” and the music’s served as his life’s inspiration ever since.

Bob was born in Chicago on Sept. 27, 1956, the son of printing company owner Sam Corritore and his wife Bernice, and grew up in suburban Evanston, where his mother had attended Northwestern University. Raised in a family with a strong work ethic and old-school sensibilities, he was encouraged to play an instrument, first trying his hand at flute then guitar and viola.

Already a blues lover, he’s been playing harp since age 12, when his brother John, one year his senior, brought an instrument home and handed it to him along with Tony “Little Son” Glover’s Blues Harp, which was the go-to instructional book of the era. It was John who taught Bob how to bend reeds and produce the “blue” notes that were rapidly taking over his life.

“Back then, we didn’t have the instructional videos or formal online lessons people are getting nowadays,” Corritore says today. “You really had to sit back and try to figure this stuff out, play along with records and do your best to emulate the sounds. And then, like now, you have to put your time in with your instrument. What you put in is what you get out.

“Almost immediately after hearing Muddy, I recognized that there was something really powerful about that blues sound, and it was really specific. There was a language being spoken, and it didn’t matter who was doing it.

“There was something that was a unique vocabulary – so Chicago — and everybody made their own conversation with it, reflecting our surroundings – an extension of the soul, but with a grittiness of the city.”

Corritore was already teaching himself “how to coax all of those sounds” out of the instrument while attending New Trier East High School. He devoted his junior-year theme to Muddy, and Waters actually played for him and the rest of the student body a year later.

For Bob, the blues truly came calling that day. As he sat in the audience that afternoon, he had no idea that, as time progressed, he’d eventually share the stage with several of the musicians on that stage – piano player Pinetop Perkins, percussionist Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and guitarist Bob Margolin among them.

It was an accident of birth that Corritore was raised in such close proximity to such great music. And it was his good fortune to be growing up in an era where you didn’t have to be of legal drinking age or drive a car to see the superstars in action.

Back then, even the best players in the city were appearing in pizza parlors and coffeehouses where liquor wasn’t being served. For young enthusiasts like Bob, they were only a short bus or L ride away.

bob corritore photo 2“The first show I ever saw was the Sam Lay Blues Revival with Eddie Taylor, Wild Child Butler and Detroit Junior,” Corritore remembers fondly. “He had a big revue show that had Lucille Spann and Johnny Twist come out as special guests. I was knocked out immediately by the power of the live blues sound.

“And every Tuesday, you could go over to a pizza place not far from my house to see Blind Jim Brewer or Northwestern University, where I saw Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, Memphis Piano Red, Houston Stackhouse and Joe Willie Wilkins or go down to Maxwell Street and see Big Walter Horton. It was an amazing time to hear all this great music.”

At night, he’d tune in to Best of Blues, a show on Northwestern’s radio station, “and we’d go to Paul’s Recorded Music in downtown Wilmette and later, Jazz Record Mart in Chicago, and pick up a few albums.

“Those records would be my obsession for the next few weeks until I got enough money to get the next albums,” he says. “There was so-o-o much blues out there – and I’d take every crumb that I could get…as much as humanly possible.”

Woodshedding with high school friends eventually resulted in a few gigs, but Corritore’s first experience playing with a real bluesman took place at Maxwell Street, the legendary shopping district and open-air flea market a mile southwest of the Loop that existed before urban renewal.

“John Henry Davis let me play for five or six numbers,” he recalls, “and it felt really good. He didn’t know me. He said: ‘How ‘bout it for the white boy?’

“They were just keeping a steady flow up there playing. And Porkchop, this little guy with a cigar box, walked around for tips. It was an amazing scenario. These blue guys had this lived-in character that was so charismatic – and so effortless — which was part of my attraction to the music. There’s something to be said about the whole attitude of the blues…the spacing and texture of it.

“As I started learning how to play, I strived to figure out how to get that nuanced sound. You couldn’t put your finger on it, but you knew it was there…how people hit the notes, and the phrasing, how it’s inter-phasing with the vocal and the groove. That’s something that’s sacred and uniquely Chicago.

“These guys were probably in their 40s and 50s at the time, and I was thinking: ‘This is the kind of cool music you can play when you’re older. This music never goes out of style because it’s from the heart.

“Here I am now – in my 60s – going: ‘Oh, God…’ (laughs)”

Corritore’s first venture into a real blues club came at age 18 at Biddy Mulligan’s during the Thanksgiving holidays in 1974 to see the Bob Reidy Blues Band. Located just south of Evanston on the far North Side of Chicago, it was a large room that hosted a who’s who of blues and rock acts for decades.

One of the hottest acts in the city at the time, Reidy was a talented keyboard player and tireless producer who fronted a large ensemble revue of his own. That night, the roster included Eddy Clearwater, Carey Bell and John Littlejohn.

Reidy also was also one of the most important people of the era who introduced blues to the city’s now-flourishing North Side, luring J.B. Hutto and The Hawks, Koko Taylor, Otis Rush, Little Mack Simmons and others away from their segregated West and South Side haunts and creating new, white audiences for them in foreign neighborhoods north of the Loop.

Looking back today, Corritore says, “he represented an example of how you could run a business, be a bandleader – and how to be a platform for some of the older blues greats.”

Decades later, Bob’s still amazed at the openness the blues community showed toward young musicians in that era: “I used to go see Koko Taylor, and sit with her and (her husband) Pops and her band on the break.

“I was always surprised that she and others would invite a little punk kid like me into such a sacred world – that I could feel they were connected to me in a personal way.”

bob corritore photo 3The same held true for members of Howlin’ Wolf’s band. Even though Corritore was too intimated to approach the star himself, Hubert Sumlin, Detroit Junior and Bobby Henderson were always friendly, accepting and kind. So, too, was Louis Myers, who as a member of Little Walter’s backing band, The Aces, helped forge the Chicago sound.

“At first, I thought he was just tolerating me because I asked a lot of questions,” Bob recalls. “Every word out of his mouth was a pearl (of wisdom). I think he got a kick out of the fact that he could just sit back and tell a story and I’d just listen with wide-eyed amazement.”

Corritore realized their relationship was more intimate the day that Myers invited him and two other young bluesmen – Dave Waldman and Illinois Slim – to his home to listen to a test pressing of a new album prior to its release.

And several top harp masters in the city – Myers, his brother Bob, Lester Davenport, Big Leon Brooks, Little Willie Anderson, Little Mack and Big Walter among them – all took him under their wing with informal lessons and gave him the opportunity to develop his skills by sitting in during their gigs.

“Every time I showed up, I was expected to play some,” he says.

During that era, Corritore’s parents wanted him to pursue a college education and find a decent day job, believing he could still play blues as a hobby. To that end, he attended the University of Tulsa as a business major while simultaneously making a name for himself in T-Town.

Standing out because he was the only harp player around delivering the genuine Chicago sound, he went to classes by day and used a fake ID at night to get around liquor laws and play as a member of the Tulsa Blues Band and other groups in bars. During breaks, he’d return home and continue his training as he got to sit in with The Aces, Lonnie Brooks, Sunnyland Slim, Mighty Joe Young and others.

After graduation, a part-time summer job at Sound Unlimited – then a major music distributor in the Windy City — led to a full time gig with Bob joining a team that helped the company transition into the computer age.

Corritore’s first paying gig came at age 23 when he backed blues singer Willie Buck in a lineup that included Louis Myers, Odie Payne Jr., Dave Myers and Johnny “Big Moose” Walker. He worked dozens of the smaller clubs that flourished in the rougher parts of the city with Buck and also appeared with Tail Dragger occasionally at the Delta Fish Market.

“As I got further along in the playing part of my development, I found that I was playing on the West and South Sides a lot – and for not a lot of money,” he recalls. “And some of those areas were a little bit dangerous.”

But that was no deterrence.

“When I came back to Chicago, I was in it all the way,” he insists.

In 1981, Corritore started his own record label, called Blues Over Blues, in an effort to document some of the great, unsung harmonica heroes he encountered in the city. “There were a lot of people who were falling by the wayside,” he says. “The city that had an embarrassment of wealth beyond compare, and they were being overlooked.”

It was also the period where both the Delmark and Alligator labels were just beginning to rise to importance and slightly prior to the arrival of the Austrian imprint, Wolf, which later began documenting many previously overlooked artists.

Corritore’s first release was Swinging the Blues by Little Willie Anderson, who’d worked as Little Walter’s valet and had prodigious harp skills himself. He emulated Walter so much, Bob says, that when Walter injured a leg, Willie limped on the same side, too.

Produced with the assistance of future Grammy winner Dick Shurman and Delmark owner Bob Koester, it proved to be the only album Anderson ever recorded. Featuring several of Walter’s former band mates, the LP became a minor hit and was eventually reissued as a CD by the Earwig imprint.

A second release, Big Leon Brooks’ Let’s Go to Town, came out a year later and was Brooks’ only full-length appearance on vinyl after being featured twice in Alligator’s important Living Chicago Blues series.

“Big Leon was such a kind soul,” Corritore recalls, “and such a fine harmonica player. Steve Wisner (who owned the Mr. Blues label) and I came up with the idea to record him. By the time we finally put our money together, we went to see him at his regular gig, backing Tail Dragger at the Golden Slipper. But he wasn’t there. He was in the hospital. We went to see him a day or two later and told him: ‘Leon, we want you to get better so we can make this album.’ He said: ‘I’ll try.’

bob corritore photo 4“He did, and made a great record. But right after that, he passed away. The last thing he did in his life was an interview with (Living Blues magazine founder) Jim O’Neal for the liner notes. He died that night – almost as if he knew that his job on earth was done.

“Fortunately, though, he did get to hear it. I made a test pressing and drove him to my apartment, where he listened to it on my stereo and said: ‘Bob, thank you so much! I never thought that I would make music that would sound as good, and I’m really grateful.’”

Despite those early accomplishments, however, Corritore was conflicted.

“Even though everybody I associated with were angels,” he says, “there was a small percentage of people living a desperate lifestyle around me that involved guns. I was trying to figure out how this was supposed to play into my future — and, quite frankly, I was confused.”

And he also realized that he couldn’t keep his day job for very much longer if he wanted a career in music. Complicating matters even more, he was making about $25 a night as a sideman – not enough to survive on that alone for very long in the Windy City. And the gigs ran until 3 or 4 a.m., making it virtually impossible to get up and go to work the next morning.

Fortunately, Bob’s brother John provided a lifeline. He’d attended Arizona State University and settled in Phoenix after graduation, and he invited his sibling out for an extended stay.

“I said: ‘I’ll come out for a year,’” Bob remembers, thinking it would be enough time to clear his head. “I loved the idea of warm winters and the thought that I’d finally be able to figure out what I was supposed to do in my life – whether it was to play music or hold a day gig, which my parents – who moved down there a short while later — had always wanted.”

Corritore was only in Phoenix a few days when the phone rang and his dye in life was cast for good.

He’d exchanged telephone numbers with Louisiana Red after accompanying him a couple of times at the Fish Market, and Red was on the line, asking where Bob was located after getting a forwarding number.

“I told him: ‘Phoenix,’” Bob recalls. “He goes: ‘Really? I know a woman out there, Eunice Davis, and I’m thinkin’ about comin’ out.’

“I told him: ‘If you do, let’s get some gigs.’ A few weeks later, Red calls again and says: ‘Bob, I’m here over at Eunice’s. C’mon by.’”

He wasn’t there for long, however. A week and a half passed before Eunice called and insisted that Corritore pick up Red because he’d already overstayed his welcome.

“He would have been homeless if I hadn’t taken him in,” Corritore says. “My brother wasn’t exactly happy about having a new guest. But in the end, we all became family.”

The pair worked together both as a duo and full band for the next year. “For that period, we were brothers,” Bob notes, “and I was family to him for the rest of his life. We played every day, got gigs and pooled our resources. I also took a little part-time day job to make ends meet.”

bob corritore photo 5Their separation came after Red embarked on a European tour, fell in love and settled with his new bride in Germany.

Corritore subsequently joined a succession of bands led by local favorites Tommy Dukes, Buddy Reed and Chief Schabuttie Gilliame as well as Big Pete Pearson — Arizona’s king of the blues, a young Janiva Magness and then Chico Chism, one of the foremost drummers in Chicago, who moved west to join him in 1986.

A native of Shreveport, La., and the first person inductee into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame, Chism was Howlin’ Wolf’s last drummer and worked extensively with Otis Rush, T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Lowell Fulson, Eddie Shaw and Junior Wells. He also owned the Cher-Kee label, which – like Bob’s Blues Over Blues — recorded other lesser-known Chicagoans.

He and Corritore were inseparable from the time of his arrival until his passing.

“I first met Chico in 1975,” Bob recalls. “Chico — being the gregarious guy that he was — and me — being the only white guy in the 1850 Club — he immediately came over to meet me during the break with his briefcase, filling me in on how important he was and trying to sell me some of his Cher-Kee 45s.

“I loved the guy, and we immediately became friends,” Bob says. “I had no idea that Chico would become such a big part of my life. He spent his last 20 years in Phoenix with me in a basic partnership. He worked with other folks, too, but when it was time for a recording session or gigs, we leaned on each other.

“And Chico really thrived in Phoenix, delivering the true behind-the-beat Chicago thing, which set up the sound for the whole band — something no one else was doing. People went nuts! We used to rock the house on a regular basis.

“In Chicago, he was loved and admired. But in Phoenix, he was the top banana…Chico Chism, the blues ambassador, the man who could really represent the music, its personality, its humor, its sorrow. He was doing a lot of good in the neighborhood.”

Like Chism and Reidy before him, without focusing on that aspect of his own life, Corritore has become a genuine ambassador, too.

He was at another crossroads in 1991 when — after performing about 200 shows a year for more than a decade — he wondered what his next step would be.

Out of the blue, the phone rang again. It was the owner of the building that formerly housed The Purple Turtle, the first club Bob had booked himself and Red into when he’d come to town.

“He wanted me to develop a business – a new nightclub — for him,” Bob recalls. “It quickly became obvious that he was willing to put up the investment capital and for me to have a role as the visionary and overseer.”

Shortly thereafter, The Rhythm Room was born.

“Big Pete played the first night,” Bob – who’s now sole owner – remembers. “Junior Watson the second, Chico the weekend – and all of a sudden, a new phase of my life happened. I became a presenter of blues and roots.

“I’d done before, but nothing like this!

“Then it went from there. We started booking national acts…Jesse Mae Hemphill, John Hammond, Guitar Shorty, Smokey Wilson, Junior Wells, Bo Diddley, Koko, Johnny Copeland, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and more.”

bob corritore photo 6Guest artists who sat in with the house band felt so comfortable with the house band anchored by Chism’s rock-steady beat that Corritore realized he had the opportunity to record them. Several of those efforts have been released on CD with far more still in the can.

The club has also been the place where several stellar live recordings have taken place, most notably Kim Wilson’s Smokin’ Joint, the CD/DVD Things Bring About a Change: A Floyd Dixon Celebration and Robert Jr. Lockwood’s The Legend Live, both of which were the artists’ final albums.

One of Corritore’s personal favorites is Chico Chism’s Chicago West Side Blues Party, a compilation of Chico’s ‘70s and ‘80s Cher-Kee recordings, which includes appearances by Eddie Shaw and The Wolf Gang, Hubert Sumlin, Highway Man, Billy Branch and others. Released after Chism had suffered a career ending stroke, it became a personal point of pride for him that endured until his death in 2007.

Bob can still see Chico tottering across the floor using his walker, peddling the disc to appreciative fans.

Corritore’s catalog now consists of 14 albums under his own name — several co-billed with Henry Gray, John Primer, Dave Riley, Tail Dragger and Big Jon Atkinson – and more than 100 appearances on works by other artists, most recently Ben Levin, Tony Holiday, Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry and Zac Harmon this year alone.

The Rhythm Room recently celebrated its 28th anniversary, and cultural and political changes have forced it to evolve into something more than the pure blues club it was when first opened, Bob says, facing the reality that he has to fill his seats consistently to keep his doors open seven days a week. But blues acts still dominate the lineup.

For years, Corritore penned a weekly newsletter to promote traditional blues because he saw that it was being given less and less attention in the mainstream press. After realizing how time-consuming it was to put it together and then facing the reality of having to publish obituaries for lost friends on an ever increasing basis, it’s become more of a promotional tool in the past couple of years.

“It simply became harder and harder for me to do,” he admits, especially after Facebook exploded in popularity, making the newsletter less relevant because it was able to disseminate information in a heartbeat.

But he’s still spreading the word in other ways.

Since 1984, Bob’s hosted Those Lowdown Blues, a weekly, five-hour radio show on KJZZ-FM in neighboring Tempe. Any blues lover can tune into it, though, because it’s simulcast on the internet at 6 p.m. Standard Mountain Time each Sunday.

“I became aware of the station through Louisiana Red, who asked me to play with him for an interview,” Corritore says. “A little while after Red left, I put in a proposal to do a blues show because I liked the vibe so much.

“At the time, I didn’t have any recording experience, but I had a great record collection. My voice was a little rough. But it’s smoothed out (laughs). I’ve gotten to be pretty decent!

“The show turned 35 years old last February. I don’t play a lot of new releases – mainly stuff from the ‘50s and ‘60s. But that’s the roots — and something I can uniquely offer because the other stuff’s available through other media.

bob corritore photo 7“Besides, I get to spend five hours a week listening to some of the music that’s closest to my heart.”

He prerecords shows when touring, something he’s done most recently in support of Don’t Let the Devil Ride, the 2019 Blues Blast Award winner, and his latest CD, Do the Hip-Shake Baby! Both are available on the Southwest Musical Arts Foundation imprint and feature him in concert with top talent from across America.

This year alone, Corritore’s performed in showcases at the International Blues Challenge and Blues Music Awards in Memphis the Pinetop Perkins Crawfish Boil in Clarksdale, Miss., and festivals across the U.S. and Canada in addition to regular appearances at his own club.

Next year’s shaping up to be busy, too. In May, he’ll be releasing The Gypsy Woman Told Me on VizzTone Records, sharing billing with his longtime friend, John Primer, a recent double Blues Blast winner himself.

“It’s a gritty Chicago blues record from the word ‘go,’” Corritore insists. “After all the R&B and rock-‘n’-roll we did on Do the Hip-Shake Baby!, this brings it right back to the Chicago root.

“It’s the third record I’ve done with John since 2013, and I think it’s by far the best, showing our bond and the enjoyment we get from playing music together.”

Recorded in Phoenix and at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in California, it features different all-star lineups that deliver primarily full-band, electric blues. But it also includes a couple of stripped-down acoustic surprises, too.

“I’ve known John since he was playing in the house band at Theresa’s in the ‘70s,” Bob says. “But when we did our first session – for the album Kickin’ Around with the Blues, we went: ‘Oh, my! Look what’s happening here!’ It just poured out. Ever since, our bond has grown in a really wonderful way.”

“He’s got a great band right now with the tremendous Steve Bell – Carey’s son — on harmonica. But when John and I get together for special events, it’s a Chicago blues throwdown. Whatever it is, it works. I just think the world of John Primer as a human being.”

The duo are looking forward to working together in Italy next May about the same time their new disc hits the street. Right now, however, Bob’s busy working on other ideas, which involve recording new material for future projects, giving new life to albums that are currently out of print and scouring his vaults for unreleased material laid down by Red, Henry Gray and others that might make excellent new releases, too.

Through it all, Corritore remains grateful.

“I’d like to thank all of the readers of Blues Blast Magazine for voting for my album this year,” he says. “It was really an honor to walk away with that award. I didn’t really expect it because there were so many amazing records in that category. I hope to live up to this honor in the future on the path I’ve been going.”

Check out where Corritore’s path is taking him next by visiting www.bobcorritore.com, check out the schedule of The Rhythm Room at www.rhythmroom.com and tune in to his radio show by visiting www.kjzz.org on Sunday nights.

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