Featured Interview – Bob Corritore

In the winter of 1956, Willie Dixon penned the now-classic “I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love” and Muddy Waters took the song into Chess Studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago and turned it into a fire-breathing monster.

Around that same time – in September of 1956 – Bob Corritore was born in the Windy City.

Coincidence …? Maybe not, especially when factoring in what a massive impact hearing Muddy Waters on the radio at age 12 – and then seeing the legend up-close-and-personal at a performance in his high school gymnasium – would have upon young Bob Corritore.

But one thing’s for sure; while “I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love” is not Corritore’s official theme song, it really should be, because that title fits the Phoenix-based blues impresario to a ‘T.’

You don’t have to get very deep into a conversation with Corritore to understand that he feels he is exactly where he’s supposed to be, doing exactly what he’s supposed to do, loving every single minute along the way.

“Well, I really enjoy everything that I do, so when I wake up first thing in the morning, I’m excited about what the day will bring. I just really thrive on the satisfaction that this work brings me,” he recently said. “It’s really fun and great work and I feel like it’s purposeful. I feel like there’s something to be said with what I’m doing and it’s important for me to have that statement.”

Corritore’s resume reads like a virtual audition for the annual title of ‘Busiest Person in Blues Endeavors.’ Not only does Corritore blow a mean harp; he’s an award-winning song-writer and an accomplished producer; he pens a regular e-news letter; he’s a longtime disc jockey and is also the proprietor of a live music landmark in Phoenix – The Rhythm Room. And oh, yeah – he’s played and befriended everyone from Louisiana Red, Sam Lay, Chico Chism, Eddy Clearwater … to everyone in between. In other words, it’s been one heck of a ride so far for Bob Corritore. That ride shows no signs of slowing down, and with a recent respite from the road, he’s been spending some valuable time re-organizing his nightclub.

“I have been putting a lot of concentration on The Rhythm Room lately; we’ve kind of been rebuilding over there. My wonderful manager of 17 years – Mona – left the organization last year and we’ve been forced to look at a new way of running the place in her absence,” he said. “That has actually turned out to be a powerful and positive thing, because there’s a lot of talented people that work in our music venue and they’ve really stepped up to the plate and are doing a great job. We’ve made some really big strides and are putting on some really great shows. The really great thing about having a nightclub is that even in the periods when I’m not touring, I can still make it a very exciting time for myself on my home base at The Rhythm Room.”

When stars such as John Primer, Big Jack Johnson or Smokey Wilson would roll through Phoenix, they found a razor-sharp backing band upon their arrival – the Rhythm Room All-Stars. The latest version of that group, in addition to Corritore, features Big Jon Atkinson, Troy Sandow, Danny Michel and Brian Fahey.

“We’re kind of serving as a backing band for a number of things. We just recently did Henry Gray’s 90th birthday party and we’ve done a stand-alone show and have backed up John Primer, so we’re doing some really fun stuff,” said Corritore. “We also use Mojo Mark and Kedar Roy, so we can kind of adapt to the needs of the individual artists.”

As it always is, the entertainment calendar at The Rhythm Room (www.rhythmroom.com) is stuffed to the gills with all kinds of tasty music on tap in the near future.

“We’ve got a Henry Gray CD release party coming up; we’ll do some shows with Darrell Nulisch, along with Taildragger and Rockin’ Johnny, so we’ve got some really cool shows happening,” he said. “And Willie Buck will be joining us, so we’ve put together some really fun things that I’m looking forward to.”

Between all the gigs at The Rhythm Room and his myriad of other daily tasks, Corritore is busy readying what looks to be a super tasty treat for blues lovers the world over to devour this summer.

“The next record that will be out is scheduled for June 16 on Delta Groove, and it will be the Henry Gray/Bob Corritore Sessions Vol. 1 – Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest. It will be a collection of different things that Henry and I have done over the last 19 years. I’ve been working with Henry since 1996,” he said. “We’ve done all these great sessions and this first volume just has a wonderful collection of songs – everything from the first session we did in January of 1996, all the way to the session we did on his 90th birthday party on January 19, 2015. We had him in the studio recording on his actual birthday and I tell you, he’s still kicking and has no signs of slowing down. When I grow up, I want to be like Henry Gray. Some of the sessions have great guitar work from Bob Margolin, some with Kid Ramos and some with Robert Lockwood, Jr. Henry sings vocals on nine of the 14 songs that are there and then we have one vocal each by Robert Lockwood, Jr., John Brim, Nappy Brown, Dave Riley and Taildragger. Of the 14 tracks, only four have been out before.”

The last studio album issued under Corritore’s own name was the marvelous Taboo (Delta Groove) – an all-instrumental affair that had several interesting twists and turns during its birth and ended up being a special journey for its creator.

Taboo was such a powerful release and it took me into a different and exotic side of the blues. The cool thing about that record is, I’m a Chicago blues, down-home player, but this record went into a decidedly more uptown, more west coast kind of thing. I knew that it was going to be a very challenging record to cut and it took a lot of woodsheding and a lot of thought to make,” he said. “When you make an instrumental record, you don’t want it to sound like a vocal song without the vocals. For years, I’ve loved the art of an instrumental record; I’ve marveled at it and enjoyed it. There’s a particular strategy involved that is about the groove and the melody and the mood and having a very concentrated little capsule of sound that takes you to a certain place and tells you a certain story. That’s what I tried to accomplish with all of that (Taboo).”

Accomplish that he most certainly did, with some very capable help rendered from an ‘A-Team’ of special guests.

“On the majority of the record, there were some fantastic west coast players – like Fred Kaplan, who helped me interface with the other guys, and his all-instrumental record, Hold My Mule was a bit of an inspiration for me to do my record. And there was Junior Watson, who is simply a guitar genius, along with Richard Innes and Kedar Roy. Here were the building blocks for whatever you wanted to do. These guys are so versatile and so musical and so lyrical in their playing that it made it a very fun project. The other thing is, these guys are total pros. They would take these raw ideas that I had and run with them and make them into beautiful songs, sometimes in ways I never would have imagined.”

There was a bit of last-minute, Texas-sized swagger that arrived late in the tracking for Taboo, as well.

“After we had done two sessions and pretty-much had a record, I had the extreme privilege of catching Jimmie Vaughan in town and he was agreeable to doing a couple of hours in the studio with me, and from that we came up with two wonderful instrumentals (“Mr. Tate’s Advice” and “Shuff Stuff”) and had a blast doing it,” Corritore said. “And we had Papa John Defrancesco in the midst of all that, along with Doug James, who played sax. It was really just a fun little throw-down. That album was really fun, because I got to interact with some of the best players in the world. And we all fed off each other.”

Having a steady parade of such incredible players in and out of the studio might be a tad un-nerving – or at the very least make for a bit of a pause – for some players, but for Corritore, that’s simply business as usual. He’s made a career out of sharing the bandstand and the studio with musicians that run the whole spectrum of roots-related music and he’s practically written the book on playing with anyone, at any time, regardless of the situation or the location.

“I do pride myself on being able to jump into situations and make it sound real and right and in the moment, making it sound like we’ve been playing together for years, when maybe we’ve not,” he said. “My philosophy has always been to try and fit into what makes the song work … what makes a particular role in a band work. I really enjoy being able to feed off different sounds and I try and do my best to give the appropriate accompaniment that will add something to all of that. If I can do that, I’ve done my job.”

One of Corritore’s main running partners the past decade or so has been the one-and-only Dave Riley. Together, Corritore and Riley have issued three amazing CDs, discs that take things back to the purest form of the blues, with just one voice, one guitar and one harmonica … and one heck of a lot of fun.

“When Dave and I get together, it is the pure, down-home blues, like nobody’s business. Dave and I have created something that’s uniquely ours and we can take it anywhere and play it for anybody and it works,” Corritore said. “There’s a certain simplicity to good, down-home blues – not that it’s simple to play – but there’s just a simple pleasure there that’s undeniable and Dave has the voice and the guitar style to pull that off. That makes me want to play and that happened the very first time we played together and it’s been happening ever since. It’s a natural thing.”

Despite the fact that one might be hard-pressed to find two more different people – and personalities – Corritore and Riley blend together smoother and tastier than peanut butter and jelly.

“Dave and I are completely different people; Dave is a country boy and I’m a city boy and in our 10 years of working together – which we just recently celebrated – we’ve been toe-to-toe a few times on how you should run a business of music,” said Corritore. “But within all of that, we love each other so much and we love when we get together and play … it’s a very powerful statement for both of us. We find our way through our differences and make it into something that really, really works. We’ve had some great moments in the time of our lives together. We’ve done a heck of a lot together and not only that, but Dave is one of the most hysterical people, ever. I feel very blessed to have Dave Riley as my neighbor, my partner and my friend.”

Venues that provide live blues music on a regular basis – truth be told, all clubs that feature live music, not strictly limited to just the blues – seem to be open one day and then permanently closed down the next. And while Corritore has no doubt faced his own challenges since christening The Rhythm Room way back in 1991, he’s proven that he’s a shrewd businessman and has been able to adapt to a number of different economic climates over the years.

“Well, after Sept. 11, 2001, I think all the rules changed. It just became a different market for the blues. Prior to that, I was able to book blues and roots-related music every night of the week. After that, I had to be a lot more careful during the week and incorporate all types of music, which I think is not a bad thing to do, because I love all types of music,” he said. “In doing that, we’ve been able to cross-pollinate some of the audiences that might come to see an indie rock show and when they see The Rhythm Room has a fun vibe, they might come back to see some blues on the weekend. I’ve found there’s a really nice crossover that can happen when you do that. Of course, weekends – Friday and Saturdays – are devoted to the blues. We have blues through the week, too, but we’re not specific to the blues, other than on Friday and Saturday nights. The Rhythm Room will take you to a number of different places. Music is from the soul and it all has its unique appeal and I’m all about that.”

Maybe it was part of the initial plan, or maybe it was another thing that he cultivated along the way, but when Corritore opened The Rhythm Room, that also helped open the door to a number of recording sessions with some of the richest names in the blues as guests of honor.

“In tandem with performing at the club, we coupled recording sessions with that, and as some of the older veterans that I admired were coming through town, I invited them into the recording studio as an additional gig and more often than not, people accepted the invitation,” Corritore said. “So I’m sitting on a treasure chest of these great recordings that I hope in my life, I’m able to get out. There’s just a huge backlog of sessions from the last 20 years … unreleased songs by Bo Diddley and Jimmy Rogers, Little Milton … just fantastic recordings that I hope to be able to get out someday. There’s just so many great sides that I hope to get out, and as time and money permits, I try and squeak out a release or two a year. I hope to continue to do that as long as I can, while I’m still working on new projects, so I can keep my foot both in the future and in the past.”

Corritore’s radio program on station KJZZ – Those Lowdown Blues – has been a fixture on Phoenix-area dials for an impressive 31 years now (the show can be heard Sundays from 6-11 p.m., Standard Mountain Time at www.kjzz.org). While it’s by no means easy to program five hours of blues music to spin over the airwaves every week, having his own radio show seems to be as pleasurable as it is labor-intensive for Corritore.

“I have a very traditionally-based radio show and go at it from a really historical perspective. About 90-percent of what I play on the show is from the 1950s. I play new releases, but they’re from artists that are very traditional. I play the pre-war stuff and I’ll hang out in the ‘60s a bunch and play some of the crossover music – R&B, soul, gospel and of course, Zydeco music and some early rock-n-roll. To me, that all fits in the blues family,” he said. “It’s just a great way, over a five-hour period, to take people on a guided tour of the blues. And I also get to have five hours in my busy schedule to sit back and enjoy the music that I love the most. I feel it’s a true privilege to be able to share the music with others that’s been so important in my life.”

In a lot of ways, music in the present day resembles a giant boiling pot of gumbo, with genres and styles being mixed and matched and stirred together on a regular basis. Yesterday’s ‘alternative rock’ has become today’s ‘classic rock’ and the soul and R&B music of years past has morphed into a new strain of hip-hop. Blues music, too, has undergone its share of reinvention along the way, but Corritore says the mother of all music is still as vibrant as ever.

“The blues continues to grow and change and I think that’s only normal and healthy. Obviously, people like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter – the forefathers and the basis for this music – are moving further and further into the past with each year. But as you would know by attending the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, the blues is alive and well,” he said. “Now it’s got a whole youthful movement to it. I’m really enjoying playing with 26-year-old Big Jon Atkinson and I recently met Kyle Rowland from the Bay Area, who is a really fine harmonica player that is only 19 years old. And there’s a guy named Nick Clark from Colorado, who is probably only in his 20s that is a great harmonica player. Then there’s this skateboard kid – Carson Diersing – who shows a tremendous amount of promise on the harp; he’s got a really good sound. I’m also completely impressed by Kingfish and Mookie out of Clarksdale. Those young men really have the thing. And I just worked with Sadie Johnson for a Blue Star Connection event. She’s an incredible talent. Jacob Huffman – the harmonica player from the 44s – just turned 20 and plays like a seasoned veteran. It’s really nice to see the new blood come out and play the music. These are guys that never got to see Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, but they sure have looked at every one of their YouTube clips and have studied the music and have learned the language and are now finding their own conversation. It’s very exciting.”

“You know, back in the ‘50s, this (blues) was the music of hits. I don’t think we can say that now, but within all of that, there is a very alive-and-well underground that’s keeping everything going. I don’t see that dying out … ever. I think it’s just too strong to ever die.”

A lot of time has gone by since the days that Corritore fell under the spell of Muddy Waters back in his hometown and picked up a harmonica for the first time. In a cool twist of fate – something that sounds like it was plucked from the pages of a fairy tale – later on in his life, Corritore ended up having the chance to share the bandstand with a number of musicians that were in Muddy’s band the first time he saw them live and in person.

“I had no idea that I would be able to work with some of the artists that I saw right there; like Pinetop Perkins, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and Bob Margolin,” he said. “I just had no idea that would be the case and my life would become so far involved in being an extension of that tradition. I’m real proud of that. And I’ve worked with Muddy’s son – Mud Morganfield – and produced records for Mojo Buford, and John Primer is a dear friend and we’ve worked and toured Europe together … I’m in it deep.”

Despite all that has happened in his life since his early days in Chicago, Corritore still remembers the immediate impact those first encounters with Muddy had on him like they occurred only yesterday.

“As soon as I heard Muddy – which was many years before I ever saw him, I must have been 12 or 13 – at that point, I knew it was music that I loved. It was rock-n-roll in its purest form and that was everything that I wanted musically,” he said. “From that moment forward, my life was moving in that direction. Of course, I was raised in a family that made sure I was college-educated and told me I should have a career in business, but at a point, it became very apparent to me that I had no choice but to have a life in music. I have been able to incorporate business and music together, but there’s no way I could live without the music. It’s the main thrust of what I do. I would feel very unfulfilled and incomplete if I did not have music in my life.”

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