Featured Interview – Dave Riley

Where there’s a will, there has to be a way.

And rules be danged, but young Dave Riley was going to do whatever it took to catch Howlin’ Wolf doing his thing.

On the West Side of Chicago in the early 1960s, state law said that young ‘uns, like Riley was at the time, were not allowed to venture into the local clubs and juke joints, hotspots where men like The Wolf and Muddy Waters were playing on a nightly basis.

So instead of actually setting foot inside those clubs, the resourceful Riley came up with another solution.

“Eddie Shaw had a club not far from where we lived,” Riley said. “We wanted to see The Wolf and them, but we weren’t supposed to go in. So instead, we’d go in the alley and stand or sit on some milk crates to watch ‘em, through the window or door. Oh, man, I used to just love that.”

That determination to accomplish a task, no matter what the odds, has served Riley well, whether in his day job as a prison guard, or in his night job playing the blues all over the globe.

And globetrotting all over the world is something that the guitar-playing Riley and his partner-in-crime, harpist extraordinaire Bob Corritore, have been well-versed in the past several years.

“Yeah, we just got back from overseas. The tour was great, man. We started out in Holland at a festival and then we went to Belgium and then did a little tour over there,” Riley said. “We played at one little club there that had been trying to get me to play for six or seven years. But we met some interesting people and everyone had a good time.”

Riley seemed genuinely touched by the reception that was bestowed upon them during their recent European jaunt.

“The European audiences really appreciate blues music – especially when it’s done right,” he said. “There’s a right way to do the blues and there’s a wrong way to do the blues. We try to do it the right way, because I was raised to do things the right way.”

Riley, who calls Illinois home most of the time, and Corritore, a major fixture on the blues scene from Phoenix, Arizona, met somewhere in the middle – the Natural State.

“I met Bob through Tom Coulson at the King Biscuit Festival and he said he lived in Arizona. I told him I had a sister that lived in Phoenix,” Riley said. “So he said, ‘it’s about time you visited your sister, isn’t it?’ And I had retired from my job at that point, and was thinking about a warmer climate anyway, so I went out there to check it out. The blues society booked me to speak at their meeting and to play with Bob at his club (The Rhythm Room). But when we (Riley and Corritore) first got together, we bumped heads and everything. I called him a few names and stuff, but pretty soon, we found our place together. And I told Bob’s girlfriend, ‘you know what? I’m going to hang with this guy.’”

And from that, a partnership was forged.

“We need each other. I’m not going to let anyone use him and he’s not going to let anyone use me,” said Riley. “We make good music together.”

That union of Riley and Corritore has resulted in a pair of terrific albums to date – Lucky to be Living from 2009 and 2007’s Travelin’ the Dirt Road.

And as the burgeoning duo found out while prepping for their debut disc, it wasn’t necessary to burn up a lot of time and energy in the pre-production stages of the disc.

“I got my skills from Frank Frost. He never sat down and wrote a song,” said Riley. “He came up with the stuff right in the studio. And that stuff that me and Bob did came right off the top of my head and it got nominated for the Blues Music Awards (for Acoustic Album of the Year).”

Riley was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1949 and spent the first 12 years of his life there and in nearby Prentiss, Mississippi.

It was there that Riley first came under the spell of what would later become a guiding force in his life: the Blues.

“Back in the ’50s, there was just one radio station we got down there – WLAC Nashville,” he said. “They played blues, gospel and country music. That’s all there was back then. Rock-n-roll and Motown and all that other stuff came later. So that’s what we listened to. And that’s why when I started to play the blues, I didn’t have to take lessons – it was in me all the time.”

Like a host of other Mississippians after the Second World War, the Rileys eventually left the south for the Windy City of Chicago and its numerous opportunities in the mid-’50s.

It was his family’s move from the city’s North Side to a housing project on the West Side that would turn out to have a dramatic impact on Dave Riley’s life.

“We lived right down the street from Maxwell (Street Market). And when they were in town on Sunday mornings, all the blues greats played there. All of them,” he said. “They’d have a big tip jar there, but when you sat in and played, you didn’t get no tips – didn’t get no money. But I wasn’t interested in the money. I was interested in the music, because it sounded good to me.”

But in the beginning, not everyone in Dave Riley’s family shared in his love of the blues.

“Well, my dad was a preacher and was real strict on me just doing gospel music,” he said. “And I’d get down there (Maxwell Street) early on Sunday mornings while they were setting up. They’d ask me to come back around 7 a.m. and play, and I’d tell them I could only play for an hour because I had to go to church.”

Riley’s passion for the blues has remained a constant presence since then, even though playing the blues on a full-time basis has not always been.

He took a 25-year sabbatical from performing the blues, instead focusing on raising his son and working at his day job as a prison guard at Joliet State Penitentiary.

His return back to music in the mid-’90s found its momentum in a spot that is revered as holy ground in the world of the blues – Helena, Arkansas.

“My wife’s cousin is from Helena, and he used to see me messing around on the guitar in the basement. And one day he said, ‘I want you to meet Frank Frost.’ I said, ‘who’s Frank Frost?’ And he said, ‘he’s the king of the jukes.’ So I went to Helena and met Frank and Sam (Carr) and their producer, Fred James,” Riley said. “Man, I was there with Frank and Sam and Fred and Arthur Williams and we played at Eddie Mae’s Café … man, what a time. It was packed in there. And then Frank and I became real close. We used to go fishing all the time.”

One thing’s for sure – you weren’t going to be playing with Frank Frost and Sam Carr unless you could deliver the real-deal blues.

Luckily, that was never a problem for Riley.

Sam Carr

“I played the music that I grew up playing in the churches and the stuff that the old guys taught me to play,” he said. “An old guy that was kind of a Hound Dog Taylor/Elmore James type of guitar player showed me how to play without a pick. And they (Frank and Sam) liked that type of playing. So I played with them all the time. The only time I played at the Chicago Blues Festival was in 1997, when Frank and Sam called me. They said they couldn’t pay me, but I told ‘em money didn’t matter. I just wanted to play with those guys. They treated me like gold.”

Riley was set to record with The Jelly Roll Kings, but Frost’s passing in 1999 kept that from happening.

Instead, Riley soon found himself in the middle of a new ensemble – The Delta Jukes.

Featuring Carr, Riley, James and Brinkley, Arkansas’, own John Weston, The Delta Jukes recorded Working for the Blues in late 2001.

“After Frank passed away, Fred (James) came up with the idea for the Delta Jukes,” said Riley. “And I was against it for a minute. But then I thought about it and decided that my main job is to keep the memory of guys like Frank Frost, Sam Carr and John Weston alive. So whatever allows me to do that, that’s what I’m going to be doing.”

And he’s doing it with all the soul and passion that he can muster.

“Blues is a feeling. When it’s done right, you can feel it. And if you can’t feel it, you can’t play it.”

“Blues is a feeling. When it’s done right, you can feel it. And if you can’t feel it, you can’t play it. You can’t fake it. A lot of musicians want to try and put too much into it (the blues), or not enough into it, but you have to have just the right ingredients,” Riley said.

“It’s real serious music. I just try to do the best I can, when I can. All I  want to do is share my feelings with people. That’s what this music is about –making people feel good. That’s why you play and sing the blues – to make people feel good.”

Sometimes that act of making people feel good is as moving for Riley as it is for the people in the audience.

“Sometimes if you don’t see me playing (on stage) and you look real close, I might have my eyes closed, crying,” he said. “The tears just come out some times. This is very emotional music – serious stuff. I’ve had people come up to me after a show and say, ‘thanks for sharing your feelings with us, Dave.’ That’s powerful stuff. And I thank God that he gave me the talent and the ability to do it like I do.”

With a new disc from Riley and Corritore on the horizon for this fall, it looks like it is full speed ahead for Dave Riley and the blues, regardless of the current musical trend.

“The blues is always going to be here,” he said. “I mean, you got guys like Eric Clapton and B.B. King who are making a lot of money, but people like myself and below do it because we love it, man. Sometimes you make money and sometimes you don’t. And sometimes it don’t really matter. But the blues ain’t going to go nowhere. It will always be here. I’m not looking to get rich. I’ve been all over the world doing this. There’s no other thing I could have ever done that would have let me travel to some of the places that I’ve traveled to by playing the blues. Not too bad for an ol’ country boy. There’s a saying on one of the songs on the new album – ‘you can take me out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of me.’ And I’m a Mississippian by blood.”.

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