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Watch closely the video for "Blues Summit in Chicago"--a 1974 episode of the PBS series Sound Stage, in which an all-star band played a concert tribute to then-living-legend Muddy Waters--and you'll notice that, right after Pinetop Perkins takes his piano solo during "Blow Wind Blow," the camera pans the audience for a quick crowd-reaction shot. And there, filling the screen for about three seconds, is a 17-year-old, shaggy-haired Bob Corritore--looking very '70s, bopping his head and grinning like a fool.
Twenty-two years later, Corritore has cut his locks to a hybrid of '90s cyberpunk and '50s teen-idol pompadour, but stand next to him at a blues show and you'll see he still has that same goofy smile. Every few minutes, he'll jerk his head in your direction, like a bird, and just sort of grin at you for a while. Intensely. It's a bit unnerving at first, until you realize that Bob's not really a few notes short of a scale--he just wants to make sure you're having half as good a time as he is.
A Chicago native, "Smilin' Bob" Corritore heard his first blues song when he was 12--the classic Muddy Waters cut "Rolling Stone." He bought his first blues record, The Best of Muddy Waters, not long after; followed in short order by a harmonica. By his late teens, Corritore was sitting in with great players in blues clubs on Chicago's south side, getting schooled by the likes of Magic Slim, Honeyboy Edwards and Mighty Joe Young. By his early 20s, Corritore had his own record label (one of the records he produced, Louisiana Red's Sittin' Here Wonderin', was rereleased last year and nominated for the W.C. Handy "Best Traditional Blues Album" award). And in 1981, at the age of 25, the young blues scholar moved to Phoenix.
"I was thinking I'd only stay a year, and then return to the music scene that I loved," Corritore says. "As it turned out, I took on a mission to show people here what down-home blues is all about."
Since his transplant, Corritore has played harp with numerous Valley blues acts, founded a weekly radio show respected for its authoritative presentation of the blues (Those Lowdown Blues, Sunday nights from 6 p.m. to midnight on KJZZ-FM 91.5) and turned the Rhythm Room into a blues club with a reputation as a venue for connoisseurs of the form; booking acts with an ear for authenticity over commercial polish. Last September, Corritore brought in Fat Possum Revue, a traveling caravan of juke-joint bluesmen from the Deep South who played two hours of droning, bone-crushing-heavy blues. Financially, the show was a disaster. But for the 40 people in the audience that night, it was a hypnotic wonder. "Some shows," says Corritore, "just have to be done."
Recently, New Times interviewed Corritore in his modest Scottsdale apartment, which is decorated with a smattering of vintage blues-concert bills and dominated by his collection of 4,000 vinyl albums and some 3,000 compact discs--strictly blues. "Nothing else has that underlying power for me," he says. "Nothing else has what I'm looking for--the total expression, the deep groove, that bend of the notes that tickles me in just the right spot. For me it's all about the blues."
New Times: Tell me what you think of this statement: Pop singers can effect emotion and make it work, but not blues players.
Bob Corritore: That's absolutely correct. There's no faking the blues, because the blues represents human expression in a very pure, raw musical form. Now, the word "blues" means a lot of things to a lot of different people but, in my mind, you can't do a blues song halfheartedly and be convincing. And it's that necessary honesty that keeps the blues timeless, because music that's a straight line to your heart will never go out of style.
I mean, when you hear someone let their soul bleed all over a song, you have to ask yourself, "What more does anyone have to give?" And there's something contagious about that kind of intensity.
NT: If the word "blues" means different things to different people, what's your definition?
BC: It comes down to emotion and tradition. There is a certain feeling of deep emotional expression that comes from all true blues, but that feeling can be expressed in many ways, using many different styles. Muddy Waters had one style, Howlin' Wolf had another. But they both had the blues. Robert Cray has his slick style--it's very commercially oriented, but, still, it's the blues. For me it's an authenticity of emotion. But even then, it's a wide-ranging question and where you draw the parameters is purely according to your own tastes. There's a lot of music that is considered by many to be the blues, that may be good, valid music that I may not personally like because it doesn't seem to draw on the same elements of emotion and tradition that I like, or because it's geared toward a more commercial-rock audience . . .
NT: Such as Stevie Ray Vaughan?
BC: Well, that's a good question, because I think Stevie Ray Vaughan could really play the blues. He put the blues into a context where it was played on album-rock radio, true, but the important thing about Stevie was that his roots ran deep. He knew exactly what he was doing. And when he wanted to play blues, he would really get into it and he left no question that he was a blues player.