Smilin' Blues

It may not fit the genre, but Bob Corritore may be the jolliest blues advocate you'll ever meet

There's an old barroom joke. It goes something like this: "He was the greatest bluesman that no one ever heard of."

Bob Corritore may just know that guy.

Heck, with Corritore's uncanny knowledge of traditional blues, he probably knows the musician's second cousin, too. He can tell you all about the Slims and the Bigs and Littles (and the Lil's, for that matter) and the Juniors and the one-fingered Jimmies, assuming a few one-fingered Jimmies exist. In fact, Corritore can not only tell you in detail about a myriad of vernacular artists, he may well know them personally.

Blues train: Bob Corritore, the most gleeful of sad harp players.
Kevin Scanlon
Blues train: Bob Corritore, the most gleeful of sad harp players.

Bob Corritore, 46-year-old owner of local blues and roots club the Rhythm Room, host of "Those Low Down Blues" on KJZZ for nearly two decades, Grammy-nominated producer/compiler of historically important and contemporary blues artists, and killer harmonica player, is an undeniable fountain of information, a de facto walking history of the blues' late 20th century and beyond.

Spurred by a cathartic moment at age 12 when he heard the Muddy Waters song "Rolling Stone" on Chicago radio, the Illinois native has never looked back. "I've been intrigued by the blues since the moment I heard it, and I am so privileged to just be involved with it in any way at all and I just feel so blessed that my life has revolved around music, specifically blues," says Corritore of his life.

Corritore speaks from his east Scottsdale home, a clean, utilitarian space that functions as a shrine to recorded music. Whole walls of his living room are papered with vinyl LPs and CDs. Not surprisingly, his home's simplicity mirrors his club, effectively a big sound box.

Corritore rummages through stacks of yellowed photographs of his early years in Chicago, a time spanning the mid-'70s to 1981, in which he met blues luminaries and hardworking club grunts in equal measure. "I first met Chico [Chism, world-class drummer and fellow Chicago expatriate living in the Valley] in 1974 when he was playing in Muddy Waters' band at Eddie Shaw's club Ė and Eddie was playing in the band, too. It was the 1815 Club. Wolf [Howlin', that is] used to play there most weekends."

As early as age 22, Corritore was trying his hand as a label owner and producer, recording largely undocumented Chicago harp players for posterity. His one-man label, Blues Over Blues, or B.O.B., first recorded Little Willie Anderson, a friend, chauffeur and emulator of harmonica virtuoso Little Walter. "He was a Little Walter stylist," says Corritore. "He was Little Walter's valet and he really captured the essence of the late Little Walter style."

In 1979, Corritore assembled a crew of players who had worked with Little Walter, hired an engineer and rolled tape. "I went in there with an idea about what I was supposed to do though I had never done it before. I never really asked permission, I just did it," he says.

The Blues Over Blues sessions, which also captured Big Leon Brooks, another regional harmonica player, on tape, are still in print today on Earwig. Corritore quickly realized, however, that owning a small label wasn't everything it was cracked up to be. "I wanted to produce the records, but I didn't want to handle all the business side of it."

And so B.O.B. went silent, and in 1981, Corritore came to Phoenix on what was to be a one-year jaunt, which now is going on year 23. Corritore explains, "[Phoenix] was different, but there were some great blues players here. Tommy Dukes was in full swing, Small Paul, Rocket 88's, Big Pete Pearson . . . all these bands were doing great things, and within a few months of moving here [Chicago acquaintance and roots-circuit standout] Louisiana Red was joining me, and we're playing together for a year. So I was having a blues holiday."

Corritore gigged around town with a variety of bands in the '80s, and recorded Louisiana Red in 1981. In fact, when Red lived here, he and Corritore roomed together. "Initially, [Red] was living with [Pittsburgh singer] Eunice Davis. A week later I get a call from Eunice saying, Bob, come pick up Red, I just threw him outdoors.' So here's Red out on the front porch and all his stuff's on the front porch, and next thing you know he's staying with me."

In February 1984, Corritore began broadcasting "Those Low Down Blues" on KMCR (91.5 FM) and later on KJZZ. He continues to broadcast weekly, culling set lists from his vast collection and hosting live for five hours.

It is clear from watching Corritore in the brand-new KJZZ studio, housed on the fourth floor of the Rio Salado Community College office in Tempe, that he loves every second of the show. During a broadcast of "Those Low Down Blues" earlier this month, Corritore was decked out in a brightly colored vintage shirt, leather jacket and trademark pompadour. His thin six-foot frame bopped and rocked every off-air second, and he carefully explained the minutiae of every track as if it were the Rosetta stone.

From handwritten set lists, he cued each track on two decks of CD players, all music from his collection, jumping on the mike occasionally to introduce the next round of songs. Corritore gives you the feeling that he'd do the same thing for three dinner guests at home; he doesn't necessarily need 100,000 watts of power and KJZZ's Web site to play maestro.

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