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.

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 – 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.

"It's amazing. Even after 19 years I'm still finding great joy in putting unique collections of songs together," he says. He built this night's set on a Mardi Gras theme. Recently, Corritore assembled sets on food references and on bad sound effects – cheesy bell ringing, bad rain and bad bombs were included in that one. "To me, the sound effects are so charming in their down-home inadequacies that it really adds to the whole song," says Corritore with a grin.

Corritore's smile is ubiquitous, as it was at one recent double-take-inducing Rhythm Room show, which found Corritore standing next to very British pop singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. The Room, principally devoted to and still steeped mostly in the blues, has opened up the flexible space to more diverse talent over the past few months. Corritore has established a relationship with Clear Channel, bringing performers like Julia Fordham and Robert Earl Keen to the room, not to mention Hitchcock.

But Corritore leaves no doubt as to his true love. Since its 1991 inception, the Rhythm Room has become a prime attraction for touring blues and roots-rock acts and obscure down-home music makers that otherwise may thumb their nose at Phoenix. Credit Corritore's brand of optimism for that – his affability helped him forge numerous professional relationships, first as a club manager, now as the owner. He bought the place to keep it from going under in April 2001.

Corritore's enthusiasm also has helped him establish a pipeline of recording projects as an album producer, retrospective compiler and sideman.

When the Rhythm Room was in its formative stages, Corritore and company brought in sound engineer and Tempest Recording studio honcho Clarke Rigsby to help design the space with acoustics in mind. The goal: to create the best sound possible in the given space, and to create a room conducive to live recordings.

A font of live recordings at the Room has since resulted, the most notable being Smokin' Joint, a 2001 album by Fabulous Thunderbirds singer Kim Wilson that was nominated for a Grammy. Roughly half of that album was recorded live by Rigsby at the club. Rigsby and Corritore also oversaw the recording of R.L. Burnside tracks released on Fat Possum and Hightone Records.

Since 1999, Hightone has released four Corritore-related albums, and all but the R.L. Burnside compilation were entirely engineered and mixed by Rigsby.

"He comes in with his boards and sound trucks and does a fantastic job on the live recordings," Corritore says of Rigsby. "As a matter of fact, a lot of people comment on how some of these live recordings done out of the Rhythm Room have sounded better than most studio recordings. Clarke is just a wizard."

The wizard was at the boards when we dropped in to the Sound Lab in Tempe to see what he and Corritore were working on. The two were busy mixing live tracks for an upcoming Fabulous Thunderbirds live album, culled from two separate concerts at the Rhythm Room. Wilson was unable to attend and gave the two the go-ahead to work with the tapes. And there, behind Rigsby, was Corritore, smiling and looking around at others to make sure they were hearing what he was hearing. He was geeked.

Back in the KJZZ studio, Corritore received a call from an older fan in an off-the-air moment. The caller said he was reminded of his youth at Carver High in Phoenix and thanked Corritore for playing good stuff. The conversation meandered. Corritore was polite to a fault, but he needed to get back on the air. He told the man that they should meet up sometime in person and exchange pleasantries:

Corritore: "What's your name? (Pause.) Say that again. (Pause.) Opera Rimes? (Pause.) Opera Grime Jr.? (Clarifying.) Opah Grimes Jr. (Understanding.) Opah Grimes Jr. That's a great name. (Pause.) They call you that, huh? (Pause.) Okay. Well, I think I'll call you Opah rather than Midget."

Actually kind of surprised Corritore didn't know this fella, too.

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