Everybody loves Chico

A Chicago legend gives Phoenix the blues.

Meet Chico Chism, and that "six degrees of separation" theory could connect you with every major blues or rock artist of the past 60 years.

It might be simpler to ask Chism who he hasn'tplayed with. On a cool night at the Rhythm Room, he sits on a patio bench, dressed in a charcoal-gray, three-piece suit, dark eyes shining beneath his ever-present fedora, and pulls names out of his past: Big Joe Turner, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, James Brown, Bob Marley, Eric Clapton . . .

With a sly sparkle in his eye, Chism says he's 68 years old. But his extensive music résumé speaks of someone much older. He started playing drums at age 14, and was drawn to the blues by artists like T-Bone Walker and Freddy King (later in life, Chism played with both). He was hitting the skins before the birth of rock 'n' roll, before the British Invasion, before there were such things as "legends." More than half a century after he first sat down at his drum kit, Chism still takes a primal, elemental approach to music.

Chico's the man: Howlin' Wolf's last drummer is a resident legend in the Valley.
Jackie Mercandetti
Chico's the man: Howlin' Wolf's last drummer is a resident legend in the Valley.

When he talks about a song, he taps his foot, claps his hands, beat-boxes. "I want you to feel it," he says. "One, two, three, bam! One, two, three, bam!" The rhythms, he says, are always in his head. His patented behind-the-beat drumming -- hitting the drum at the last possible moment on the beat -- has become the definitive tension-and-release rhythm of the blues. Chism is considered one of the greatest blues drummers of all time, and still one of the most requested.

Even tonight, a face from his past smiles at him, as Jimmie Vaughan comes running up to high-five the man who mentored him and his brother, Stevie Ray, back in Austin, Texas, more than 25 years ago. "Hey, Chico!" Vaughan shouts. "Are you going to play with us tonight?"

Chism declines. Health concerns from a stroke two years ago prevent him from playing as much as he used to, but when he does play, he's as steady and dedicated as a Queen's Royal Guardsman. Chism says he even made those still-life Buckingham Palace guards tap their feet when he played for the queen in 1979, and she was getting into the groove, too. "She was tappin' her foot," Chism says with a chuckle. "The queen was sweet on Chico!"

Phoenix has been sweet on Chico, too, ever since Rhythm Room owner, blues aficionado and harmonica player Bob Corritore brought him to the city in 1986. By that time, it had already been a long road for Chism, who recorded his first single ("Hot Tamales and Barbecue") in 1959. (Chism says he recorded at Sun Studios that same year with Roscoe Gordon and hobnobbed with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.) He'd owned his own record label, Cher-Kee Records. He'd toured the world with people like Junior Wells, Otis Rush, and Lowell Fulson, and he'd picked up a few foreign languages in the process.

When Corritore met Chism in Chicago in 1975, Chism was drumming for Howlin' Wolf. The two became friends, and when Corritore moved to Phoenix, Chism followed, with a promise of "I'll give you six months." Eighteen years later, Chism still proudly serves as the blues ambassador of Phoenix. "What I like is to help the musicians here, in Arizona," Chism says. "My job, when Bob asked me to come here, was bring real blues here in Arizona."

Chism's contributions to the local blues scene go beyond his drumming. His presence brings many old blues artists to a city they might otherwise overlook, and he's served as a mentor to many Valley musicians. Chism even conducted drum workshops around the city several years ago. His primary piece of advice for would-be blues drummers? "Listen," Chism says. "Listen for the other musicians, don't walk on them. You pick a certain musician, follow him, and play between all the rest of them. You rock 'em like a baby, and you work together. Just like putting icing on a cake."

When Chism first arrived in Phoenix, he formed the hugely popular (and now defunct) band Chico Chism and the Chiztones. In 1991, Corritore opened the Rhythm Room and brought in Chism for some all-star recording sessions with artists like Bo Diddley, Jimmy Rogers, Pinetop Perkins, R.L. Burnside, Nappy Brown, and Henry Gray. "Chico was the perfect anchor for these recording sessions," Corritore says. "The artists immediately knew that there was an old-school, veteran master of the blues who was going to propel the sessions. He provides a sound that nobody else seems able to replicate -- just the lost art of real blues drumming."

Those sessions were captured on two CDs, Rhythm Room Bluesand Bob Corritore's All-Star Blues Sessions, both on Hightone Records. Chism is as proud of the CDs as he is of every other aspect of the Phoenix blues scene. When somebody mentions young blues guitarists Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang, Chism starts talking about Phoenix's own J.D. Simo. "That's nice, what we got here," he says. "We have to have our own ground. It doesn't matter where you're from in this music. Where are you playing at the present?"

At the present, Chism hangs his high hat at the Rhythm Room, a venue he still frequents, and a place where people often approach him to shake his hand and hear his stories. Like the one about the time that Mick Jagger was staying at Muddy Waters' house and Howlin' Wolf came over, wondering who had the biggest feet. "I told Mick Jagger, 'You got the biggest feet -- lay 'em on the couch.' The biggest feet in the world!" Chism says.

And there was that car wreck he got into on the way to a show. "I was in a wreck with Roscoe Gordon. I was goin' down to Jackson, Mississippi, with him," Chism recalls. "Roscoe hit a damn cotton truck, and our trumpet player, he hurt his lip. I said, 'C'mon, we're gonna play. It's water under the bridge.'"

Such a story reveals the determination of Chism, who still sits in on drums or sings a few songs whenever he can. He even plans on jamming with some of his old Chicago blues buddies at an upcoming Phoenix gig. In spite of his ripe age and past health issues, Chism won't be kept from doing what he loves. "Blues is my bag," Chism says. "Blues is the only music that's alive. Blues is from the heart. That's why people relate to you -- because it's from the heart."

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