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Updated online January 29, 2007
"I'm the house rocker and the show stopper, the woman's pet and the man's threat. I'm Chico, the Boogie Man." Chico Chism
Legendary blues drummer Napoleon "Chico" Chism, Phoenix's longtime "Ambassador to the Blues," died on Sunday, January 28, at the Kivel Campus for Compassion in Phoenix, following a four-month battle with kidney disease. Chism was 79.
Chism was born on May 23, 1927, on a riverboat near Shreveport, Louisiana. His career began in 1957, when he recorded with T.V. Slim on the original version of "Flat Foot Sam." Over the next 50 years, Chism recorded or toured with countless blues and rock legends, including Big Joe Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin' Wolf, Henry Gray, and Louisiana Red. Chism relocated to Phoenix from Chicago in 1991, where he became a fixture of the Rhythm Room, the local blues club owned by Chism's close friend, Bob Corritore.
The "Chico Chism Appreciation Night" show scheduled to take place at the Rhythm Room on Tuesday, January 30, will now be a memorial service. There will also be a religious service led by Father Ron Poston. Proceeds will help pay for Chism's funeral costs. There will also be a "Memorial Benefit for Chico Chism" featuring The Flamekeepers at El Dorado Bar & Grill in Scottsdale on Saturday, February 3.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, I've come to the Kivel Campus for Compassion in Phoenix to visit Chico Chism, who, despite debilitating illness and 78 years, seems to spend more time wandering the halls than sitting in bed. He's not in his room when I arrive. I find him sitting in the hallway, standing out among his mostly pale-skinned, silver-haired neighbors like the quintessential picture of the cool, old-school blues cat like the legend that he is.
Chism's black fedora with the silver buckles hangs down over his brow, and he's sporting a black satin jacket bearing his name and the logo of The Rhythm Room, the local blues club owned by Chism's close friend Bob Corritore, that he's been frequenting for years, even after a stroke in 2002.
Chism was diagnosed with kidney failure late last year and has refused treatments, so declining health prevents him from going to the Rhythm Room much at all, anymore. However, he'd love to attend the "Chico Chism Appreciation Night" show Corritore's throwing this week. (As this story was going to press, Bob Corritore called to say Chism had taken a turn for the worse and is bedridden. The show is still scheduled to take place.)
The show will include live music from Chico Chism's Flamekeepers, a band formed by guitarist/vocalist George Thomas, also featuring Voo Doo Bone Daddies drummer Michael Bova. Corritore, himself a renowned harmonica player, will also join the jams.
What this is really about, Corritore says, is "honoring Chico and giving people a chance to come see him, because Chico loves being around people, and he loves being the center of attention."
That's obvious as we head back down the hall toward Chism's room. His eyes light up as every person he passes greets him by name and with a smile.
When I first met Chico Chism in the summer of 2004, he was sitting outside The Rhythm Room at a Jimmie Vaughan show, surrounded by admirers, including Vaughan, whom Chism mentored along with Jimmie's brother, Stevie Ray, as part of Austin's burgeoning blues scene of the '70s and '80s. Chism was entertaining everyone singing songs in French, telling jokes, and sharing stories about playing for the Queen of England in 1979, judging a "biggest feet" contest between Muddy Waters and Mick Jagger, and looking for the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland.
Almost every time I went to the Rhythm Room after that, Chism was there, as much a part of the place as the beer signs and the posters. And it was always the same scene. People gathered around him to pay their respects and hear his stories.
And with a career as long as Chism's, he sure has some stories.
For more than half a century, Chism played drums for every blues legend from Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley to R.L. Burnside and Pinetop Perkins. His signature style of hitting the drum at the last possible moment on the beat created a percussive tension-and-release that became the defining rhythm of the blues, also known as "the backbeat."
He recorded his first single ("Hot Tamales and Barbecue") in 1959, and spent most of his life either touring the world with people like Otis Rush and Lowell Fulson, or entrenched in the Chicago blues scene. That's where Corritore found him in 1975, drumming for Howlin' Wolf.
The two became friends, and when Corritore decided to move to Phoenix in 1991 and open the Rhythm Room, Chism came along. And so for the past 16 years, the world's most legendary blues drummer has been Phoenix's "Ambassador to the Blues."
Chism's dedication to the Valley scene took many forms: He ran an indie blues label, Cher-Kee Records; he conducted drum workshops; he performed with everybody in the local scene; and drew legends like Nappy Brown, Koko Taylor, and Buddy Guy to perform here with them. He said it was his "job" to "bring real blues to Arizona" and "help the musicians here."
And he sure loved his job.
Back in Chism's room at Kivel, I'm admiring the relics from his career, some of which date back to the 1950s.
There's a flier for a show B.B. King played in Chism's hometown of Chicago; a framed painting of Carlos Santana; a concert poster featuring a young, grizzly-bearded Chism next to John Lee Hooker; and several black-and-white photographs. There's also a ceramic clock shaped like a red drum set on the window sill, and a pair of drumsticks wedged between some chair cushions. The drumsticks are beat to hell, with notches, ridges, and bumps that taper into splinters near the tips.
Because of the dementia, Chism doesn't tell stories anymore (he really doesn't speak more than a couple of words at a time), but he smiles when I pick up the drumsticks. "Damn, Chico, you really played the hell out of these!"
Chism nods. "Yep."
I spend several minutes holding his drum sticks and turning them over in my hands. Finally, Chism looks bored and starts scooting toward the hall.
"Show you something," he says, in his gruff, bluesy voice.
We end up strolling through the dining room, where some jazzy canned music is playing on the speakers. "What's this music?" I ask Chism. "They need some blues in here!"
Chism laughs. "Heh-heh. Yeah, that's right!"
He meanders over to one of the dining tables and points to a placard with the name "Chico Chism" on it. And I remember how he'd corrected the young guy who introduced him to me two years ago as just "Chico Chism."
"I'm the legendaryChico Chism," he'd said.
As Corritore said afterwards, "Coming from anybody else, that might have sounded arrogant, but coming from Chico, it's just a fact."
After showing me the placard that does not have his proper title on it, Chism shuffles back toward his room. I call after him.
"Hey, you gonna be at the show they're having for you at the Rhythm Room?"
Chism stops and turns to me. "Oh . . . yeeaah," he says, with a gleam in his eye. Then he winks, blows me a kiss, and strolls off down the white hallway.
Of course Chism wouldn't want to miss one more chance to dive into the blues bag. Because, as Chism told me shortly after I met him, "I'm a blues guy, through and through, because the blues is about feeling. That's why the blues will always be alive.
"And that's why I've spent my life in the blues."