Local Wire

Rhythm Room: An Oral History of The First 25 Years of a Phoenix Blues Institution

It’s an ordinary afternoon and Bob Corritore is doing what he does best: talking about the blues.

Sitting at a desk inside his Scottsdale residence, the renowned harmonica player and blues guru flips through a file drawer filled with two-and-a-half decades of flyers and gig posters from the Rhythm Room, the iconic Phoenix concert venue he’s owned and operated for the past 25 years.

This voluminous trove of local music history is organized alphabetically, and Corritore is going through the collection while sharing anecdotes and stories about each artist. Currently, he’s on the Bs and has already come across flyers featuring such blues legends as Rory Block, The Boneshakers, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Next up is the late George “Mojo” Buford, the Mississippi-born harmonica player and longtime cohort of Muddy Waters.

“We did a live record at the Rhythm Room with Mojo Buford and Bob Margolin,” Corritore says. “It was called Champagne and Reefer, and what was cool about it is that Mojo Buford is the one who got Bob his gig in the Muddy Waters band when Sammy Lawhorn left.”

These blues factoids are a small sample of Corritore’s encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, which he utilizes frequently during his weekly KJZZ radio show, Those Lowdown Blues. It also illustrates his lifelong passion for the genre and its history, as does his ownership of the Rhythm Room, which has become a live music institution during the past 25 years.

Since its debut in September 1991, the venue has hosted a “who’s who” of both local and nationally known blues and roots artists. Ask Corritore about some of the many musicians who’ve performed there and he can rattle off an exhaustive list of such legends as Bo Diddley, R.L. Burnside, Billy Lee Riley, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Janiva Magness, and hundreds more. Naturally, renowned Phoenix blues artists have gigged here as well, including the Hoodoo Kings, Hans Olson, Sistah Blue, and the late Chico Chism (a beloved fixture at the Rhythm Room until his passing in 2007).

While the Rhythm Room has become a cornerstone of the Phoenix blues scene, it has also played host to influential bands and performers from other genres, including indie rock and folk. In fact, long before venues like Crescent Ballroom or Rebel Lounge became go-to spots for such concerts, fans were flocking to the Rhythm Room to see artists like Of Montreal, Yeasayer, or Jessica Lea Mayfield.

Literally thousands of great shows that have gone down at the Rhythm Room over the past 25 years — and each has a story involved, which Corritore and some of the musicians and regulars who have frequented the venue were happy to share with New Times for the following oral history of the Rhythm Room.

(Note: Some quotes have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.)

Bob Corritore, current Rhythm Room owner: I’d played around town as a musician for years and years after moving to Phoenix in 1981 and had my radio show going. I was kind of at a crossroads by 1991, thinking, “What am I doing here?” Doing 200-plus gigs on a local/regional level was probably not the best way to advance a career. Phoenix is a great market, but I was thinking there must be something more. And then, out of the blue, I get a call from this guy Lenny Frankel.

Lenny Frankel, former Rhythm Room owner: I owned the property at 1019 East Indian School, and it was the Purple Turtle for many, many years [in the ’70s and ’80s].

Corritore: I was very familiar with the property because I used to play there with Louisiana Red and Tommy Dukes and Janiva Magness when it was the Purple Turtle. It’d changed a few times and wasn’t a music venue at the time.

Frankel: I had been renting it out to different people. It was a blue-collar bar and that failed, then a couple of gals made it a lesbian bar and that failed. And then the building was empty again. The blues was big then, and having been to Char’s [Has the Blues] and seen the line around the block, I said, “You know, I’ll make it a blues club.” And by coincidence, I picked up the newspaper and guess whose name was in there? Bob Corritore’s. So I called information and they had a number for Bob. It was serendipity.

Corritore: Lenny wanted someone to help him develop a blues club there and recruited me to be that guy. And I met with him and he seemed serious, and the next thing you know, we had a venue.

Frankel: I knew a guy who was going to manage it and he came down, too, and the three of us sat there and hatched the Rhythm Room, just like that. Bob booked it, the other guy managed it, and I owned it.

Corritore: Lenny came up with the name. We were all trying to figure out a bunch of different ones that all seemed to fall short and he just came up with, “Rhythm Room.” Once he said it, everybody just stopped and went, “That's the name.” It implies blues but didn't necessarily have to go there. It was just a very musical name and felt like it fit.

Mario Moreno, guitarist, Hoodoo Kings: The blues scene was really thriving at that time and there were a lot of bands around, so it was a lot of fun in those days. And the Rhythm Room became the new thing in town.

Corritore: We opened up on September 18, 1991, with Big Pete Pearson, Phoenix’s king of the blues, rightfully so. That was on a Wednesday. Second night, we had Junior Watson and his great left-coast band, and then over that weekend, we had the great Chico Chism, who was Howlin’ Wolf’s last drummer and relocated to Phoenix in 1986. So those were our first days. It was a blues and roots club that was being booked from a musician’s perspective, and it seemed like it really had a great acceptance in this town.

Moreno: We were one of the first local bands to play there. Within the Phoenix area, you had three or four blues clubs going at the same time and all of ’em would be packed on the weekends.

Bill Tarsha, harmonica player, Rocket 88s: At the time, we were the house band at Warsaw Wally’s down the street. And we played the Rhythm Room as much as we could, and right from the get-go it was a place where blues bands really felt welcome.

Hans Olson, Valley blues legend: I played the Rhythm Room the first month it opened and was there every Sunday for a while. It was cool to have another real blues club.

Corritore: Hans is one of the saints of the Rhythm Room, and he was right there in the beginning. And before we actually had a house PA, there were times he would lend us his if we needed it. That’s how cool Hans is.

Olson: It pretty much has looked the same over the years, just this big square room with great sound. Clarke Rigsby, a recording studio engineer, designed the stage and there’s a few legends about it. I heard there’s 14 tons of sand in that stage, which is great because there’s no overtones.

Corritore: It was a little bigger than most of the blues clubs, so it was a little more concert-friendly for some of the touring acts. It definitely wasn’t a fancy place. At the same time, it was a room that had great sound, great sightlines, and great acoustics.

Olson: What I liked about it was there were no TVs, because TVs became the bane of nightclubs. You'd think when people go out they'd watch the bands, but they don't, they watch the TVs. So the fact that [Rhythm Room] had no TVs was the first thing I noticed and I said, "I love this place."

Tarsha: The Rhythm Room wasn't a focal point of the scene right away but it rapidly started becoming that, especially with all the great musicians coming through.

Frankel: Sunday were just packed. And we used to give out t-shirts and some other stuff to the first 500 people. And I guess some of those t-shirts are probably collectible items now.

Corritore: Chico took great pride in the Rhythm Room and was really our ambassador. Every time a band came in from out of town, they all knew Chico and he was there to greet him. And when Chico and I were traveling to Chicago or elsewhere, Chico always asked musicians, “When you gonna play my club?” I wasn't going to dispute that. It was Chico's club.

Olson: In the beginning, Bob was doing all the booking and [setting] the direction of the thing.

Corritore: I remember bringing R.L. Burnside in like 1992 to the club for the first time. And he was met with a small audience and we kept bringing him back. And then, of course, the R.L. Burnside phenomenon happened and that whole fat possum sound was really big but we were already very good friends with him, so we'd fly him out to do weekends maybe two or three times a year for 12 or 15 years until his health didn't permit that.

So we'd have him two nights in a row and both would be completely packed out and he would get into his Mississippi hill country trance blues and by the time you got done with that weekend after hearing him two nights in a row, you'd be hearing that in your mind and feeling that trance for a whole week afterwards. It was beautiful.

Tarsha: I remember doing gigs guys like Nappy Brown and Big Jay McNeely. Those were all great shows.

Corritore: I’ll always be fond of the times I brought in all these blues legends. When we opened up the Rhythm Room, Chico and I became the cornerstone of the Rhythm Room All-Stars, a band that was designed to back up the various blues artists that might stop in. I have great memories of being onstage with Jimmy Rogers, Luther Tucker, John Brim, Pinetop Perkins, and Henry Gray. There are some things that you have to pinch yourself to even believe they’re real.

Janiva Magness, blues singer: The Rhythm Room has become a very well known blues venue and stopping place for bands to work and play while on tour.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.

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