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Blues Blood

Watch closely the video for "Blues Summit in Chicago"--a 1974 episode of the PBS series Sound Stage, in which an all-star band played a concert tribute to then-living-legend Muddy Waters--and you'll notice that, right after Pinetop Perkins takes his piano solo during "Blow Wind Blow," the camera pans the audience for a quick crowd-reaction shot. And there, filling the screen for about three seconds, is a 17-year-old, shaggy-haired Bob Corritore--looking very '70s, bopping his head and grinning like a fool.

Twenty-two years later, Corritore has cut his locks to a hybrid of '90s cyberpunk and '50s teen-idol pompadour, but stand next to him at a blues show and you'll see he still has that same goofy smile. Every few minutes, he'll jerk his head in your direction, like a bird, and just sort of grin at you for a while. Intensely. It's a bit unnerving at first, until you realize that Bob's not really a few notes short of a scale--he just wants to make sure you're having half as good a time as he is.

A Chicago native, "Smilin' Bob" Corritore heard his first blues song when he was 12--the classic Muddy Waters cut "Rolling Stone." He bought his first blues record, The Best of Muddy Waters, not long after; followed in short order by a harmonica. By his late teens, Corritore was sitting in with great players in blues clubs on Chicago's south side, getting schooled by the likes of Magic Slim, Honeyboy Edwards and Mighty Joe Young. By his early 20s, Corritore had his own record label (one of the records he produced, Louisiana Red's Sittin' Here Wonderin', was rereleased last year and nominated for the W.C. Handy "Best Traditional Blues Album" award). And in 1981, at the age of 25, the young blues scholar moved to Phoenix.

"I was thinking I'd only stay a year, and then return to the music scene that I loved," Corritore says. "As it turned out, I took on a mission to show people here what down-home blues is all about."

Since his transplant, Corritore has played harp with numerous Valley blues acts, founded a weekly radio show respected for its authoritative presentation of the blues (Those Lowdown Blues, Sunday nights from 6 p.m. to midnight on KJZZ-FM 91.5) and turned the Rhythm Room into a blues club with a reputation as a venue for connoisseurs of the form; booking acts with an ear for authenticity over commercial polish. Last September, Corritore brought in Fat Possum Revue, a traveling caravan of juke-joint bluesmen from the Deep South who played two hours of droning, bone-crushing-heavy blues. Financially, the show was a disaster. But for the 40 people in the audience that night, it was a hypnotic wonder. "Some shows," says Corritore, "just have to be done."

Recently, New Times interviewed Corritore in his modest Scottsdale apartment, which is decorated with a smattering of vintage blues-concert bills and dominated by his collection of 4,000 vinyl albums and some 3,000 compact discs--strictly blues. "Nothing else has that underlying power for me," he says. "Nothing else has what I'm looking for--the total expression, the deep groove, that bend of the notes that tickles me in just the right spot. For me it's all about the blues."

New Times: Tell me what you think of this statement: Pop singers can effect emotion and make it work, but not blues players.

Bob Corritore: That's absolutely correct. There's no faking the blues, because the blues represents human expression in a very pure, raw musical form. Now, the word "blues" means a lot of things to a lot of different people but, in my mind, you can't do a blues song halfheartedly and be convincing. And it's that necessary honesty that keeps the blues timeless, because music that's a straight line to your heart will never go out of style.

I mean, when you hear someone let their soul bleed all over a song, you have to ask yourself, "What more does anyone have to give?" And there's something contagious about that kind of intensity.

NT: If the word "blues" means different things to different people, what's your definition?

BC: It comes down to emotion and tradition. There is a certain feeling of deep emotional expression that comes from all true blues, but that feeling can be expressed in many ways, using many different styles. Muddy Waters had one style, Howlin' Wolf had another. But they both had the blues. Robert Cray has his slick style--it's very commercially oriented, but, still, it's the blues. For me it's an authenticity of emotion. But even then, it's a wide-ranging question and where you draw the parameters is purely according to your own tastes. There's a lot of music that is considered by many to be the blues, that may be good, valid music that I may not personally like because it doesn't seem to draw on the same elements of emotion and tradition that I like, or because it's geared toward a more commercial-rock audience . . .

NT: Such as Stevie Ray Vaughan?
BC: Well, that's a good question, because I think Stevie Ray Vaughan could really play the blues. He put the blues into a context where it was played on album-rock radio, true, but the important thing about Stevie was that his roots ran deep. He knew exactly what he was doing. And when he wanted to play blues, he would really get into it and he left no question that he was a blues player.

Not that I liked everything he did. But when he got down into doing his version of Tin Pan Alley, that was definitely the blues.

On the other hand, I think a lot of people who are listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and using him as their source, are missing the point. They hear the flamboyant rock qualities--the flashy, fluid guitar--and they try to capture some of that, but they don't understand where he was coming from. They don't understand how much Stevie knew and loved the music of Buddy Guy and Albert King. It's these disciples of Stevie Ray Vaughan that I have a problem with, because their roots are shallow and they don't go as deep into the feeling of it all. The result is that a lot of these kids who are coming up playing this Stevie Ray Vaughan stuff are playing the flash and wearing the funny hats, but they're just scratching the surface of what it's all about.

NT: How much of a catalyst was Chicago in terms of your fascination with the blues?

BC: Well, I was truly blessed to grow up in Chicago because I got to see a lot of the old, traditional blues masters when they were still playing at the height of their powers. And it was all so accessible. There was no kind of division there--if you were young and interested, they seemed to be complimented by that, and they would take you in and let you be their friend.

And one of the things about playing harmonica was that, if one of the older blues musicians found out that you played, they would get you up onstage. They were just really kind in that way. So at 18, I found myself playing with legends, sitting in with the Aces [Little Walter Jacobs' former backup band] over at the Monday-night jam sessions at Louise's Lounge on the south side of Chicago. I mean, I was still legally underage. And that was an incredible experience, because you had to take your playing to a whole different level.

At one point in time, I became friends with Louis Meyers who was the guitar player for [harmonica great] Little Walter, after he broke away from playing with Muddy Waters. So here was a guy who had really been there. Now Louis was a great guitar player but also a great harmonica player, and he'd spent enough time around Little Walter to really hone his chops on the ax. And I was just one of those young kids fascinated by this old master, and he kind of enjoyed the role of being the teacher and I enjoyed the role of being the student. And after his gigs, we'd go to his favorite rib joint on the south side and eat spicy rib tips and I'd listen to him tell Little Walter stories. And it was wonderful. I didn't have a care in the world during those moments.

NT: You had your own blues label [Blues Over Blues] in Chicago during the late '70s and early '80s--what was the story there?

BC: Well, right after college, I had a little bit of money in the bank and I decided to do something meaningful with it and record a few of whom I considered to be the unsung legends of harmonica. I was 21 at the time, and the first record I made was with Little Willie Anderson, a great harmonica player who had never had an album.

Now, the story on Willie was that, during the '50s and '60s, he idolized Little Walter and imitated the way he played, talked and acted. [Noted blues drummer] Odie Payne once told me that when you looked at Willie, you were looking at how Little Walter was. Word had it that when Little Walter got shot in the leg, Willie started limping also. So I brought Willie in the studio and surrounded him with Walter's former bandmates--Robert Junior Lockwood, Jimmy Lee Robinson and Freddy Below--and we laid down a session that caught the Little Walter feel.

The second record I put out was one by Big Leon Brooks, and it spawned a great friendship. I'd been listening to Big Leon Brooks for many years and I knew that he just had to be recorded, because he was such a wonderful singer and harmonica player. So a friend and I pooled our money until we had enough to do some sessions and put out another record. Well, by this time, Big Leon was not in great health. He had heart problems, hypertension problems, all kinds of body problems. And when we finally got enough money together, we made a plan to go talk to him at his regular Sunday-night gig over at the [west-side neighborhood blues club] Golden Slipper--he was the harmonica player in Taildragger's band, and he would also do a good part of the singing during the set. Well, he wasn't there that night, and Taildragger [a relatively obscure Chicago blues singer who modeled himself after Howlin' Wolf] said, "Leon had a heart attack and he's in the hospital, and we're not sure if he's going to make it."

So the next day we went and visited Leon in the hospital and he looked terrible. He had tubes all over the place, in his nose and in his arms, and he sure didn't look like a man who was going to make it. So I gave him this chromatic harmonica I had bought for him as a present and I said, "Leon, we want to do a record for you, and you need to get better so we can have these recording sessions."

And he said, "Bob, I'll try. I'd like to make that happen." So he put all of his strength together and got himself better and did a couple sessions for me.

Well, because we were on such a shoestring budget, it took a few months to get everything together. And the very last thing that had to be done was for Big Leon to do an interview with Jim O'Neil, who was a good friend of mine and the editor of Living Blues magazine. I wanted Jim to write the liner notes for the album, and Leon knew the last thing he had to do for the record was to sit for that interview, and he did the interview and that very night he died. It was like he was just waiting until he could go.

[Editor's note: In 1994, the Chicago label, Earwig Records, rereleased the Big Leon Brooks album Let's Go to Town (CD4931) along with Little Willie Anderson's Swinging the Blues (CD4930).]

NT: As the number of living blues legends continues to dwindle, do you see anyone emerging as a clear tender of the flame?

BC: Let's face it. There will never be another Muddy Waters. There will never be another Albert King. There will never be another Lightnin' Hopkins. Those were musical personalities that were so strong, so vivid that they're irreplaceable. They're national treasures that we once had that are no longer. And I think that when B.B. King and John Lee Hooker pass, we will truly know the end of an era. Still, there are people who keep the traditions going. People who, themselves, are middle-aged and older. But it's sad because at this point it's not clear who the next huge blues artist will be, so there is a sense of a widening void.

NT: Do you feel, then, that the blues as a form has gone stagnant?
BC: Not hardly. I recently had a conversation with Cary Wolfson of Blues Access magazine, and he mentioned that he received 600 blues releases for review last year. So, no, the blues is not stagnant. Look around you. Just recently, the Blues Legends postal-stamp series came out, and on General Hospital, one of the characters just opened up a blues bar and so we had the rather strange sight of B.B. King playing a gig on a soap opera. No, the blues is still widespread and popular.

I think, if anything, the market is so full of blues that people are a little bit overwhelmed. It's hard for a new artist to break in now because of all the new releases and all the people looking to obtain their place in the new scene as the old generation of blues continues to die out.

NT: That's commercial success, but what about artistically? As a music form, can blues take an evolutionary next step, or is it creatively maxed out?

BC: You can look at the blues from the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s, and every decade has brought its own accomplishment. Who knows what will happen now? But something will. It may be that the whole '50s thing [the dawn of electric blues] will repeat itself and, if that's the case, then what we'll see is people relearning that language and finding their own voice within it.

Right now, the blues seems to be heading in two directions at once. There are new people coming up in the blues who are doing a great job keeping the tradition alive by playing a retro style of blues, learning that vintage-'50s style, but finding their own voice within it; and there are people who are updating the sound and making it even more modern and that needs to happen. Blues has always been played toward its audience, and it has to grow. Those are the two approaches, and I think they're both cool. Again, if they're well-played, if they become a statement of one's heart and soul, I dig 'em. And if they don't, then I don't.

But whatever direction it goes, the blues will never die. Because people will always fall in love. And so, people will always get their hearts broken and there will always be that emotional statement that needs to be made.

NT: Did you ever catch any flak for being a white guy who plays the blues?
BC: I never really caught any direct flak. But I think that white blues players as a whole are looked at in a condescending way at times by certain people--especially critics who have a hard time accepting white people playing the blues. But the funny thing is the black musicians have never had a problem with it. Because I think they see it as the continuance of the form.

To me it's not about race, although certainly you have to acknowledge that the blues was born from the black experience. And so I feel privileged that I was able to share a part of that experience with all the time I spent in blues bars. There's just something about being in a neighborhood blues bar on the south or west side of Chicago and being the only white guy in the club, and just seeing how people celebrate the music. Ladies waving their hands in the air, people responding with shouts and calls. It's a real audience-participation type of situation.

One time I was doing a gig with Taildragger and he was joking from the stage, and he gestured to me and said, "This is my son. When I took him from Mississippi, I had to put him in a paper sack and hide him on the bus, because if people saw me with him, they'd hang me and educate him." Everybody laughed, but it represented a bitter truth about where he was coming from. And it indicated the acceptance that was offered me.

NT: Got any more Chicago stories?
BC: Too many. (Pause) But here's a good one: The craziest shows I ever performed at was with Taildragger at this place on the west side called Delta Fish Market. It was a big open market owned by this guy Oliver Nelson, who they called Fish Man. He had a big truck and he would net catfish in the Mississippi River, bring 'em back and keep 'em alive in these big tanks, and people would go to the market and they'd point to what catfish they wanted, and a guy with big rubber gloves would grab the fish and put it on the scale and cut it up with a machete and pack it in paper, and you'd have fresh fish to take home and cook up, and it was a very popular place.

Well, Fish Man was a blues guy. He loved the blues and he was a performer himself, and he'd have this outdoor stage where he would pay bands to come out and play in the market on Saturday afternoons. And it was a real neighborhood scene. There was no cover charge, and everyone would come to hang out. Fish Man didn't sell any liquor but the liquor store right next door sure did, and people would sit outside and hear the blues and drink. Needless to say, it would get absolutely crazy late in the day. I mean, there were no rules at this place, and people would drink to the point of temporary insanity.

Anyway, it just so happened that me and a buddy of mine were doing a blues cruise one Saturday evening and we said, "Well, let's stop over at the fish market and say hi to Fish Man." Normally, they would cut off the music at six o'clock because it would be just too wild by then. But this was about nine o'clock at night and somehow they were still going. So we park and walk into this scene, and the first person we run into is Taildragger and he says, "I'm gettin' up there and you boys are gonna back me up."

Well, we'd played with Taildragger a few times before, and so we get up there on this wobbly stage with everybody in the crowd just crazy drunk and grabbing at us from all directions. Taildragger himself is so drunk he can barely stand, but he could still play. So we're backing Taildragger on this long Howlin' Wolf, "Smokestack Lightnin'" kind of song he was doing, and he starts to do some of his usual stage antics, which included crawling on his belly. Well, this big, fat woman gets up onstage and starts grinding her hips into Taildragger's back. Taildragger of course enjoyed this immensely and just kind of went for it. Finally, somebody pulled her off Taildragger and he tried to get up, but because of all the alcohol he had in him, he just started teetering and fell into the drum set. This didn't faze the drummer at all. He had just enough of a kit still standing that he could pound out a beat on a snare drum with one hand and he was reassembling his kit with the other, and as that's going on, Taildragger was lying in the middle of all these drums, still singing. It was completely wild--everyone around us was just pulsating to the beat of the music, just really feelin' it.

I got done with that set and it took like two hours to de-adrenalize. That was as intense and drunken and crazy as it gets. It was just one of those true blues moments, and that's sort of what I live for.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse