Local Wire

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

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Corritore: When [David] "Honeyboy" Edwards came to the club, it was like he was bringing us all to the Mississippi Delta. The blues was so thick it felt like it was just hanging in the air and you could actually probably slice it with a knife. Honeyboy had that beautiful quality of doing that.

He started bringing in all these national acts, bands you wouldn’t expect to be in such an intimate place, like Leon Russell and Dave Mason.

By 1994, we were really coming into our own and [became] the stop for everybody going to and from the west coast. Guitar Shorty, Candye Kane, The Loved Ones, John Hammond, Charlie Musselwhite, just all these great concerts happened and packed the place a regular basis.

Tarsha: A lot of guys we did gigs with that have passed away since were still with us then, traveling around, coming to the Rhythm Room to perform and we were able to play with them.

Corritore: I'd do these showcases in the middle of the week. Sometimes I'd do one called "Gentlemen and the Blues" with Duke Draper and "Chief" Schabuttie Gilliame and Bob Tate and Big Pete Pearson. These would be these ridiculous Wednesday nights and everybody would enjoy the party. We did one called "All Women Super Blues Band," because we had so many great female blues artists and made big revue of all that. And when they were rehearsing for the night, they go this is kind of good thing here, and the next thing you know they form a band called Sistah Blue. This was Rochelle Raya and Lila Sherman and they had a great run.

Olson: Bob’s done a lot of live recordings there and they all sound great.

Corritore: The title track of R.L. Burnside's "Come On In" was recorded live at the Rhythm Room. And that was his best-selling record. Kim Wilson recorded a Grammy-nominated record live at the Rhythm Room, Smoking Joint. And then Robert Lockwood, Jr., the stepson of Robert Johnson, did his last record at the Rhythm Room in a solo performance and was very proud of it. There are some pretty amazing records that are part of our legacy.

Mona Watkins, former Rhythm Room manager: When I started in 1996 as a waitress, it was mostly blues, but we used to do rockabilly on Tuesdays and the rest of the days were pretty much blues and roots.

Corritore: We also had great acts that were maybe a little more roots than blues, like Southern Culture on the Skids. We brought them in for years and years. We were always expanding the number of national acts while still being a refuge for all the great Phoenix-based acts. I think people just enjoyed going out more then. It was really some of the glory days.

Those days didn’t last. In 2001, a number of changes happened at the Rhythm Room, including Corritore purchasing the property from Frankel. Months later, 9/11 happened.

Corritore: After September 11, people were not going out as much, and that changed the game for all the venues in town. That was really a turning point for the whole nightlife of Phoenix, which was coupled with more stringent DUI laws, which changed a lot of people’s habits.

Watkins: We did face some significant challenges after September 11th.

Corritore: At that point, nothing that I booked was going to work. But I realized that and I saw some changes that were happening and I realized I had to expand my scope of music. It seemed like the logical business strategy. Enter people like Stateside [Presents] and Psyko Steve [Chilton].

Charlie Levy, owner, Stateside Presents: I just went to Bob one day and said, “Can I start bringing shows to the Rhythm Room that aren’t strictly blues and roots music?” which at the time, that’s mostly what they did. And Bob’s such a nice guy and said yes.

Watkins: I think that definitely helped us, because it was becoming hard to do so much blues. It got to the point where doing blues five nights a week, the fans kind of thinned out. So with Charlie bringing in other kinds of shows during the week. We were able to condense our blues fans to Fridays and Saturdays and the occasional weekdays, while the rest of the week it was a mix of everything. We did singer-songwriter stuff, folk, indie … kind of a mix of everything, even ’80s hair bands.

Levy: It was the best place in Phoenix to see a show, and Bob let us bring a lot of the bands that are now super-popular. I remember seeing Mumford and Sons there and Ratatat there. There was an Of Montreal show that was probably one of the funnest shows I’d ever seen. We did a King Khan and the Shrines show that was great.

Corritore: There was a long run before Stateside opened up the Crescent where we were one of its mainstays. And they booked all sorts of wonderful acts that weren’t really on my radar, and it created a thing where a lot of different demographics came into the room that weren’t just blues and roots people.

Meredith Moore, vocalist, the Sugar Thieves: Bob wants to keep the integrity of having a blues club, so he really does a great job of hand-selecting musicians for Friday and Saturday shows so that the people that come out regularly every weekend for dance and listen to the blues are getting a good show.

Magness: I always like to work and for me as an artist the best thing about a venue – any venue, including the Rhythm Room – is the audience that attends shows is there for the music and really into the music and supportive of the artists that play there.

Levy: There have been some true legends that’ve played the Rhythm Room. Phoenix is lucky to have that place. It is a true music venue that has brought in legends throughout the years.

Moore: It's a place that folks know about from all over the U.S. They do a really do good job of getting good groups through the Valley that would otherwise just skip us. A lot of these folks are on their way to L.A. or Vegas and the Rhythm Room has been the main reason why bands come through Phoenix and play for us. That’s part of its legacy.

Magness: It’s hard to keep doors open and many places have not survived the fluctuating economy. Bob has managed to stay the course and that is a very strong statement. Very good indeed.

Corritore: I'm turning 60 this year and I realize at some point I'm going to need to think about retirement. The problem is, I can't imagine my life without the hustle-bustle of the Rhythm Room. I get so much pleasure from it. I enjoy playing at the Rhythm Room, I enjoy going to shows at the Rhythm Room, I enjoy being able to offer artists that I like a place to play. I enjoy having it as a social structure. I enjoy everything so much that its very tough to imagine life after the Rhythm Room.

At some point I'm going to feel a need to slow down I would imagine. Maybe not. In a perfect world, there'd be a successor for me that I would be able to nurture and they'd keep the vision alive of what I've done for the first 25 years. It’d be different because whoever’s at the helm will steer it in the direction they see fit, but it'd be nice to see it continue on. I'd hate to think that somebody would succeed me and turn it into a sports bar.

The Rhythm Room’s 25th Anniversary Celebration takes place on Friday, September 30, and Saturday, October 1.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.