I had the privilege of speaking with Bob Corritore and our conversation ran the gamut from his early days in Chicago to the producing he has done over the years, to his album, Bob Corritore & Friends – Harmonica Blues, which won a Blues Music Award in the Historical Category.
His career is one where musical dreams are made. From busking the streets of Chicago to being a world-renowned musician, producer and club owner; Bob has led a hell of a life and there is so much more in his future.
To sit with Bob for even the shortest of times is immersing yourself in the history of the Chicago Blues. I am the more knowledgeable for it.
It was nice to see the face of the future in blues…
As I was waiting for Bob to call in, I had some music playing and when he answered I mentioned the music.
Vinny Bond Marini: …that was Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers who performed at the International Blues Challenge and I interviewed her last January.
Bob Corritore: I met Erin at the IBC 2011, we have been Facebook friends for a while and I have her card on my desk right now as a matter of fact.
VBM: I spent a lot of time there for American Blues News and got to interview Lionel Young and the band on that Monday evening after they won.
BC: Yeah, they really had a good set, I saw them at one of the clubs and I said “OK, that works.” I think it was the 152 Club, and I saw Valerie June there who I really enjoyed. I have known her for a while.
Yeah. A lot of great people a lot of hope and aspirations. It was nice to see the face of the future in blues and the people who are trying to find a seat at the table. It is encouraging to see that the blues are alive and well and in a number of forms and a number of places. It is an encouraging time and also to have the Keeping The Blues Alive Awards, I really enjoy those.
That is really cool. I can remember walking down the halls of my school with my cassette player playing Muddy Waters and Junior Wells on a tape I had made, my own mix tape and it was something I really enjoyed and I would play it really loud because I wanted people to hear other kinds of music. It’s just kind of interesting to walk down the halls of your high school playing Muddy Water’s “Standing Around Crying.”
And what was playing out of the other cassette decks?
Oh well, at that point in time, I graduated in 1974 and there was Grand Funk Railroad and the other music.
I wanted to talk about the support you got from your parents that allowed you to go to the clubs as a teen…or were you sneaking out at night?
(laughs) Ah, Vinny you are getting me in trouble here. There were some interesting moments where when I was in high school, I was rambunctious and I would get in trouble, of course. So I remember one time, I was grounded and I was supposed to go see Johnny Young over at Northwestern University and I didn’t get to go and he died shortly after that. There were things where they were very supportive and then some where they weren’t supportive. I think my parents enjoyed that I was playing blues music because it was probably less loud that a lot of the popular music of the day that most kids were listening to so they just allowed me to have my space in what I was listening to.
In high school I was buying all sorts of blues records and falling in love with that music and learning about it as much as I could. They didn’t have anything other than LPs at that time so that was the start of my collection.
Overall they were very supportive when I started my record label. Although at a point they were frustrated because they did not see a good return on investment and they didn’t think it was the best use of the money I worked hard to make. But they really did support me in many ways.
A funny story, The Howlin’ Wolf died in 1976 and I met Tail Dragger that night at the 1815 club, where I would go quite a bit. My parents wouldn’t have wanted me to go to these impoverished areas of Chicago, where there was a lot of crime. I lived in the suburbs and they were trying to protect me from the things that I was going right into the heart of. The liked the music and the musicians but they did not like the idea of me going to dangerous neighborhoods. That night at the 1815 club, which was the home base for The Howlin’ Wolf in his last years, there was a big after-party, so we were there that night and we got caught on the news cameras and my parents saw it and had some words for me that night because I had given them another story of where I was at.
I got in a little trouble over that and probably because I had taken their car that night! I was 18 at the time, but I still lived in their house and when you live in an Italian household, as you know Vinny, your parents have a very strong hold on your life. I got busted big time.
But I will say one time I had written the check for Robert Lockwood and he had signed it over to Sunnyland Slim, who had paid him and my mom had to go over and meet Sunnyland at the bank to get it cashed and she thought that Sunnyland was just a fine and nobel man and I admired my mom for seeing that in him. He was such a good man and held himself with an air of respectability and she got that, which I thought was cool.
I became inclined to be a part of that movement
How did a 20 year old start producing? How did you get that opportunity?
At 12 yrs old I heard Muddy Waters and that was it a light bulb went off and from then I was moving in that direction. I found that to be the most satisfying music. I had listened to pop music of that time and then I heard Muddy Waters “Like A Rollin’ Stone” and that prompted me to buy a Muddy Waters record, which got me to hear Little Walter.
Then my brother gave me a harmonica at age 13 and I started messing around with that and it moved in that direction. I always enjoyed recordings and I started collecting records.
The recording process always seemed so magical and I was just so in love with the music of Chicago. Little Willie Anderson who was an amazing harmonica player in the Little Walter style, he was Little Walter’s valet at a point in time and emulated not only the harmonica style, but the mannerisms of Little Walter. People used to say that if you looked at Little Willie Anderson you would see how Little Walter carried himself.
There was even a rumor that when Little Walter was shot and started limping that Willie Anderson started limping too! It was that intense a love of Little Walter’s music. So with Little Willie you got that later, 60’s style of Little Walter which was a little harsher and more brash that the original. More John Lee Williamson influenced style that Little Walter started playing and of course Little Walter developed into all these phases in his career.
Little Willie was a way to look at the later part of Little Walter’s style and did it with such great emotion and feeling and I was always touched when I saw him so I wanted to bring this into the recording studio.
I had a friend, Steve Weisner who was very active in producing some of the harmonica players in Chicago who had not been recorded, he recorded Mojo Buford and Good Rockin’ Charles and I admired his style. If you think about little Walter dying in 1968 and here we are in the late 70′s, not such a long time and his ghost was still all around Chicago. It was an exciting time.
I became inclined to be a part of that movement and I did what little I could. So, without any real understanding and only a gut feeling of the production process, here was this 21 yr. old kid in the studio with Robert Lockwood, who I had befriended some years before, Freddy Below, Jimmy Lee Robinson and Little Willie Anderson and it was in a way the last gathering of Little Walter alumni to make a record like that. Of course The Aces would go on for years after that but that first one was a special kind of record.
I was proud to have made that happen and people still talk about that record. It is like a right of passage for harmonica players and guitarists in that style.
It just seems amazing, that A 22 yr old kid would have the trust of these guys to put down what they hoped to hear and you obviously did…
Muddy Waters played at my high school gym and the blues were all around Chicago and when I was 18 Little Mack Simmons would call me up to play. Even before that I would go to Maxwell Street and somehow I would get invited up to play with John Henry Davis and some of the other artists on the street, so I was shocked in a way. Here was this kid from the suburbs being let in. Being let into…to this sacred order of music and I could not believe it.
I met Louis Myers, guitarist in The Aces and the Little Walter and Junior Wells bands, a consummate player and also a great harmonica player, and he let me sit in his car with him and we would talk about Little Walter and there was all sorts of things like that going on. Like going to see the Howlin’ Wolf when you are just 18 at the 1815 club on the west side and getting to know Hubert Sumlin and Detroit Jr. and all those guys and being let in, the acceptance was unbelievable to me.
I do find that the blues, more than other music communities, seems to be more open and welcoming. There seems to be more of a desire to pass down of knowledge.
And here was this young teenage boy with these bright eyes looking in awe at these great musicians; knowing their records and having collected their records.
I am sure a lot of these old guys found encouragement in me. I did not realize that until years after I left Chicago. I always admired Louis Myers, I just hung around and asked him questions and I thought ‘ok he is tolerating me’.
And then after I moved I was coming back to Chicago and I remember Louis making a lot of effort to visit with me and I realized I had made a friendship there and toward the end of my stay in Chicago we worked together with Willie Buck and we would hang out at the gigs.
These were friendships and things that really happened. I pinch myself and say ‘is this really my life?’
I talk with my friend Illinois Slim and we would hit all the clubs and we talk about our times with Floyd Jones and John Brim and seeing Jr Wells and Buddy Guy over at Theresa’s and the Checkerboard Lounge. Just all these things we did and moments in time that almost don’t seem real at this point in time. It was a whole different world back then. Think about the technology and the social norms. which is interesting. Like watching the show “Mad Men,” you see all the smoking and drinking that went on in society back then. It was a much looser society than it is today and there are things that could exist and go on that the world would not allow anyone to do now
You had this unbelievable environment., this pitrie dish that would allow all of this craziness to grow. There were nights and times that were filled with alcohol and nuttiness and you never knew what was going to happen at times. It was not always a good thing…
But it it was it was back then and there are sometimes you think, I am glad I made it through that night and am…
…(laughs) Alive yeah, the most ridiculously nutty nights we would have sometimes where everyone around was completely drunk and crazy and that was what made the music so wild and wonderful. It was a time in my life, in one way I am so happy I was in Chicago at a time in Chicago blues where there was so much going on. There still is today, it is just different in that so many people who were important to me at that time have gone away.
To be able to see Big Walter Horton every week, and to know Eddie Taylor and his family. To be able to befriend Little Willie Anderson and Big Leon Brooks, John Brim Louis and Dave Myers and Freddy Below, all of that was just so special.
There are a few of my dear friends around and we get to talk about that, like Bob Stroger. I took him into the studio in 1980 with the Big Leon Brooks project and we laugh about it now. Barrelhouse Chuck and I were discussing it recently and we were saying ‘you know, we are one of the few people around who got to meet these people. We are one of the few connections people will have to this music moving forward so we have to keep this message moving forward. In a way it is a responsibility at that point if that is how you want to look at it.
Absolutely. I can understand.
In 1981 you moved to Phoenix. Why Phoenix?
I just felt like I want to have some time in Phoenix. I went out there for a year. My brother lived out there, I was in between day jobs and struggling on how I was going to survive in the world and where music was going to fit in.
I was pretty plugged in to the idea that I needed a day job and I was in Chicago with all these wonderful blues clubs and I was trying to hold it together. You know the nights and then the days didn’t seem to have too many hours between them, if you know what I mean. I knew I was in trouble when it was 2, 3 in the morning and you are coming home on a work night and you are listening to Big Bill Collins, who recently passed by the way.
So it was more running away from the blues for a while?
Well it was trying to find a balance in life and Chicago was a hard place to find that balance. So I thought, well let me just go and get away from everything for one year and see what happens then. Go and spend some time with my brother and enjoy the wonderful weather in Phoenix, Arizona and I did not plan on staying.
I came to Phoenix planning on having a little holiday and within the month I get a call from Louisiana Red who was living in Chicago. I used to play with him over at the Delta Fish Market and he asked what I was doing. It told him I had just moved to Phoenix and wondered how he got my number. He had called my old Chicago phone and gotten the forwarding number and he said, ‘I have a friend in Phoenix, I think I wanna come out there’ and I told him if he did we would get some gigs.
Two weeks later Red is out there and the next thing you know he is my roommate (laughing) and we are doing gigs and I have this other-worldly blues experience happening in Phoenix, Arizona.
Red got me involved in playing here in Phoenix, after that I joined up with Big Pete Pearson and we worked together for a number of years. I worked with Janiva Magness and the Mojo Mojomatics. Chico Chism came out in 1986 for some gigs. In 1984 I started my radio show, so I got some more roots.
1991 I started the club and all of a sudden I am associated with Phoenix. Chicago blues was around me, I helped to import it. Dave Riley now lives in town half of the year. We bring a lot of my Chicago friends to the Rhythm Room. It is interesting when you can provide work and collective energy it’s a great place to be at.
What do you say to young people, or their parents, when they talk to you about becoming a musician?
I try and guide people into the roots of the music. At this time, there are a lot of different ways that you can find your inroad and I think it is unfortunate if you stop at the Stevie Ray Vaughn, if you look at that as an entry point, that’s just fine. Stevie loved Hubert Sumlin and Buddy Guy and Albert King and had a bunch of influences like Freddy King and Albert Collins and that should be the reason to go into the people he loved and then where that came from.
I always feel it is better to go to the root source and to study that because if you understand the development of where things came from you are going to be able to appreciate the entry point better
Even with Little Walter, you want to listen to John Lee Williamson, and the earlier harmonica players who were a part of all that to understand the world as it was back then. Now we can never go back there, we can never really get a sense of it all, but it is always interesting to me to be around the older figures because of their frame of reference. If you do a gig with Honeyboy Edwards you are going to be doing Memphis Minnie and Robert Lockwood songs and songs that will take you way back. The frame of reference that Honeyboy has are those songs he grew up around and it is a joy to have that as a frame of reference.
That would be what I would offer ‘look at the early parts of this and even though this may not speak to your generation, try and put yourself in an imaginary time machine and go back and imagine the world that existed during that point in time and how this music interfaced with that time.’
I always think that that is the best way to look at this music and, from all of that, you see its development. You see every generation reflects its surroundings and that’s still going on today in the blues. I am a traditionalist. I like the more traditional stuff and that is how it will always be, but that is my frame of reference. But I have to appreciate when people incorporate more contemporary elements into it because that keeps it alive and well and that is valid in and of itself.
At the same time that can peacefully coexist with the tradition of this music which for Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith is as real as it can be. And that’s a beautiful thing when they win the traditional Grammy and there is a record that is acknowledged.
That would be my advice to really look at it and to understand it is a living growing thing and to understand the leaves on the tree you must look at the roots on the ground.
A wonderful way of saying it…and that is how my generation found Muddy Waters and The Howlin’ Wolf and others. By listening to the Rolling Stones and wondering where their music was coming from, seeing the writing credits and wanting to know what they listened to. Interesting that there are people who don’t realize that the blues were the jumping point for the led Zeppelins and others…
Right, but that was back then. Now there is a different entry point of people. truly that was how people got to know this music at one time.
Is there a musician who you have not worked with who you would like to get on stage or in the studio alongside?
There are so many many artists…so many I admire…I don’t know, it is hard for me…you kinda caught me off-guard with that one…there are so many artists I would love to…You know, I will tell you one artist I would love to do something with just because when I did meet her, I found so much joy, is Mavis Staples.
I met her when I did a show with Henry Gray. A number of years ago (2006) Henry was named a National Endownment of the arts Fellow and Mavis staples was also inducted as were the Treme Brass Band and others, some not even in music some were spoken word artists. When I met Mavis Staples I was so overjoyed to meet her and she was such a happy and grounded and wonderful person and I am such a fan of her music and I am stumbling over my words here, (laughs) and we became best friends after that for a moment. We did a couple of shows, including this wonderful show that Nick Spitzer of “American Roots” was the emcee of, it was over at this beautiful theater, the Strathmore, I believe, in Bethesda Maryland.
After this wonderful honor there was this great show where all the newly named Fellows got to be showcased. I enjoyed meeting Mavis and I would love to do something with her sometime just because I’ve been such a fan. I love all those Staple Singers Records.
There is something in the dirt…in the deep south
You appear at festivals all over the world, which one do you look forward to every year?
Well you know each year is a different year. Each year I usually go to the Chicago Blues Festival, and to the King Biscuit Blues Festival and enjoy them both in different ways.
There is something about the down home hospitality of Helena Arkansas. I played there, first with Louisiana Red, maybe like 7-8 years ago…wow 8 years ago! And I fell in love with Helena, Arkansas.
On that stage, there is something in the dirt over in the deep south that makes it pour out of you and there I am with Louisiana Red doing this set. Just the two of us as a duo. I have gone back almost every year to that festival because I love it.
The Chicago Blues Festival is a way for me to go back to my hometown. It is interesting Barry Dolins was the guy behind that and he did an excellent job with that and now there is a bit of confusion as to what is going to happen to the festival. I am curious what will happen in this upcoming year. I am optimistic but I have a little anticipation. I do not know how it will be handled. I am sure there will be some rough spots in the transition, Barry was really knowledgeable in the blues and had a very historical approach to it. Will that be shared with the next regime of booking for that? I understand that it might be a paid festival. It has been free, but that is happening now, sponsorships don’t come as easily as they did 5 years ago. There is a trend toward free festivals beginning to charge.
Well even Helena charges now. But $25 for three days? There is nothing like it.
It is not that much, but it is symbolic in that they are not free any longer.
Is there a festival you have not attended that you would really like to do?
I would like to get on the blues cruise.
I wondered if you might say that knowing you had not done one.
And Roger has been threatening to get me on there. It just seems like a glaring omission on my resume. A lot of people ask me about that and it is something I guess I should do. It has just not happened yet. When it happens once it will happen over and over again once I am let into the family. But it is not like I am waiting around for anything. I am so busy that if it doesn’t happen I won’t be sitting around with nothing to do. My problem is trying to get it all done.
It is something that is amazing. All the things you do. We have spoken about the Rhythm Room in Phoenix which celebrates 20 years, a feat in the restaurant club industry, and you also have a radio show that has been on for 27 years now which is amazing in radio, you have your weekly newsletter. How do you keep it all going and find a way to breathe?
Well I live for this. It is what I wakes me in the morning and puts me to bed at night. It is a lifestyle choice. In your life there are things you choose to do and things you choose not to be involved in.
I have opted out of what people view as the conventional things they enjoy in their life so I can surround myself with the priority in my life. I love participating in this music and try and do so in a umber of ways. I love to perform it, produce it, present it. I love to host the radio show and enjoy writing about it and it is a part of me.
What kind of harmonicas do you play?
I play Marine Bands as my first choice and I do have a couple of set of Joe Filisko’s, which are modified Marine Bands which I save for special occasions, but I am a Marine Band guy. That’s the one I grab for. The old standard that people use.
How many in your collection?
Harmonicas have a life span, you work them to a place where they are usually played. Where you have them to a place where you are going to interface with them, then bend the way your body and mouth will bend them and at a particular point they wear out and they get tossed out. Some people are tech savvy and they tune them, I have met a lot of people recently who are doing that. I am not that guy, I’ll just get a new one and go through the process again. So, I probably keep 50-60 harmonicas around at any point in time.
And when you are on the road?
I probably carry 25-30 harmonicas. I keep one replacement and then a few more. I have my regular keys that I play, the more standard ones, and then a back-up plus some of the more odd keys. So if someone wants to play in E-flat I would be able to.
Then I keep a few spares. If I am doing a show with say, Henry Gray, he likes to play in three keys, C, G and D,. If I am doing a show with Dave Riley I bring a lot of A harmonicas because we play a majority of the songs in the key of E. On the last record “Lucky To Be Living” I played the whole thing on one harmonica. We were only playing two keys the whole record and there is something wonderful about that approach.
So, it depends on who I am playing with as to what I have to bring. If I am playing with the All-stars and Chris James we play in a bunch of different keys but Chris likes to sing in G and A a lot so I bring along those and if you are playing with Tail Dragger you are going to be doing a lot of slow and A (laughs)
Illinois Slim and I used to work with Tail Dragger and, both still do occasionally, and are looking at doing a festival in Europe coming up, and Slim had a customized license plate that read SLO IN A because those of us who have played with Tail Dragger know that is what it is about. It is nice to unapologetically be able to play some heavy intense blues in A with no apologies and that’s Tail Dragger.
I probably never put out a better record than this
The historical thing, I had a lot of help on that record and is a testament to my documentation of some great artists and it is a fine record. I probably never put out a better record than this, it is such a wonderful collection of some of the greatest moments in my life and I am glad others feel that way and they put it in that historical category.
I am just honored. I am happy to be sharing that with some other great nominees and to be a part of that big family. I am thrilled as can be about it.
The album is a collection of songs you recorded over 20 years. When did the idea to put this out come to you?
I have always been someone that likes to put things down on recording and create almost an audio journey of music. I have done that as long as I have been able to. When I was 22 I went into the recording studio for the first time and I produced a record by Little Willie Anderson, a harmonica player I greatly admired.
About a year after that I did the same with Big Leon Brooks. Both those records are now on the Earwig label. They have questionably the greatest collection of sidemen in Chicago blues; Robert Lockwood, Jr. , Freddy Below , Louis Myers, Odie Payne, Pinetop Perkins. You know those were the first two records I produced.
From that point forward I have always tried to do that. At a point in time, I felt comfortable enough with my own playing to do some recordings of some of the music I was making with people which I thought was valid music.
And then in 1991, I opened the Rhythm Room. With a combination harmonica player, a producer, a person who has a love for the historical aspect of the blues, a great lover of the old school blues, I thought ‘this is just an amazing opportunity here. I need to take some of these artists into the recording studio while I have this moment in time to do this’.
It was a service to them also. They were coming through town and if I could do a little 3-4 song session with them there would be extra money in their pocket, an extra gig for them. I also had a partner in Chico Chism who moved out to Phoenix in 1986, and it was a way to put him to work (laughs) and I had a great band and a great studio with Clark Rigsby at Tempest Recording, so all the elements were there to go do a quick little session while people were in town.
So I started documenting all these different artists that were coming through and what you have on the album Harmonica Blues is 20 years of recordings I had done with artists coming through Phoenix. Many of them were dear friends of mine for a long time. Pinetop Perkins I first recorded in 1981. To this day I feel a strong kinship to Pinetop and am very proud of his success with his Grammy. I was not there at that particular ceremony, but I was at the awards with him two other times when he received Grammys including his lifetime achievement.
I thought it was a sin that they did not put that on TV. The oldest person to ever win a Grammy and they gave it to him during the pre-TV broadcast. Unfortunate.
It was available on some things, I did see a YouTube clip.
It seems you are building what might be the quintessential history of the blues for this period of time.
I don’t know about that, but thank you for that compliment.
What if I put LIVE into that description, the quintessential history of live blues for this time, would that sit better?
What it is is a great documentation of a big body of work that I have been able to amass over time and within that I have been so blessed to having a pipeline to these artists by having a venue, which was the whole point. There are all these different things I have been able to have in this wonderful world I get to live in, that somehow, I have been able to create for myself. I am having a great time.
When all is said and done what would you prefer to be known for, your harmonica playing, all the music you have produced or all the efforts you put out to educate the world on the blues?
Oh Vinny, I hope I am known as a good person, that is all I hope to be known for. If anything on top of that happens then that is a blessing.
All photos courtesy bobcorritore.com
Credits: Robert Jr. Lockwood and Bob Corritore : Jim Wells – 1997 Photo Bob Corritore at 2010 BMAs: Arnie Goodman