Local blues music venue celebrates 20th anniversary

Chicago musician Bob Corritore brings the blues to Phoenix at the Rhythm Room, which celebrated its 20th anniversary over the weekend. (Evie Carpenter/DD)

You don’t have to make a pilgrimage to the south side of Chicago or truck down to the backwoods of Mississippi to get a taste of real blues in Phoenix. Bob Corritore, world-class bluesman and owner of The Rhythm Room, has what you need.

Sunday marked the 20th anniversary for the venue, and Corritore is only getting started. The Rhythm Room’s weekend-long anniversary celebration drew crowds from all over the country, spanning three days and featuring dozens of local and national blues acts.

The nearly invisible sign and drab gray building of The Rhythm Room, located on the southwest corner of East Indian School Road and North Eleventh Street, is easy to miss for those who are not searching for it, but it has become a second home for national and homegrown blues bands as well as the growing number of fans.

Inside the large windowless club the black and gray walls, dark concrete floor and parquet dance floor could easily be mistaken for the kind of basement where underage teens party and listen to high school garage bands belt out awful covers of Green Day songs.

But you will not find any of that at The Rhythm Room. What you will find is Corritore, sporting 1950s greaser bouffant hair and shaking hands with patrons as if everyone in the club were an old friend.

After he left the Chicago blues scene to come to Phoenix in 1981, Corritore was determined to bring a piece of the Windy City with him.

The opening of The Rhythm Room in September 1991 served as a catalyst for Corritore’s career, as he and his All-Stars would host recording sessions with everyone from the legendary Bo Diddley to Pinetop Perkins, one of the great blues piano players.

“It’s all worked together in a wonderfully synergistic way. By being in the position to be able to hire the acts that I love to come into town it has solidified relationships and built relationships and made things possible that wouldn’t have been possible before,” Corritore said. “It’s become a thing where people are looking forward to being asked to be a special guest in the house band. It’s a really powerful thing.”

Corritore is not just a business owner or one of the fastest harmonica players west of the Mississippi; he has also been running his own weekly radio show “Those Low Down Blues” every Sunday night on the Valley’s KJZZ 91.5 FM since 1984, where he continues to bring blues masters to the desert airwaves.

“I’m lucky I get to do all this stuff,” he said. “I get to surround my life with the music that I enjoy. I’ve been able to do a lot of things that the average person who owned a club would not – be a record producer and a musician.”

Amid the hustle of running a successful venue, fronting an internationally sought-after blues band and hosting a radio show that has been around since the days of the 8-track tape, Corritore still finds time to produce award-winning albums.

This year, his album “Bob Corritore and Friends” was nominated for best traditional blues album at the annual Blues Bash Music Awards in Chicago. The 15-track album compiles recordings from two decades and includes a veritable who’s who of legendary blues musicians such as the late Koko Taylor, a Grammy Award-winning singer.

“Bob – he knows the blues. He’s like an encyclopedia,” said Mona Lisa Watkins, general manager of The Rhythm Room. “He gets the most joy out of making music and seeing people enjoy the blues is one of the greatest things for him, and you can see it in his face. He always shines whenever he comes in here.”

Not only does Corritore strive to run a profitable venue, he is truly dedicated to providing a performance space for deserving, unique musicians, Watkins said.

“We’ll have a show where the dollar signs aren’t there, but it feels good to him – a show that needs to be done that nobody else will do,” she said.

Corritore’s commitment to exposing Phoenix to the blues spans listeners of all ages, he said, adding that The Rhythm Room is a good place to get a first taste of the music and culture.

“It’s a good hang for people who haven’t introduced themselves to the blues,” he said. “The blues speaks to all generations, so we invite everybody. There’s no division when it comes to the blues.”

The audience at The Rhythm Room is as diverse a crowd as you are likely to find anywhere. Brian Webb, a computer science student at ASU, was at the venue to celebrate its 20th birthday.

“I come here at least once a month,” Webb said, adding that he plays the guitar. “I think any musician will appreciate (The Rhythm Room). It’s so cool but I guess it’s just not known with our age group.”

Casey Davis, another ASU student and friend of Webb’s, was also at The Rhythm Room this weekend – his first time at the venue.

“It was pretty freaking awesome,” Davis said. “It was kind of my first real blues experience and I didn’t know what to expect, but I’ll definitely be back.”

So if you do not know Big Walter Horton, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson, there is no need to worry. It does not take a blues expert to enjoy what Corritore has built at The Rhythm Room, a venue bustling with more activity than a trading floor on Wall Street, and after 20 years of bringing blues to the Valley, there is no end in sight.

Contact the reporter at rwnoel@asu.edu