Harmonica Ace Bob Corritore Releases Three Albums Feat: Henry Gray, Dave Riley, Kid Ramos On ‘From the Vaults’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Phoenix’s famous blues club, The Rhythm Room, run by traditional blues harmonicist Bob Corritore (originally from Chicago) has provided him the opportunity to record sessions with the club’s many performers. Over a period of 22 years, Corriotre is now releasing three albums of unavailable and unreleased sets from his vast master tape archives in what he’s dubbed “From the Vaults” series. The first of these, Travelin’ the Dirt Road, with guitarist/vocalist Dave Riley was released on October 23rd, and appears below this week’s release, Phoenix Blues Sessions, with guitarist Kid Ramos. The third installment, Cold Chills, is due on December 4th featuring Howlin’ Wolf’s legendary pianist and solo artist in his own right, the late Henry Gray. 

Phoenix Blues Sessions features guitarist Kid Ramos and Corritore, who worked together on several studio recording sessions from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. These sessions were built around some great vocalists like Henry Gray, Nappy Brown, Big Pete Pearson, Chico Chism, Doctor Fish, and Chief Schabuttie Gilliame. The duo seamlessly interweaves their classic blues stylistics around each singer. The original release was a benefit album to help Kid in 2012 during his treatment of Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer. David ‘The Kid’ Ramos was born in Fullerton, California. He started performing professionally in 1980 with The James Harman Band. After playing guitar with Harman for eight years, he was in that same chair for The Roomful Of Blues for a short time. Kid was almost immediately successful with his solo debut Two Hands One Heart, from which much was remastered and re-conceived on this album along with some alternative recordings from the archives. The duo enlisted bassist Paul Thomas and string man Johnny Rapp (guitar and mandolin) well as the late drummer/vocalist Chico Chism (“Mother In Law Blues”) as the core band for the recordings.  Nappy Brown steps out on “Aw Shucks Baby” and the country inspired “Baby Don’t You Tear My Clothes.” Besides Tom Mahon, Henry Gray is also at the keyboard for five songs. Around Phoenix they affectionately call Schabuttie Gilliame “The Chief”. He lives in a small community just west of town called Buckeve and plays regularly in Phoenix and around California. The Chief holds sway on his “No More Doggin’” and the closing “Snakes Crawls At Night.” Among them all, his voice and that of Dr. Fish on “24 Hours” are “must hear” tracks.

Travelin’ the Dirt Road features singer-guitarist Dave Riley — and a small band cutting loose on acoustic and electric blues. Riley may be Corritore’s longest running partner and these sessions were taken from the original recording issued in 2007 with two previously unreleased tracks added. Even though all these songs are originals, most written by Riley, every song is rooted in common blues structures.  The accompanying band again features Rapp on ten tracks, with bassist Dave Riley, Jr., and drummer Tom Coulson. Pianist Matt Bishop and bassist Paul Thomas are on select tracks. Riley’s rich vocals, his stinging guitar work, and Corritore’s lively harp work, combine to deliver full-bodied arrangements on common, blues-themed subjects: men love women, make love to women, and get left by women. Good times, it seems, are always followed by bad times, and while these testosterone-laced clichés are sometimes tedious, they are the deeply ingrained in the idiom. Riley sings them convincingly with his gritty, credible voice. Many of these songs allow Corritore and Riley plenty of space to stretch out. 

Arguably, the strongest of the three, perhaps due to some sentimentality, given Henry Gray’s longevity (he passed this past February at the age of 95) is Cold Chills. Five years after Volume 1 Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest, (released on the defunct Delta Groove label) their second collaboration finally appears. Henry Gray laid down more than seven decades of recordings, and his playing contributed largely to forging the aesthetic of the modern blues piano, with others such as Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Eddie Boyd, and Otis Spann. A native of Kenner, a Louisiana town near Baton Rouge, he arrived in Chicago at the age of 21, and soon found his way into the emerging local club scene. Under the leadership of the great Big Maceo, he bonded there with local cats (including Jimmy Reed, Billy Boy Arnold and Elias McDaniel, alias Bo Diddley), and thus entered his first studio sessions as an accompanist, beginning in 1952. Sessions included Homesick James, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Jr Lockwood, Johnny Shines, Lazy Lester, Little Walter, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Little Walter and of course the guardians of the electrified Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, becoming a mainstay in the latter’s band.   Gray also accompanied Elmore James during his final performance in 1963. 

Like many valued sidemen, Gray did not become a leader until late. He was already almost 70 years old when his first name recordings appeared as Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest on Lucky Cat Records in 1999 while his last solo album, aptly titled 92, dates from 2017. Aware of supporting one of the last custodians of original Chicago blues, Corritore here brings an avalanche of guests, a veritable directory of blues luminaries. Hold on tight, this is dizzying  – John Brim, Robert Jr Lockwood, Tail Dragger, Bob Margolin, Eddie Taylor Jr, Rockin ‘Johnny Burgin, Kirk’ Eli ‘Fletcher, Bob Stroger ,the late Chico Chism, as well as Brian Fahey and Marty Dodson.  As the only constant musician alongside Gray over all 14 tracks, Corritore is heard but gives others and especially Gray most of the room. The repertoire is mostly standards (“Going Down Slow”, “Don’t Lie To Me”, or even “Going Away Baby” by Jimmy Rogers and “Mother In Law Blues” by Don Robey) with a few originals. Tail Dragger’s Wolf-like vocals on “Hurt Your Feelings” probably gave Gray some of those ‘cold chills’ as he may have clearly reminisced hearing his former mentor. Gray’s not a bad vocalist either as evidenced on “Mojo Boogie” by JB Lenoir or “The Twist” by Hank Ballard. Interestingly, as pointed out in the liners, the first song, “Ain’t No Use” is from their first Phoenix session 22 years ago while the last track, “The Twist,” if from their last session.

Corritore is blessed to have played with many of the greatest blues artists in history and continues to collaborate today with traditionalists like John Primer. Corritore is neither a writer or vocalist on any of the three albums, content to blow energetically and passionately while surrounded by superb players.  As such, all three recordings, and especially Gray’s, serve as historical documents. Rather than showcases of harmonica playing, (which is consistently strong of course), they read as diaries of a sideman who was both content and thrilled to be sitting in.

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