Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene

radio shows
record labels
Live Shows

Windy City Blues ad

FEATURE -- Toronzo Cannon Interview
Buddy Guy CD banner

Toronzo Cannon’s star rises, signs with Alligator Records

Whether he dons a fedora for his night job or a bus driver’s cap for his day job, versatile Toronzo Cannon is never far from the blues

Toronzo Cannon triplets by Jenn
photos: Jennifer Noble

By Linda Cain

Toronzo Cannon was destined to become a blues man.  As a child growing up on Chicago’s South Side, he had no clue as to his future occupation as an internationally known guitarist, singer and songwriter.  Young Toronzo was more interested in the neighborhood Baldwin’s ice cream parlor than he was in the blues being played a few doors down at the famous Theresa’s Lounge on 48th and Indiana.

Occasionally he would sneak a peek inside of the famous blues joint where Junior Wells would hold court to check out his uncle who worked there. And at family parties, Toronzo’s adult relatives always made sure to play their favorite blues records. It wasn’t until he was older that Toronzo was really struck by the blues.

He started playing guitar in his early 20s; his major influences were Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. Toronzo says he learned his first chords from watching Bob Marley videos. He also learned to play on stage by attending local jams, which were mostly blues jams. Once he discovered guitarists like Albert King, Freddie King and B.B. King, he was hooked.

Toronzo got to know many Chicago blues players and was welcomed as a sideman to artists like Tommy McCracken, Wayne Baker Brooks and Joanna Connor before he stepped into the role as band leader of the Cannonball Express.

His star has risen steadily since the 1990s; Toronzo recorded two critically acclaimed CDs for the Delmark label and has toured the world. John The Conquer Root was nominated for a Blues Music Award for best blues/rock CD. Toronzo has played Chicago Blues Fest for nine consecutive years; including headlining on the Petrillo Stage for this year’s 2015 fest to a standing ovation. He recently signed a recording contract with Alligator Records.

Yet Toronzo still maintains his 22-year day job as a CTA bus driver, which has served as a source of inspiration for his slice-of-life blues songs.

Chicago Blues Guide Editor Linda Cain caught up with the multi-talented blues man for an interview as follows.

Toronzo Cannon at Chicago Blues Fest 2015
Toronzo on stage at Chicago Blues Fest 2015
photo: Jennifer Noble

Q. Congratulations on being signed to Alligator Records! After two very successful CDs with Delmark, how do you think you can improve on your game and make an even bigger impact on the blues world as an Alligator artist?

Thank you. Well…I think with every CD you put out, it’s an improvement, hopefully. Delmark and Alligator have different marketing strategies and fan bases. I think being on both historical labels in Chicago, I will get the attention of the Blues world like “who is this guy that can do that? Let’s check him out.”

Toronzo full length by Jenn
photo: Jennifer Noble

Q. Is there a back story re: your coming to the attention of Bruce Iglauer? He is a very knowledgeable business man and extremely choosy when it comes to signing artists.

 I’ve been knowing Bruce for years. If I had questions about Blues business, I would contact him. Of course in the back of my mind I was thinking “wow it would be cool to record on Alligator one day” but I never let it consume me. I just kept writing songs, doing my gigs, recorded two critically acclaimed CDs at Delmark, one which got me a BMA nomination. And one day I got a call “to talk”.

 Q. What does signing with Alligator mean to you artistically? As evidenced by your excellent Delmark CDs, (2011’s Leaving Mood and 2013’s John The Conquer Root) you are very versatile and write songs in different genres such as Chicago blues, blues-rock, soul, R&B and gospel.

 Well I think it’s just an extension of what I was doing at Delmark.  Producer and sound engineer Steve Wagner at Delmark never put any restrictions on my music and how I wanted to record it. We had an Eddie Kramer/Jimi Hendrix relationship. I think we pushed the envelope at Delmark on John The Conquer Root. It’s not the traditional Delmark sound. And I’ll be doing the same at Alligator, pushing sounds and limits. 

 Q. Your Alligator debut is scheduled for early in 2016. Can you give us a hint of what we can expect to hear on it?

It might sound cliche’ but the songs on the CD are about life. Some are a funny take on a topic and some are painful but honest….nothing “made up” to evoke emotion. Things that’s ALL AROUND US. I can guarantee the audience will be touched by these songs. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.

 Q. Going back in time, how does a regular dude, who grew up near the famous Theresa’s blues club on the South Side, go from being a CTA bus driver to an international blues artist?  Please describe your journey.

 Well, some of it is right place, right time, doing the right thing when it comes to the music and Blues, plus luck. Also people that are willing to give you a chance or see something in you that you might not see in yourself, being a little different in how you present your Blues to the people, and a little talent and hard work. 

Toronzo claps at Blues Fest
Toronzo gets the crowd going at Chicago Blues Fest 2015
photo: Jennifer Noble

  Q. You seem to lead a double life, judging by your many Facebook posts of your daily activity. How do you manage to balance both worlds: bus driver by day vs. bluesman by night? Not to mention being a family man! 

Yeah…I don’t do the “drive bus all day, play blues all night” thing. That’s dangerous for myself and my passengers and livelihood. My gigs are planned out so I won’t suffer. I can give the people a good show and I can still work safely. And my family knows “what daddy gotta do.” I still have time to do family stuff.

Q. You have posted on social media about some mighty strange things that have happened on your bus route. What was the weirdest incident so far that you have witnessed?

 Seeing two “obvious grandmothers” fight for a seat and the police made them apologize ‘cause he didn’t want to arrest them. And you get the occasional knife recovery situations and people shooting heroin on the bus. Other than that it’s a normal day in the city.

 Q. How many years have you been working for the CTA? Are you still a full-time driver? After putting in so many years as a driver, you must have accrued a lot of vacation time so you can travel overseas to perform.

 I got 22 years with the company and yes I use my vacation time for my overseas gigs. 

toronzo cannon at temple in Armenia
Toronzo at the Temple of Garnia in Armenia

 Q. Do you hope to tour more often? Can you retire from your day job anytime soon?

 Yes I would love to do more touring. I got four years to go before retiring.

 Q. Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

 Doing my thing…it would be easier without the day gig, but I got to “do what I got to do to do what I wanna do.”

 Q. You had the honor of performing on the maiden voyage of the European Blues Cruise last year (which CBG covered). And you have been asked back for this year's cruise. Please tell us about some of the other glamorous gigs or exotic countries where you have played the blues.

 Wow…Armenia three times in 13 months, Brazil, France, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Amsterdam, Mexico, London, South Africa (thanks Liz). They all have different flavors and are beautiful in their own right. Most of these gigs I did in a period of 20 months so it was a whirlwind of travel. Very cool feeling to be wanted to play in these countries. And I got some more to go yet.

Toronzo Cannon at Eiffel Tower
Toronzo's selfie at the Eiffel Tower

 Q. How do foreign audiences react to your music compared to hometown fans?

 I try not to compare audiences. Every person and culture receives the music differently. I’ve seen people I thought wasn’t feeling what I was doing come to me at the end of the show with tears in their eyes trying to explain how they felt when I was playing and thanking me. I’m talking men and women here and in Europe.   

     Q. Can a European who has never been to Chicago understand the references in your songs that perhaps only a Chicagoan would “get”? As a songwriter, that must be a challenge to pen lyrics that are universally understood.

 There are cultural differences yes, but I try to write as universally as possible, but keep the integrity of the song. 

 Q. Many of your songs tell interesting, clever and sometimes violent stories. How does your daily life inspire you to write songs? How does the songwriting process work for you? Can you give us some examples of an incidents in your life that inspired a song?

 I try to write as if I’m looking through someone’s window or eavesdropping. There are some songs that are inspired by life ‘cause I’m 47 and lived a little ;)

     Q. How many guitars do you have? Which are your favorites and why? You famously smashed one of them at Chicago Blues Fest a couple years ago. Which model was that?

 Six. All are my favorites. They all help me get my point across even if I have to fight with some through the night. It builds character for the song and makes me approach the songs different. I smashed a Fender guitar. It was something I always wanted to do since I saw a video of Hendrix doing it. 

Toronzo eats guitar by Roman
photo: Roman Sobus

 Q. How did the Flying V guitar come to be your symbolic guitar?

 I like the sound of the V. It has a “hollow” sound that’s different from other solid body guitars. Plus, seeing Bluesmen like Albert King, Otis Rush, Larry McCray, Little Jimmy King and, years later Michael Burks, play them.  Also lefty Vs are hard to find so I got a right hand V and turned it upside down. My Vs are made by Luthier Kurt Wilson guitars now. He specializes in Korina Flying Vs. Very light wood and good tone wood.

Toronzo closeup Flying V by Jenn
photo: Jennifer Noble

 Q. You are known as a Jimi Hendrix fanatic. You, like Jimi was, are a lefty. So are a number of other famous guitarists such as Otis Rush, Eddy Clearwater, Paul McCartney. Is there anything special or different that you do to play your guitar left-handed? In a world dominated by the right handed, was it hard to learn guitar at first?

 I used to flip all my righty guitars lefty but now most of my guitars are lefty. I learned just like a righty. Trial and error.

Toronzo by Roman
photo: Roman Sobus

 Q. What type of music do you listen to that isn’t blues?

 Old soul R&B, Reggae, and contemporary jazz. But I still listen to my Blues music…I got to.

 Q. Is there an artist living today that you would love to perform with? 

 Ronnie Earl, Gary Clark Jr., Shemekia Copeland.

 Q. What are your thoughts on the current blues scene in Chicago compared to the scene 20 years ago? Certainly we have lost many of our irreplaceable hometown greats during that time period. 

 Yes we have and it’s unfortunate and sad. I think it’s about the same as it was 20 years ago. Cats trying to do their gigs and do what they love and once and a while catch a break and go overseas or cut for a record label and keep doing it.

One of my local heroes we lost was Chico Banks. He was our Michael Jordan on this Chicago Blues scene. He had an excellent show full of excitement with guitar, singing and crowd pleasing. He is very missed on this scene. And when you tell younger guys about him you can’t fully explain, you just have to show them a YouTube video or get another person that knew Chico to help you in your explanation of him. A beautiful cat really!!!

Q. You are known for being a gentleman who shows great respect for elders and who also requires proper stage etiquette for your bandmates. Plus you are one sharp dresser! Can you share your philosophy about that with us? What some examples are you are setting that you’d like to see followed?

 When I first came on the scene I was taught to RESPECT THE STAGE, RESPECT THE STAGE, RESPECT THE STAGE. If you have a problem with a band member, talk about it after the show, the audience didn’t pay for that. Keep it pro. I feel if you dress like you respect your show, you respect your audience. It should be an event every time we hit that stage. 

 Thank you for your time to answer our questions, Toronzo. These questions came from several of CBG’s staff members, not just me.

 Thank you, I hope to give you and your staff a lot more to write about. I want your subscribers to know that Chicago Blues is alive and I’m here to prove it and do my part along with other Chicago musicians. 


Illinois Blues Fest 2015
Dave Specter Tad Robinson at SPACE
Sept. 16 at SPACE, Evanston
Get the party started!
Grana Louise flip photo
Book a blues band & more with Cain's Music Connection
Jukin' Jenn radio ad
Hambone Logo
Hambone's Blues Party on WDCB 90.9 FM
Momo Mama Blue Chicago
Blue Chicago
536 N. Clark
Chicago, IL


rambler.jpg lynnejordan.jpgLynne Jordan