|FEATURE -- Toronzo Cannon Interview
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
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
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
Chicago Blues Guide Editor Linda Cain caught up with the multi-talented
blues man for an interview as follows.
Toronzo on stage at Chicago Blues Fest
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 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
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?
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
got 22 years with the company and yes I use my vacation time for my
Toronzo at the Temple of Garnia in
Do you hope to tour more often? Can you retire from your day job anytime
I would love to do more touring. I got four years to go before retiring.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
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.
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's selfie at the Eiffel Tower
Q. How do foreign audiences react to your music compared to
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.
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
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?
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?
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.
photo: Roman Sobus
Q. How did the Flying V guitar come to be your symbolic guitar?
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.
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?
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.
photo: Roman Sobus
What type of music do you listen to that isn’t blues?
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
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.
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
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.
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.