Blues guitarist and songwriter Toronzo Cannon is inspired by the world around him. As a bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority, he has a window seat to the rich culture and blues history of Chicago, like the Robert Taylor Homes and Theresa’s Lounge where he heard blues artists including Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. “I see a lot of stuff going on around me. I can drive down the street and see a bird on a light post and imagine myself being that bird and seeing from the vantage point that bird is seeing as I drive down the street. I try to take situations or things that I hear and turn it into a song,” he says.
Cannon will perform at the Belk Springing the Blues Festival April 1-3 in Jacksonville Beach. “The more happy faces I see doing their thing and having fun, the better I feel,” says Cannon. “When you feel that certain spirit in the air, you just try and give it back and I’m going to give them a show. I’m going to do my thing and just try to bring that Chicago grit.”
An “open channel” when it comes to mining material for his songs, Cannon is a storyteller with multiple voices. He steers away from the old “my-woman-done-me-wrong” school of thought and looks at a story from different angles. “The blues tend to be like a woman hating song. Men, we mess up too. I try not to write every song as my woman did this or a woman did that. I’ve done something that probably started this so check out this story,” he says. “I don’t write from experience a lot because some of my songs are like, ‘Ooooh, I’m tellin’ mama.’ I haven’t had many of those experiences in my life. I have a song called ‘Chickens Comin’ home to Roost’ about a guy that knew what was going to happen but at the end of the story he’s got blood on his hands. But you get a prequel to all this stuff that he did. You know, like why this chicken’s coming home to roost. He took his best friend’s wife and he’s raising his kids. You turn a rich woman poor and a good woman bad. I don’t have that kind of history, you know what I mean.”
Cannon is keeping the Chicago blues tradition alive with his latest album The Chicago Way released February 26 on Alligator Records. Produced by Cannon and Alligator President Bruce Iglauer, The Chicago Way showcases Cannon’s interpretation of contemporary blues. Playing all original material, Cannon’s lyrics contain a truth that’s as undeniable as his guitar playing. From frisky shuffles and hard blues to smooth ballads and funky R&B, Cannon shakes up all the flavors of Chicago blues and makes them his own.
“Every artist says ‘Oh, I’m excited for this,’ but I’m so thrilled about this. You always want to be better than your last CD. I just feel good about the stories, I feel good about my guitar playing and of course, I feel good being on Alligator. I was on the Delmark label for my first CDs but being pegged to do an Alligator release is very cool. The history of both labels is cool, but when you think about Alligator and who’s been on this label like Luther Allison, Albert Collins, and all these cats that when I first started playing I would listen to their stuff and now I’m on a label with these guys.”
An electrifying live performer, Toronzo has performed at high-profile European festivals despite holding down his day job and headlined the prestigious 2015 Chicago Blues Festival. “That was the quickest 45 minutes of my life,” he says. “It was madness.” He doesn’t read music but his fingers tell a different story. As a self-taught player, he learned everything he knows by watching the guys in the clubs. He’s not boxed in by the rules of classically trained musicians. He’s playing by ear, and by heart.
“Looking at people’s fingers, seeing where they are from the fret board, just trying to get my chords together. It’s a cool process because you’re constantly learning. You can never step back and say, ‘Okay, I’ve learned everything I need to learn.’ I’ve done great things in a short amount of time but still, I don’t read music. I know a couple of transitions, but I get my point across. Sometimes I think that’s better if you don’t have a lot of knowledge of what you’re doing because it makes your playing more real. I don’t know 13’s and 17’s. Maybe I do them but I don’t know them. I’m playing chords and variations of chords that sound good to my ear. Of course you want to get better at your instrument and of course, everyone wants to solo. Everyone wants to be Jimi or B.B. and kind of freak out and do stuff, but that’s all for your self, like, ‘See what I can do.’ I just like to get my stories heard and not have my solos take over the whole song. I’m trying to get back to the story and tie this thing up in a nice bow.”
“Chicago blues is still alive and we’re going to do our part to show you. People have this idea in their mind of what Chicago blues is supposed to sound like. Muddy Waters didn’t sound like Son House and Buddy Guy didn’t sound like Muddy Waters. You are inspired by your influences,” says Cannon. “We are standing on the shoulders of giants and holding up the blues a little higher. The cats from Mississippi and Selwyn and the cats from Florida are holding up their end. We’re all doing our part to uplift the blues and stand on the shoulders of whoever who came before us.”
With his soulful guitar playing, masterful storytelling and a Windy City pedigree to boot, Cannon is writing his own story, honoring the blues greats that paved the way as he carves out his place as one of the city’s most innovative blues musicians. Catch him at the Belk Springing the Blues Festival in Jacksonville Beach.