Toronzo Cannon proud to represent Chicago blues

Jim Lundstrom

Toronzo Cannon feels a deep responsibility to the men and women who put Chicago on the musical map with the blues.

“Just the fact that I’m a Chicago blues man, for me, I’m so proud to be that,” he said in a recent telephone conversation to preview his Oct. 22 appearance at the West Theatre. “All of the guys that came from down south and landed in Chicago, things changed for the better for the world of music and rock and the whole thing because, you know, the rock cats got their template from them, right?” he said. “They didn’t know they were making history. They were just playing gigs. That was their way of living, you know, to pay bills and take care of families. And at the same time, they were creating something that changed the landscape of music. Chicago blues influenced the rock guys, you know? So, Chicago’s got it, man, and I got to do it right.”

Cannon is a native of South Side Chicago who got his first guitar, a Harmony acoustic, at age 22, and quickly learned that he is a left-handed guitarist. “I knew I was left-handed,” he said, “but until I picked up a guitar, I didn’t know I was a left-handed guitar player. We had to take the guitar back to the shop and get it fixed for me.”

At that time he was into all kinds of music of the day, but he really wanted to learn to play Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” He managed that, and soon found himself in a reggae band. He calls reggae “Jamaican blues.”

Early on, Cannon decided that if he was going to play music, he’d prefer to write his own songs rather than perform covers. “My first song was called ‘Ain’t No Stranger,” and it was from a reggae song, from Ziggy Marley lyrics. He said, ‘I’m no stranger in your town, as long as reggae is around,’ something like that. And I was like, let me take that lyric. So it’s just a blues shuffle, and I said, ‘I’m no stranger in your town as long as some blues around.’ And so then I just started thinking, I just want to write my own stuff and let people know about who I am or my thought patterns, you know.”

In 1996, at the age of 28, Cannon started playing sideman in blues bands led by Tommy McCracken, Wayne Baker Brooks, L. V. Banks and Joanna Connor. In 2001 he formed his own band, and in 2007 he recorded and self-released his first album, My Woman.

In 2011 he released Leaving Mood on the Chicago blues and jazz label Delmark, following that in 2013 with John the Conqueror Root, which was nominated for Rock Blues Album of the Year in the Blues Foundation’s annual Blues Music Awards.

In 2015 he left Delmark and joined the other big Chicago blues label, Alligator. “It’s a different level,” he said of being with Alligator.

“I was with Delmark first, which is great, you know. They put some light on me, right. But Alligator took that light and, you know, took me all over the world with it. So, that trajectory of being on the oldest blues label in America, maybe the world, Delmark, to go from there to Alligator, which is now, I think, the largest in the world when it comes to blues, not too many Chicago blues artists have done that. It’s an honor to be on two major blues labels like that.”

One other thing you should know about Cannon, while growing into his musical career, he was also doing 10-hour shifts as a driver for the Chicago Transit Authority. He finally retired from that job in 2020 after 29 years as a driver. The experience filtered into his songwriting.

“I like to say I’ve traveled through so many different tax brackets in a 10-hour shift, especially if you go from east to west,” he said. “In the east you got million dollar homes, and then when you go west, you got people that can barely make the bus fare. When you see that, if you’re really looking, and you know, wow, on so many levels that is not cool. But this is life in the city. It’s like, wow, this has to be written about.”

The song “Pain Around Me” from his first Alligator record The Chicago Way is based on things he has seen from the bus he drove.

“It was about people who maybe get on my bus, not one specific person, but people. Say a guy gets on my bus, he’s a good guy, but he just happens to live in a bad neighborhood. And, you know, things he wants for his children,” he said. “I wrote about some things like that, you know, because that is the blues. And those are things that happen in life situations. I think if that lets the public know, those who may not live in those neighborhoods, or other cities or whatever, you know, it gives them a view of what I see, what was going on in Chicago at the time.”

Cannon quickly decided that he did not want to dwell on typical blues themes.

“I do songs like that on purpose,” he said. “I feel after you write so many songs about my woman left me, you have to start writing a song about why all these women are leaving you. There’s gotta be a reason. That’s why I write song where it’s like, here’s a man who wants to take care of a woman and her kids. And I got this from Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, who used to say ‘I’m not writing any women-hating songs.’ I cling to that.”

Cannon followed up his 2016 Alligator debut The Chicago Way (which was nominated for Blues Music Award Album of the Year) in 2019 with The Preacher, The Politician or the Pimp, which included a tough, swaggering song called “The Chicago Way.”

The night before we talked, Cannon had been in the studio, recording for his next Alligator release. “We’re gonna have fun in Duluth,” he said. “I’m going to introduce some new songs that I recorded yesterday, about four new songs that I do on his new album,” he said.