Blues the Chicago Way
April 27, 2017
Toronzo Cannon sounds like the name of some kind of space weapon. It isn't.
Toronzo Cannon is the name of a powerful force, however.
In this case, that force takes the form of a left-handed blues guitarist from Chicago. And like his name, his music is something you'll not soon forget.
With the 2016 release of The Chicago Way, his fourth CD overall and first on the iconic Alligator label, Cannon is cementing his place as one of Chicago's and the world's most recognized songwriters and guitar players. Nominated for four Blues Foundation Music Awards, The Chicago Way finds Cannon shooting for the moon.
Cannon is the headliner of the 2017 Blues Bash held this year on Saturday, May 6 at C2G Music Hall in Fort Wayne. The Blues Bash is the annual fundraiser for The League, formerly called The League for the Blind and Disabled.
Opening the Blues Bash will be local favorite G-Money Band. G-Money Band - G-Money on guitar and vocals; Stevie Lunn on guitar, sax and vocals; Geo Conner on bass; and Mark Glanemann on drums and vocals - will get the show rolling with a mix of blues, Motown and classic rock.
Now in its eighth year, the Blues Bash helps support one local program per year. This year the proceeds will stay close to home, according to The League president and CEO David Nelson.
The League has been working with blind and disabled people in the Fort Wayne area for 67 years and now serves some 3,000 people annually.
"This year we're supporting the new home health care program we've started up," Nelson said. "We'll be providing in-home care for those who need it."
The new program will help the elderly and disabled stay in their homes and communities instead of going to long-term care facilities, Nelson said. "It's a win-win for everybody."
Staying close to home is a concept Cannon knows well. A Chicago native, Cannon grew up in the shadow of Theresa's Lounge, one of Chicago's classic south side blues clubs. But for Cannon the blues was something old people listened to.
"As a kid, I didn't know there was blues music around," Cannon said in a recent interview. "That was my grandparent's music., but I wasn't listening to it."
Instead, Cannon, who was born in 1968, listened to R&B, rock, pop and new wave. As often happens, it was his older brother who introduced him to the music of the day.
"My brother would bring in Devo and Blondie," he said. "And The Police. I was also listening to Chaka Kahn and Earth, Wind and Fire. But I was one of those kids in the neighborhood who would be playing the Beatles in my boombox. All the black guys were like, 'What are you listening to, man?' I would listen to The Police and would want to compare the drumming of Stewart Copeland to Earth, Wind and Fire's drummer. That conversation was quick."
Cannon (his grandfather named him Toronzo to honor his Native American heritage) didn't begin to play music until he was 22 or 23. He's unclear on exactly when he latched on to his first guitar because for him it wasn't a particularly monumental event.
"It's kind of a gray area because I didn't know I would be doing it this long," he said. "So I can't really say 'this is the day that changed my life.'"
And it wasn't the blues he started to learn. It was reggae. The first song Cannon learned was "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley. And he learned it by watching videos of Marley playing it. But there was a twist: as a left-hander, Cannon learned on a right-handed guitar. Like Hendrix, Cannon plays upside down.
"I'd look at Marley's hands and then look and mine and think, hey, they're kind of in the same area," he said.
At the time, Cannon was working full-time as manager of a movie theater. But he soon switched jobs and became a bus driver with Chicago Transit Authority, a job he still has today. Cannon recalled the excitement of learning to play guitar.
"It was funny. Here I was a grown man, and I couldn't wait to get home to practice."
Self-taught, talented and very eager to learn, Cannon soon realized that reggae wasn't going to offer him as many chances to play with other musicians as the blues. There weren't any reggae jams in Chicago, he said, so he turned to the blues. And what better place for an aspiring blues guitarist to hone his chops than in the clubs of Chicago?
Cannon learned quickly from the greats: B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Hound Dog Taylor, J.B. Hutto. From 1996 to 2002 Cannon was a sideman for Tommy McCracken, Wayne Baker Brooks, L.V. Banks and Joanna Connor. In 2001, while still playing in other bands, he formed his own and called it The Cannonball Express. By 2003 he was leading his own band full-time.
He was also developing as a songwriter. He had the knack for it. Lyrically, Cannon tends to look at typical blues subjects - relationship trouble, money trouble - with a more humorous bent while still maintaining respect for the tradition. His songs, especially on his later CDs, speak with a natural voice.
"I try to write for the human condition," he said. "I try not to have predictable rhyme words. I listen to some blues nowadays and everything is like, 'Oh I got the blues / cause I'm gonna lose / I'm down to my shoes.' There's a way you can put it to have more substance or more meaning to it."
On The Chicago Way Cannon writes with humor about topics like working through a mid-life crisis and why he prefers a "Fine Seasoned Woman" to a 22-year-old. He also sings about things he sees on his bus route. The song "The Pain Around Me" came to him from the things he's witnessed through the windshield of his bus.
"If I hit the right pothole, it jars something loose in my mind," he said. "I got the idea for that song while I was driving through a bad neighborhood."
Cannon somehow manages to work four 10-hour days each week while touring in the states. For his many trips to blues festivals in Europe, he uses his vacation days. If Cannon wins one of the Blues Music Awards this year, he may decide not to keep his job. Then again, who knows? He doesn't take anything for granted.
Cannon knows he'll never find the name 'Toronzo' on a keychain. But he's working as hard as he can to make sure everyone remembers who he is."
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