Throughout the history of Chicago blues, the intensely competitive local club scene has served as a proving ground, where only the best musicians rise to the top. Iconic blues artists from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf to Koko Taylor to Hound Dog Taylor to Luther Allison all paid their dues in the Chicago blues bars before making their mark on the world. The same holds true today, as newcomers look to living legends like Buddy Guy, Eddy Clearwater and Lil’ Ed Williams for inspiration in taking their music from Chicago to fans across the globe. Now, Chicago-born-and-raised blues guitarist /vocalist/ songwriter Toronzo Cannon is ready to write his own story as he claims his place as one of the city’s most popular and innovative blues musicians.
Cannon’s unofficial launch from local hero to national star took place on June 13, 2015 at the world-renowned Chicago Blues Festival, where he performed as a festival headliner for the massive crowd. After announcing that he had just signed with Alligator Records, he delivered a riveting set, instantly earning tens of thousands of new fans. Of the performance, The Chicago Tribune said, “Cannon made the most of his opportunity as a festival headliner to win over a new audience.”
The Chicago Way is the Alligator debut by the electrifying Windy City bluesman, produced by Cannon along with label president Bruce Iglauer. The album, featuring nothing but Cannon originals, is powered by his blistering guitar and soul-baring vocals. His songwriting is inspired by his deep, homegrown Chicago roots, his years observing the public while working as a city bus driver on the West Side, and his own battles and triumphs. From searing blues anthems to swinging shuffles to soulful ballads to roof-raising rockers, the songs tell timeless stories of common experiences in uncommon ways. “I’ve never worked harder on my writing,” Cannon says. “I challenged myself at every step, writing each song to connect with someone in my audience. I try to write songs that will be both up-to-the-minute and timeless.” He writes about shared experiences with a keen eye for detail. “Blues is truth-telling music,” he says, “and I want my audience to relate to my stories.” As a singer, his impassioned vocals add muscle and personality to his already potent songs. With The Chicago Way, Cannon knows more and more people will be hearing his message: the future of Chicago blues is in good hands.
According to Cannon, “To be from Chicago and be signed to Alligator is unreal. To be part of Alligator’s history…I’m at a loss for words.” Iglauer is equally excited to have Cannon join the Alligator family, saying, “I’ve watched Toronzo grow as a singer, player and songwriter over the last ten years. He’s now become a major blues talent, using the Chicago blues tradition as a launching pad to create his own unique, contemporary vision. His music comes right from the heart of the city.”
Cannon was born in Chicago on February 14, 1968, and grew up in the shadows of the notoriously tough Robert Taylor Homes. Theresa’s Lounge, one of the city’s most famous South Side blues clubs, was nearby. As a child, Cannon would stand on the sidewalk outside the door, soaking up the live blues pouring out while trying to sneak a glance inside at larger-than-life bluesmen like Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. He also heard plenty of blues growing up in his grandfather’s home, and listened to soul, R&B and contemporary rock on the radio.
Cannon bought his first guitar at age 22, and his natural talent enabled him to quickly master the instrument. Although his initial focus was reggae, he found himself increasingly drawn to the blues. “It was dormant in me. But when I started playing the blues, I found my voice and the blues came pouring out.” He absorbed sounds, styles and licks from Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Hound Dog Taylor, B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Al Green, Jimi Hendrix, J.B. Hutto, Lil’ Ed and others. Although influenced by many, Cannon’s biting, singing guitar sound is all his own.
From 1996 through 2002, Cannon played as a sideman for Tommy McCracken, Wayne Baker Brooks, L.V. Banks and Joanna Connor. But he was determined to prove himself. In 2001, while continuing to work as a hired-gun guitarist, he formed his own band, The Cannonball Express. By 2003, he was working exclusively as a band leader. Cannon’s first three albums — 2007’s My Woman (self-released), 2011’s Leaving Mood (Delmark) and 2013’s Blues Music Award-nominated John The Conqueror Root (Delmark) — document his rise from promising up-and-comer to star-in-the-making.
Toronzo Cannon has become one of Chicago’s most recognized and most popular bluesmen through the sheer force of his music, his songs, his live charisma, and maybe most impressively, his passion for what he is doing. He’s played the Chicago Blues Festival on nine separate occasions, either as a sideman, a special guest, a band leader or, most recently, as a main stage headliner. When he’s home, Cannon drives a Chicago Transit Authority bus by day and performs by night. Using every vacation day and day off and working four ten-hour shifts a week, Cannon arranges his schedule to gig out of town as much as possible. He’s performed in a number of U.S. and European cities and continues to build his audience one roof-raising show at a time. It isn’t easy, but, like all of the Chicago greats who have come before him, blues is his calling. “I am proud to be part of a movement,” he says, anxious to hit the road and bring his music to new fans in new places. “I’m proud to be standing on the shoulders of every great Chicago blues musician who came before me.”
With The Chicago Way and a tour schedule that will take him coast to coast and around the globe, it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the world figures out what his hometown already knows: Toronzo Cannon is the real deal. He’s battled his way to the top of the ultra-competitive Windy City blues scene, has already played multiple tours of Europe and delivered roof-raising performances around the U.S.A. He’s earned his place through charismatic talent, long hours, hard work, and his burning desire to succeed. That’s his way, that’s the only way he knows. That’s the Chicago way.