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Toronzo Cannon Interview

The internationally acclaimed Chicago blues man discusses his third release for Alligator Records, Shut Up and Play. The official CD release party will be held at SPACE in Evanston on June 6, during Chicago Blues Fest week.

By Linda Cain

Photo: Roman Sobus

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 lived a few doors down from the famous Theresa’s Lounge on 48th and Indiana Ave. He would sometimes sneak a peek inside the blues club where acts like Junior Wells & Buddy Guy held court because his uncle worked there. Toronzo’s adult relatives always made sure to play their favorite blues and R&B records at family gatherings. But it wasn’t until he was older that Toronzo was really struck by the blues.


Cannon’s sister gifted him his first guitar at age 22, and his natural talent enabled him to quickly master the instrument.  Toronzo’s major influence at the time was Bob Marley and reggae music; he soon became drawn to the blues, especially Jimi Hendrix. “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, J.B. Hutto, Lil’ Ed Williams and others. Although influenced by many, Cannon’s biting, stinging, expressive 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. His first three albums—2007’s My Woman (self-released), 2011’s Leaving Mood (Delmark) and 2013’s Blues Music Award-nominated John The Conquer Root (Delmark)—document his rise from new kid on the block to promising up-and-comer.

Cannon fulfilled that promise with the 2016 release of his Alligator Records debut, The Chicago Way, with his maturity as an artist on full display. The album was hailed as the emergence of one of the most electrifying bluesmen to burst onto the international stage in decades. The groundbreaking 2019 follow-up, The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp, built upon the foundation he’d laid, creating and defining his vision of contemporary blues.

Local, national and international media all took notice. CNN filmed Cannon leading a tour of Chicago blues clubs and then broadcast the piece around the world. Local Chicago television station WGN won an EMMY award for their piece on Chicago’s new blues master. England’s tastemaker MOJO magazine declared The Chicago Way the #1 Blues Album Of 2016, and The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp as the #2 Blues Album Of 2019. 

Cannon has been nominated for ten Blues Music Awards, and, as his fan base expands, so do his friendships with famous musicians. Gary Clark, Jr. declared, “Toronzo is a beast. He lights the room up,” and Joe Bonamassa rightly pronounced, “Toronzo’s a great guitar player, excellent vocalist and an amazing personality.”

Photo: Toronzo selfie in Paris

Cannon has performed at clubs and festivals at major cities all over the U.S. and continues to bring his music directly to his fans. He’s toured Canada, the UK, made his way across Europe and even to Japan. He has played the Chicago Blues Festival on at least ten separate occasions, bringing tens of thousands of his fellow Chicagoans to their feet.

Cannon has always strived to write songs with substance, not the usual “woke up this morning and my baby was gone,” song lyrics. His songs tell compelling, relatable ---sometimes serious, sometimes funny-- stories that never fail to grab the listener’s attention, whether live or on record. His quality of songwriting has earned Toronzo the title “The Bob Dylan of the Blues” from Chicago Blues Guide’s editor/founder Linda Cain.

Ms. Cain caught up with Toronzo to discuss his third release for Alligator Records, Shut Up and Play. The official CD release party will be held at SPACE in Evanston on June 6, during Chicago Blues Fest week.

Photo: Roman Sobus

CBG: The title of your new Alligator release, Shut Up and Play, brings to mind the 2006 documentary about the Dixie Chicks, called Shut Up and Sing.

I don’t think what happened to these ladies -- death threats, hate mail, censorship, and backlash for making a single political statement against the Iraq War -- has happened to you, even though you address topics like politics and inequality in some of your songs. 

But what prompted you to write this song? Did somebody actually tell you to “shut up and play”?

TC: I noticed during the election of 2016 whenever I expressed my views as a taxpaying citizen of America, some of my fans encouraged me to just stick to the music, basically telling me to shut up and play. 


CBG: You were a CTA bus driver for 27 years and retired during the pandemic. While driving through the mean streets of Chicago picking up passengers, you certainly observed all kinds of behavior that became material for your songs. 

Now that you are no longer a bus driver, what is your main source of inspiration for songwriting these days? I know you are an avid news follower.


TC: I try to be aware of what’s going on around me. Most of my lyrical content, for this album was about me, reflecting on my life in the last five years. This was a hard album to write, but I someway found a muse or two to complete 12 songs. This album is very personal to me. It’s like a diary of the last five years of things I’ve been going through and I hope the audience can relate to it. 


CBG: Your new song “Had To Go Through It To Get To it” talks about overcoming injustices, trials and tribulations, set to a stompin’ gospel style beat, not unlike songs by the Staple Singers or Mavis Staples. Have they been an influence on you? The Staples always strived to perform and record music with a message.

TC: Yes the Staple Singers, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Marley, and several other notable entertainers had an influence on my writing and trying to reflect what we’re living in in these times. It’s a shame that some of the subjects that songs were talking about in the '60s are still relevant today, but still need to be heard.

Photo: Roman Sobus

CBG: In your Alligator Records bio you are quoted as saying:

“I write what I know, what I feel,” Cannon says, “I like to put myself in the shoes of the subjects of my songs. This record is about the things going on in my life since 2019—it’s a document of what I’ve seen and been through, but the stories are universal. And it’s my way to get past negative things and keep my own sanity. Listen to the lyrics. I am a Black man in America. These are NOT protest songs. I try to create honest, common sense understanding with my songs.”

Can you explain what you mean by saying: “These are NOT protest songs”?  I suppose it depends on your definition of a protest song. If a song speaks out about injustices, inequality or politics, that is a protest against things that are wrong. 

TC: I feel that they’re only protest songs if the listener disagrees with what I’m saying. I’d like to call them enlightenment songs, but I understand writing songs against the system that wants to marginalize African-Americans History might be considered a protest song to some.


CBG: You’ve heard the expression, “the pen is mightier than the sword”? Which do you think is mightier, the lyrics or the guitar? Especially since you are great at both!


TC: I’d like to say the lyrics because people don’t go home singing your guitar solo they sing the lyrics to the song; they remember the lyrics to the song.


CBG: Your song “Walk It Off” a.k.a. “The Chicago Way” helped define you. Your first Alligator album was titled The Chicago Way and you changed your band’s name to The Chicago Way. And you drape yourself with the Chicago flag onstage. That song is now a Toronzo classic that the fans can’t wait to hear all over the world. Is there another song of yours that has been a hit with fans in the same way?


TC: I think "John The Conquer Root" is one of those songs that the audience wants to hear and also my song "Insurance" is a popular song with the audience.

Photo: Roman Sobus

CBG: Some of your songs on the new album seem more introspective and personal than in the past. “Message to My Daughter” is a sad song about her parents breaking up, but you come out with support and encouragement for her. Of course you wrote it as a very loving, personal message for your daughter, but in the back of your mind were you thinking: I should record this so other families who are going through this struggle of divorce might find a message to help them get through it, too?

Photo: David Tepper

TC: Yes there’s a saying that misery loves company if you look at it when you write blues songs that people like or resonates with them; it’s kind of the same theory, but in a therapeutic way. I know that there are men out there going through emotional obstacles that I was going through, trying to figure it out, trying to understand, trying to be present while going through the process of divorce.


CBG: We know from your media posts that you are a proud papa. Please tell us about your daughter Gayun? How old is she now? Is she a working musician with her own band? She sings, writes songs and plays the guitar? Anything else she is doing? What have you taught her about playing music and the music business?

TC: My daughter is 22 now she’s graduating from Depaul University and she’s a singer- songwriter herself. She also writes from a real perspective of her life. Her degree will be in music management. Whenever she asks me about the music business, I can only tell her the things I’ve experienced.


CBG: I once suggested you might write songs for one of my favorite blues women, Nora Jean Wallace. Did that ever happen? 

TC: No I haven’t had a chance to write for Nora yet, but I would love to in the future. I did write a duet song with me and her for her last album called "That’s What I Love About you".

CBG: The two of you went to Japan to perform as Chicago cultural ambassadors. A few years back. What was it like?

TC: It was great to be part of that fest in Japan. That festival has been using Chicago musicians for the past 17 years and when we went there, of course, I had to give the council a Chicago flag because no one else in the past 16 years thought to do that. 

CBG: The musicianship on the new album is top notch.Your guitar playing rocks. Your session players are familiar names on our blues scene (Matthew Skoller, Jason “Jroc” Edwards), including your talented bandmates -- bassist Brian Quinn and Phillip “Dante” Burgess, Jr. on drums. The keyboard work by Cole DeGenova is outstanding. I’ve not heard of him. Tell us about him? Does he ever play with your band live? Are you currently a trio?

TC: No. I met Cole through Brian Quinn. He has his own group and he’s played with me a few times and I wanted him on the album. I normally go on the road with a four-piece. I’m using Andrew Toombs now on keys.


CBG: Your new song “Unloveable” features some tasty Elmore James style slide guitar, which made me look at the liner notes to see if it was Joanna Connor, your former “boss” lady since you played in her band for a time.

But it wasn’t Joanna, it was you! I don’t recall seeing you play slide live very often, if at all. Did Joanna mentor you at all on slide or otherwise? Or did you mostly just observe?

TC: That song was a labor of guitar slide love I’ve always wanted to play slide so I took my time and tried to figure it out as much as I could. I’m not a regular slide player, but I always admire Joanna Connor's slide playing . She’s great.


CBG: Jimi Hendrix is famously your biggest influence; you even have his image tattooed on your arm. And the title track is very Hendrix-y, along with past songs like “John the Conquer Root.”

As you know, I liken your songs to Bob Dylan’s, and Hendrix was a huge Dylan fan. He covered Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.” Traditional blues artist Rory Block is about to drop a new album that is all Bob Dylan covers. Has Dylan’s music ever been on your radar screen at any point in time? Any favorite Dylan songs?

TC: He was on my radar through listening to Hendrix. When I found out more about Dylan, I realized that people loved his lyrics; when you start calling me the Bob Dylan of the blues to me that is a huge honor because that means my lyrics are getting over to the people, not just how I sing not how I play, but the lyrics. Lyrics are very important.


Photo: Laura Carbone

CBG: You just played New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest. Congratulations! Your outfit was clearly an homage to Hendrix and it looked great. Were you going for an image so that the fans there would associate you with Jimi?

TC: yes that was my motivation. Some people even said it had a Sgt. Peppers  feel also. But it all looks so cool to me.


CBG: How was the crowd in the Blues Tent? Older? Younger? Enthusiastic? Dancing?

TC: It was a mixture of everybody young, old, different races; it was a very cool gathering. 


CBG: You have branched into the world of storytelling and will join Lynne Jordan’s group to tell tall tales at Davenport’s on June 2. You seem to be a natural at this since your songs tell such fascinating stories, both fact and fiction.

How did you prepare for this and will there be any live music from you and Corky Siegel? What can the audience expect for your storyteller debut?

TC: Well I do like to talk and set the songs up for the audience so it’s only natural to me to talk about how I wrote these songs and the motivation behind it and yes, me Corky and Lynn will do something. I’m not sure yet but something will be done.


CBG: Have you come to your senses yet or do you still ride around Chicago on your hover board and electric unicycle? And sometimes you strap on a guitar and mini amp to play along as you go? I’m sure you are having fun, but it seems risky!

TC: Yes I still ride my electric unicycle around the city for therapeutic reasons-- ha ha-- but life is a risk so why not take risks with something I love doing.


CBG: Be careful out there and we’ll see you at your upcoming shows around town. Thanks for taking the time for this interview!

TC: Thank you for doing what you’re doing for Chicago blues and letting the world know how we feel and things that we want to say to our fans and friends around the world. Thank you Chicago Blues Guide.

Photo: Roman Sobus

To hear or buy Shut Up and Play, CLICK HERE

On June 5, Toronzo will perform at Buddy Guy’s Legends for Big Llou’s Chicago Blues Fest Kickoff Party FunRaiser. B.B. King’s Bluesville announcer Big Llou Johnson will emcee this special show to raise funds for the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame, which is headed by Tomiko Dixon (granddaughter of blues icon Willie Dixon).

Performers include: Mud Morganfield, Rick King’s Royal Hustle, Carlos Johnson, Russ Green, Donna Herula, Anne Harris, Nick Alexander, Jamiah Rogers and more.

June 14 finds Toronzo onstage at Blues on the Fox in Aurora. This major two-day festival (Friday-Saturday) includes: Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Joanne Shaw Taylor, Wayne Baker Brooks and Guy King.


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