Toronzo Cannon’s played the Chicago Blues Festival 10 times, but last year was the first time he headlined on the main stage. He used to occasion to announce he had signed with the esteemed label Alligator Records. Last February, he released “The Chicago Way,” an album broadcast every day on satellite radio. This week, it received the Living Blues magazine’s Readers and Critics’ Award for Producer of the Year – New Recording.
Cannon is exploding.
Nevertheless, he adheres to the adage “Don’t quit your day job.” Cannon is a bus driver for the city of Chicago.
“I’ve got a 14-year-old daughter to take care of, and I’m being a realist about things,” he told Tahoe Onstage. “I need health benefits. I don’t want my daughter to suffer just because Daddy is trying to be a blues star. I’m not going to be a starving artist.”
Cannon performs on his days off and uses his vacation time for touring the United States and Europe. He works four 10-hour shifts driving the No. 20 Madison route, which is Madison Avenue, the inspiration for Elmore James’ song “Madison Blues.”
“Some parts ain’t changed since Elmore was alive,” Cannon said. “You see a lot of life on Madison. I roll through several tax brackets from downtown to the west side of Chicago and I see a lot.”
Cannon wrote each of the 11 songs on the new album, including the opening track, “The Pain Around Me.” It’s about a man who rides his bus every day to get to work and the challenges he faces as raising his family. He has to carry a gun and he can’t let his kids play outside when thugs are around.
“I try to be like an open channel to look at other people’s lives about things,” he said. “I don’t live in the greatest neighborhood myself. I’m about three to five blocks away from ghettos.”
The songs feature myriad styles of the traditional guitar-led Chicago blues sound. From the witty and humorous “Midlife Crisis,” Fine Seasoned Woman” and “Bad Contract,” to the haunting “When Will You Tell Him About Me” and “Jealous Love” Cannon is every bit a superb lyricist as he is a guitar player. If the song “Chickens Comin’ Home to Roost” stirs memories of Chicago and Alligator legend Lonnie Brooks, it’s no coincidence. Cannon co-produced the album with the label’s founder and president, Bruce Iglauer.
The 48-year-old Cannon, whose former band was the Cannonball Express, released independent albums in 2002 and 2006, followed by two more in 2011 and 2013 with Delmark. Then Iglauer called.
“I’ve known Bruce for years and in the back of my mind I always thought it would be cool to be on the label but I didn’t think I could fulfill the obligations of being an Alligator artist because I have a regular job. But all of a sudden, on my own, I was doing some traveling over in Europe and still coming back and working my daytime gig. I’ve known Bruce for years and eventually I got ‘The Call.’ Who wouldn’t want to be on the same label as Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks and Luther Allison and countless others?
“It was a full-circle moment where I used to question myself if I was going in the right direction as a Chicago blues guy. Was I maintaining the status of Chicago blues? And then Alligator Records says, ‘How would you like to be a member of the family?’ ”
Cannon must have suspected he was on the right track. He played in a band fronted by Wayne Baker Brooks, one of Lonnie’s sons. He also developed a friendship with the other son, Ronnie.
“That family is like blues royalty here in Chicago,” Cannon said. “Lonnie Brooks told me, ‘A bluesman needs a good hat and a good pair of shoes.’ ”
After the release of “The Chicago Way,” Cannon was praised by Chicago’s most famous living bluesman.
“Buddy Guy, he talked to me a couple of times about that song ‘Walk It Off,’ ” Cannon said. “He said ‘I like that song where your wife was in the club and your girlfriend was there, too.’ So to get those types of compliments from guys who have been doing it for a while is very cool.”
The greatest praise comes from Iglauer, who wrote the liner notes, identifying himself as “Proud Co-Producer.”
He wrote, “Toronzo Cannon has battled his way to the top of the ultra-competitive Windy City blues scene. … with this new album, Toronzo has taken a giant step forward, proving himself to be one of the most electrifying and original bluesmen of his generation.”
This weekend, Cannon will play in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range for the first time when he appears with Alligator label mate Shemekia Copeland at the Bluesapalooza in Mammoth Lakes. There is limited parking at the venue and most patrons get there via shuttle. So give a nod to your driver; you never know what other talents he might possess.
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- Mammoth Bluesapalooza
When: Friday through Sunday, Aug. 5-7
Headliners: Toronzo Cannon, Shemekia Copeland, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Jon Batiste & Stay Human, Michael Franit & Spearhead, Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings, Beth Hart, Allen Stone, Zac Harmon and Curtis Salgado