When I contacted Toronzo Cannon to set up an appointment for a phoner for Blues Blast, his masterful storytelling chops kicked in and quickly gave me the talking Blues. He regaled me right out of my logical mind. Somehow he convinced me out of the gate that he was present at Chuck Berry’s infamous 1959 Mann Act arrest!
At some point I remembered seeing Chuck Berry live when I was about sixteen. Berry was about forty then. I was nine in 1959 and am almost twenty years older than Toronzo. After an embarrassing laugh, the chronological facts finally in perspective, The Chicago Bluesman broke down the serious side of his story.
Mr. Cannon really considers storytelling the foremost facet of his Blues arsenal. He actually downplays his guitar playing and describes himself as a story driven Bluesman.
He was born and raised in Chicago under the strict tutelage of his grandparents, Linch and Earthy Lee Cannon. His grandfather Linch, bestowed upon him the name Toronzo and imbued upon him a healthy respect for the straight and narrow.
“I would’ve rather felt the wrath of the Blackstone Rangers than that of my grandfather. He and grandmother brought me up. He was from Jackson, Mississippi and she was from Memphis, Tennessee. They wasn’t takin’ no mess. All I needed was one whuppin’ from that razor strap. But, I got two in my life, know what I mean? That first one should’ve done me right, but then I went and stayed on the basketball court from noon until past nine at night one Saturday.
When he finally caught up to me, he said to me breathin’ hard, ‘You in trouble.’ In my mind, I’m sayin’, why you breathin’ so hard? We got to the house and the dog started barkin’. I tried to make it to my room. I had my little windbreaker jacket on and he grabbed me and said, ‘Don’t you ever stay outta this house and not let nobody where you’re at.’ I got it, man, I got it. It’s all about learnin’, but you can’t do kids like that these days though.”
Life before music was for young Toronzo was filled with hoop dreams.
“I wasn’t tryin’ to turn pro or nothin’. It was just a pastime, hangin’ out with the guys, talkin’ smack with your boys every Saturday. Though I didn’t drink, they would bring a case and we would be in the park havin’ fun. One fateful day, I cracked my knee, my meniscus and couldn’t play anymore. Up until then, I thought, I was a natural healer, cuz every other time, I got hurt, I just sat down for a couple of days or whatever with an Ace bandage on it.”
By his late teens Earthy Lee Cannon had Toronzo in church.
“At age 19, I was tryin’ to play drums. I was a left handed drummer and Jerry, the regular drummer for the choir was right handed and never would let me set up the kit left handed, so that kind of left me out of the box. In hindsight, it turned out to be a good thing because I’d have probably been a drummer had they been more patient with me. I remember the Pastor called me and said, “We’ve got some new drums at the church. Why don’t you come down and take them out of their boxes and set them up for me?” So I went down and did that, took them out of the boxes and set them up left handed. Then Jerry, the main drummer came in and switched everything around and I was like, man! Then when it was time for me to play, one of the women in the choir says, “I thought Jerry was gonna play.” I got off the the drums. I was burnt!”
I was compelled to ask The Chicago Bluesman if he ever saw evidence of the Holy Ghost in church.
“Oh yeah. Quiet as kept, I caught it one time. I’ll just put it this way. The spirit is real. I was sitting in church one day and the Pastor was hittin’ all these points that were goin on in my life at the time. He was hittin’ ’em hard. Suddenly I started feelin’ a little cold. My body started shakin’ a little and I started cryin’ out of both eyes. The next thing I knew the ushers were all around me. I didn’t fall out, I wasn’t slain in the spirit. All I can say is that’s why I don’t play with God. I can talk crazy and a little slick but I do not play with God. I see cats try to be slick and use God Bless You as the new F you these days. I get it on the bus all the time. I have to let it be known that I joke but don’t play.
Some people on facebook have it wrong and try to say things that are slick. I know what you mean but you don’t have to be slick with me. Just cuz you see me out here havin’ fun, doing my music without a scowl on my face, not being the kind of Bluesman you think I should be, that is, have a .22 in my shoe, a criminal record, fifty kids all over the place. Whatever you think – I’m not that kind of dude. So please don’t talk slick to me with that double meanin’ stuff. Time out for that. I still stand firm in my belief and I don’t mess with anybody. If you swing at me, I’m gonna swing back at you. I just don’t like the little mind games people play to try and one up you. Leave me alone with that. I have too much going in my mind anyway than for some chump to try to swing on me in this political age. I never said anything about your views, so don’t talk down to me about mine. One lady told me some time ago, that she didn’t believe I had a job, because you didn’t like my political views. Now I’m not tryin’ to pop my collar, but I’m a property owner, I have responsibility. What do you mean I don’t have a job and shouldn’t be talkin’ like that. I’m a taxpayer. Even if I wasn’t, as a voter, I have the right to say what I want to say. A perfect example of that was when Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers was attacked at the Hayward-Russell City Blues Festival a few years back.”
Toronzo’s church experience psychically scorched him just enough to be pulled in the orbit of the the guitar. It might’ve been DNA.
“I never saw it but they say when he was younger my grandfather had an old acoustic guitar that he used to bring out when he’d have a taste. I started playing when I was in my early twenties. You know, Chicago is a land of giants when it comes to Blues guitar. It makes you feel like a small giant cuz you see all these cats that are hella guitar players, from traditional to contemporary cats that can wail. Cats like Mike Wheeler, Carlos Johnson, Carlos Showers, Carl Weathersby, Guy King, Joanna Conner and Eddie Van Shaw. These are people that can take their shoes off and flat out play. They kill you with emotion and spirit. Me? I can get my point across lyrically and offer a nice guitar diversion in the process.”
When lauded for his own playing, he almost refuses to believe that his chops are anywhere near the cream. Obviously, his self concept is that he is a better lyricist than guitar player. When I compared him to Eric Gales, his response was, “Aww, come on Bruh… Eric is a monster. I’ll take the compliment but the way I feel is that if I can’t sell the fruit, then I can sell the vegetables. You know, there’s another Chicago Blues elder named Sammy Fender who told me years ago, ‘Don’t you ever deflect a compliment.’ So, I’m not tryin’ to do the whole modest thing. I’m really flattered that you would say something like that man, because, you know, I don’t hear what other people hear. And I’m always nervous and kinda insecure about my guitar ability. It’s part of what keeps me driving the bus. I’m on that bus everyday thinkin’ about how I can advance my music career. I need a plan B. That comes from my grandfather.
As far as my stage show and how I present my music, I’m very confident in that and I wish I was as confident in my guitar playing when I present it to the people. I’ve always been insecure about my guitar playin’ man, even though sometimes, I can get in the zone, freak out and feel good about what I’m doin’. Lately, I’ve been messin’ with the acoustic and slide to present more diversity in my playin’ and songwritin’. Part of it is to let cats know, yeah, I can do this too. Also to let my stories shine without a lot of guitar behind them.
So even though I’ve been out here for awhile, as recently as my last couple of East Coast swings through New York and Pennsylvania, I met fans who say they never knew about me until they saw me play. That’s kinda good when you’re playin’ a festival when people say, ‘Wow, he was energetic, he was freakin’ out, he was doin’ his thang better than the headliner. That kinda makes you feel good. I don’t know if it’s a Chicago thang or not, but I was taught by different musicians in Chicago that if you are playing under the headliner, you are supposed to light that headliner up – make that headliner work.
When I opened up for Otis Rush, I clammed up because, you know, it was Otis Rush. My band was relatively new. I hadn’t quite grasped the concept of eating up a headliner. The awe of opening up for him – He’s left handed, I’m left handed. I wasn’t a punk about it. I didn’t go out there suckin’ my thumb, not makin’ eye contact. I did my thang but not the way I’m capable of.
My friend Mike Wheeler says, ‘The reason why you might be insecure about it is because you know what you’re gonna play. People that hear you don’t know that, so when you are giving it to them, it’s their first time.’ So I can see where my mind might trick myself in that regard. Another friend of mine, a musician by the name of Ray Clark, said to me about the insecurity thing. ‘You know, it’s none of your business what the audience thinks about you.’
I was like, wow, that sounds crazy but I guess in the passion of my wanting to please everybody with my music, when you see that one dude in the audience with that smirk on his face, it’s like, dang, I’m movin’ everybody but this dude right here, but you know, maybe his face is like that because he has a corn or a bunion. Maybe I should concentrate on playin’.
Getting back to that Mike Wheeler quote, he actually told me that years ago. We were on a plane with Chico Banks going to do a gig in San Jose, California. Chico Banks was a local Chicago guy who was like the Michael Jordan of the Blues scene. He passed away in 2008. This was before I signed my first deal with Delmark. I was just happy to be with these two guys because they were my local heroes. Mike Wheeler was one of the first musicians to phone me without going Hollywood on me. Cuz, when I was new on the scene, I’d meet cats and they’d say, ‘Yeah man, we gon’ get together and do something, what’s your phone number?’ And then, never call. Mike was the guy who actually called. From that day he has been my best friend. I’d give him the keys to my house. I kid with him and my other friend Al Spears, telling them that when I die, they will be my two pall bearers. I might make it easy on them and get cremated, but so far, they are the only ones that can carry me to my grave. They’re cool like that. It’s good to have people like that who will pull you to the side and say, ‘Hey man, you foul,’ when you want to get down with someone, they’ll calm you down.
I’m not a violent dude, but there’s been a couple of cats I’ve been wanting to get (down) with. Sometimes you have to let people know, man. But my friends pulled my coattail. It was like, ‘Dude, you got too much to lose. As soon as you knock that stud in his face, that’s it. Again, I’m not a violent guy, but some things are hard to take.
As funny as it may seem, some people in the business tend to hate on me because I still have my bus drivin’ job. That somehow I’m not real enough for holding on to my day job. But it’s like I told the anonymous club owner that called himself blackballin’ me for a year. ‘You know, if I smash my guitar in the street today, tomorrow my bills will still be paid. I don’t have to beg anybody. My grandfather would come back in a dream and haunt me if I did.
Furthermore, I’ve never used anybody to get what I got and I’m proud and confident of that. Cuz I sit back and I see what cat’s do to make it. And if that’s their method of making it, handle your business, do your thang. But don’t look at me, don’t trip on me cuz I have a regular job. “Oh he’s a weekend warrior, he’s gotta job.’ Dude, ain’t none of this promised. Music ain’t promised. Job ain’t promised. So I’m not gonna let you sit back and throw stones at me because I have a plan B. You jumped in full force and now you have a tooth missin’, can’t pay your bills and have a different cell phone number every six months. I don’t live like that at this stage of my life. I see it for what it is. I don’t do anything to anybody. I don’t hang out. You’re not going to see me as a permanent fixture in the club cuz I’m tryin’ to get my little six and seven hours of sleep so I can go to work. I let people be who they are going to be and don’t like snakes around me anyway. Consequently, I’ve lost a couple of band members. Now if I was twenty or so it could be different, but at this stage, that’s how I get cats off me.
It’s just the opposite at my day job. Several TV crews have come down to the Chicago Transit Authority garage to do pieces on me. CBS, Fox, CNN. CNN did a special they used to encourage travel to Chicago. When the film crews set up it’s usually a three or four hour gig but management and my co-workers are cool.”
When we finally get around to discussing TC’s guitar arsenal he admits that while he likes Fender Stratocasters and Gibson series axes, the Gibsons are too hard to travel with overseas. “Consequently, I’ve had a couple of luthiers craft a couple of guitars for me. One is a Chicago Flag guitar. I’ve been rocking it for about three or four months now. I’m proud of playing it because it represents the legacy of Chicago Blues and the Bluesmen that settled here. It’s a good travel guitar that I don’t have to worry about getting banged around and showing up with a broken neck. You know, being left handed when you play a venue, there is usually no readily available left handed guitar anywhere. With a right handed player, usually someone can call a friend and it’s there. Just to be clear, I play a right handed guitar with the strap upside down and the big string on top. Not like Albert King and Otis Rush. I string mine like Jimi.”
Having asked about the Holy Ghost in Toronzo’s church experience, I flip it and ask about how the Spirit hits when he plays the Blues.
“I tell people all the time that there is a spirit in music, regardless of the genre. Sometimes driving the bus I have conversations with youngsters about it. I ask them if there has ever been a song or rap that gives them chills or any physical reaction like the hair standing up on their body. When they say yeah I point out that this happens though nothing actually physically touched them. When they hear this for the first time it gives them that forest for the trees moment.
It happened to me when I heard Jimi Hendrix do “Machine Gun”. Dude! The spirit and passion of it brings water to your eyes. When I heard it, I knew why Miles Davis said, ‘That muthafuckin’ “Machine Gun”,’ when asked what song put Jimi on his radar the most.
In the early ’90s when I was walkin’ around with my little acoustic in public, people would say, ‘Man, you play like Jimi.’ I swear before Lord, I had never heard of Jimi. Before that I was totally into basketball, a whole different world. So I had to do the research. I got a video tape of Monterey. Oh my word, if a Black man can clutch his pearls, I was holding my chest like an elderly White woman in England. Oh my God, this visual and the audio/audible freaked me out. So from that point forward I ran around looking for stuff on Jimi. Anything on Jimi.
I did a European Blues Cruise with the great Vasti Jackson. It was like the second one ever. My band was backin’ him. He is a wealth of musical knowledge. I can sit at that man’s feet like an eight year old kid and just listen to him. He broke down to me my guitar insecurity thing. He asked me, ‘How long you been playing?’ At that time it had been about twelve years. He said, well musically you’re twelve.
Some guy gave him an acoustic guitar to try out during the set, so he told the band to drop out. Then he told the crowd he was going to ask the ancestors to help out with the song. Dude, when he said that, it brought back to me what the Blues is all about; slave ships, cotton fields, segregation and all its entrapments, forbidden eye contact with the dominant culture. It brought tears to my eyes. It hit me dead in my chest. I don’t think the average person playing the Blues today gives much thought to the ancestors. I love the hell out of Elmore James, Robert Johnson, J.B. Hutto, Hound Dog Taylor, Son House and Bukka White. Cats that can wail, sing with their mouths wide open. Field holler type musicians and I know I’m missin’ some.
When Vasti finished, I went back there and hugged him like he just came home from the army. I told him, ‘What you just did, proves to me that I have a long way to go.’ He told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. Stay on your path. Don’t measure yours with mine. Do your thing.’
Vasti Jackson is a scholar and teacher to me and I call him periodically to talk. He has a way of reintroducing information that I thought I already had. The beginning of this thing is deeper than all of us. It ain’t about how well, or how fast, or how many licks you can play on the guitar. It’s about the stories to me. A cat told me a long time ago that people leave your show singin’ your lyrics not your guitar solos. I took that as a challenge to develop my songwriting. It taught me to write engaging songs. If you listen to The Chicago Way, and observe my audience, you might see that they can connect with 70% of what I write. Real stuff, divorce, midlife crisis, mature women, immature women. it’s life with all its funny takes. I like my stories to shine. Shoot, this Blues thing, I will never ever turn my back on the genre. I have nowhere else to go and I don’t wanna go nowhere else. I only picked cotton one time and I keep the fruit of that in my guitar case. So I might not be the traditional Bluesman from down south true, but people don’t know my struggle. How when I signed with Alligator, my record label and Intrepid, my agency, I did it in my CTA uniform in a vacant lot on the West Side of Chicago on my lunch hour. I’m walkin’ around in uniform, which, in the hood is an invitation to get rolled on. I’m movin’ around, lookin’ behind my back at bottles, garbage, syringes, empty weed bags, dead cats, etc. People don’t see that part. How dare you fix your mouth to say anything about me cuz you don’t know what I went through to get this. Waking up a four, five in the mornin’ to get to work and be responsible, many times just after playin’ a gig. When they say that I haven’t struggled enough to be a Bluesman, they don’t know my life. I don’t criticize anyone for their hustle and am offended when someone attacks mine.”
Toronzo Cannon is slated to open for Buddy Guy at Legends on Thursday January 11, 2018. His star is late blooming perhaps, yet rapidly expanding and rising.
Check out Toronzo’s website at: www.toronzocannon.com