One of the brightest new stars in Blues is Toronzo Cannon. He made his Alligator Records debut with the album “The Chicago Way”. Which was preceded by two previous CD’s on Delmark Records, another prestigious record company. Toronzo was born in Chicago in 1968 and grew up on the south side, just a stone’s throw from the legendary blues club Theresa’s Lounge. He didn’t start playing guitar until he was 22, and became a sideman to L.V. Banks, Tommy McCracken, Wayne Baker Brooks and Joanna Connor. He then started his own band, The Cannonball Express, in 2001. They soon established themselves around the local Chicago blues clubs. Being bandleader helped form him into a qualified singer/songwriter and expressive guitar player, with an increasing international reputation. Though all his successes, the almost unique and admirable about Toronzo, is that he didn’t quit his day job as a bus driver in Chicago. And that he still performs in traditional clubs, as well as big festival stages.
Yours Truly met Toronzo at the club B.L.U.E.S. on Halstead, where Deitra Farr had set up a meeting. Again, though very successful, he’s a sympathetic, humble and open-hearted person. This interview took place in a waiting room, packed with instrument bags and raincoats.
– I want to start like everyone else, congratulation for your record deal with Alligator Records. But didn’t you record for Delmark too?
– Thank you so much! This is my fourth album, but on a level I could only dream about. I cut my first album in 2007, “My Woman”, on my own label. It was followed by two Delmark CD productions, “Leaving Mood” in 2011 and “John The Conquer Root” in 2013. The later was nominated for the Blues Music Awards in 2014, in the Rock Blues Album of the year. The Alligator release, “The Chicago Way”, seems to take me all over the world now. Ha, ha, ha!
– But it all started here in Chicago, right?
– Yes, I got my first gig in 2001, at Harlem Avenue Lounge. I was just like any other musician, just trying to get gigs. You know, trying to do your thing and keep your guys working. And hopefully, in the back of your mind., you’re doing something for Chicago Blues, and the city you live in. That has always been in the back of my mind. As far as not just me being a blues guy trying to get some gigs, or whatever. It’s about trying to keep Chicago Blues on the map, and do my part, along with other musicians.
– Like keeping the Blues alive?
– Yeah, oh yeah!
– Was it any situation in particular, that made you pick up the guitar?
– Ha ha. I couldn’t play basketball anymore, because I hurt my knee. I’ve always been a natural born healer, but not this time. That was a sad feel. My sister was practising piano at that time. And she was just excited about having anybody else to play music in the house. So, she asked me and my other sister; “what instruments do you want to play”? I said; guitar, you know. Because I couldn’t play basketball anymore, and I was kind of just sitting around the house. One day I saw a John Cougar Mellencamp video come on. Heavy Acoustic Guitar, and I liked it, it was kinda cool. Even though I always listened to music as a teenager, a young guy, throughout my whole life, I never thought about picking up a guitar. Until I watched that video.
– Kind of unusual way to start with.
– Yeah! And I wanted to play reggae too, in the beginning. But everywhere I went there was a blues jam. Blues Etc Bar was one of the places I used to go to every Wednesday. Then I started to think about my parents music. Things like that and the Blues, because I grew up around the legendary Theresa’s Lounge blues bar. Just a stone’s throw away from the notorious ghetto Robert Taylor Homes.
– So the Blues was your parents music?
– Well, my grand parents, actually. My parents music was Motown and things like that. But my grand parents raised me. My grandfather is from Jackson, Mississippi, and my grand mother was from Memphis, Tennessee.
– So you came up by jam sessions?
– Yeah! We were going to Buddy Guy’s on Mondays, Blues ETC. on Wednesdays and Winners on Thursdays. That’s a little local jam that Matthew Skoller used to run. You know, wherever there was a jam, I tried to be there. You learned with like minded people. And you just kind of go from there, you know.
– How was the reception, they didn’t ask you; “Who are you?….
– When people got to see me being left handed, you’re already looking freaky. You’re the guy; “nobody can use his guitar”, you know what I mean. So, yeah, yeah. If they didn’t remember my name, they sure remembered that I was left handed.
– Do you play with the strings up side down?
– No. Not like Carlos Johnson, Eddie Clearwater, or Otis Rush. I play with the big string on the top. Sometimes I wish I could have learned like those guys. Because I started so late. I was 22 when I got my first guitar. So, I wish I could have started like that. Because I didn’t have no references, other than seeing that video. I thought that the big string should be on the top. But now that I have seen Otis and all those guys, and how good they are doing it. And the availability of left handed guitars. You don’t see many of them, you know, the good ones. I wish I could have learned to play up side down, ha, ha, yeah!
– Well, you got Jimi Hendrix, another southpaw.
– Yeah, with the big string on the top! Ha, ha, ha, yeah.
– I hear something in your sound that reminds me of him.
– Well, Jimi is a world within himself. I just like to freak out a little bit. You know, there’s nobody can touch Jimi. If I can just, not touch him, but feel him, a little bit. Like in a solo, I’d feel good. But he is a heavy influence. Along with Albert King, Buddy Guy, and guys like that.
– Tell me more about your coming up?
– My very first gig was at Harlem Avenue Lounge, June 7th in 2001. Kenny Zimmerman gave me that first gig. I would say, it was like he took a chance on it. I just had a band with a couple of guys from the jam sessions. But I learned about 20 songs, and we just did it. We just grew from there, and just started it all. And I guess I was doing something good, because we would play in many different places after that. Like House Of Blues. you know, and the little scenes around. But nothing too big. And once in a while, we hosted jams too.
– Did you build a reputation with your band. Or under your own name?
– Well, yeah. I guess I was doing some of it a little bit differently from other guys. Or maybe my left hand set me aside? I don’t know what I was doing differently, but I was getting gigs like constantly. When Eddie Clearwater opened his place, I was getting gigs there. I became more and more remembered. Maybe the name was weird enough? Like “ Oh, Toronzo, let’s go see him”! I don’t know, whatever? But there’s so many great cats that can play the guitar.
I’m sure you know of Chico Banks, a hero of mine. Mike Wheeler is another hero, like Carlos Johnson and Carl Weathersby. I mean, so many heroes are guys that I look at and say; Wooh! They are like my heroes, and can I can talk to them. But personally, I don’t think I can compare guitar wise with them. I try to do something different. I guess maybe it’s my stage presence that engages the audience, or whateve. I try to be something different, because I
don’t think my guitar compares to any of those other guys.
– Your kind of charisma?
– Charisma, ok, yeah, ha, ha, ha!
– What about the recording situations? Do you like to step into a studio, being isolated and stuff?
– I still have to get used to having the headphones on. And trying to get the sound that I want from the guitar, my own sound. With Delmark, Steve Wagner walked me through the whole process. He wasn’t too hard on me. As far as, he would always give me more vocal hearing. And let me choose what take to keep, and so on. Kind of doing it my way. Even though I made two independent recordings that was kinda light hearted, it wasn’t as demanding. But
when I got the recording with Alligator, and knew the difference, that was on another level. Bruce Iglauer, on Alligator, wanted different things than what Delmark wanted.
– Like your original songs?
– I always did my original songs, on every record. But as far as how many takes it took was different. To decide what you want, and what you don’t want to keep. It was just different sounds, the Alligator sound compared to the Delmark sound. It was just different things that was required of me, and that I gladly did. Because, again, I’m moving into another level now. The adjustment was easy for me. But the demanding of doing it was different. Bruce Iglauer involves you in every process. From recording, to the mixing, and to the mastering. He’s there all the time, and he wants all his artists to be there all the time. So there won’t be anything that is not what you approved as an artist. I approved everything. Even with Delmark actually, but I wasn’t in the mastering and the mixing with them. But I’m in all that with Alligator. So, I have a say on everything that goes on.
– What type of guitar do you prefer?
– I have a couple of guitars. Right now, I’m playing a custom guitar by Kurt Wilson. It’s a Flying V, kind of like Albert King’s Korina Flying V. But my main guitar is a 57 Gibson Les Paul. A reissued, left handed Goldtop. I just love the neck on it, and the action. I’m playing both of those two most every night.
– What amplifier goes with it?
– I have my own signature amp by Victoria, called a Canon. You know, Toronzo Cannon – Canon. Mark Baier says it’s a good thing that I have a cool last name. So, he named it from what I expected and wanted out of an amp. I also have a pedal made by FX-Effects. And it’s called a canon also. It’s kind of like a fuzz box, a little bit. But very useable fuzz, you know. To get my point across, ha, ha, ha.
– All you need is a canon microphone too!
– That’s right, yeah, that’s right. Ha, ha, ha!
– What about your band? Here comes somebody walking in!
– Oh that’s Pookie Styx, on the drums, right there. He’s very experienced and popular. His name is Melvin Carlisle, but he is known with that alias, and I call him “Double Chocolate”. The bass player is David Forte, who goes by the stage name “White Chocolate”. I am very fond of a keyboard, and Luca Chiellini is an excellent player. That’s my band; “The Canonball Express”.
– Do you try to keep your band members, like the same guys?
– Oh yes, as much as I can. I just keep them working, the same guys, as much as I can. But I just had a recent change of band members. Because, you know, personalities and things like that are important. Sometimes they don’t go so well together. But when it’s all said and done, it’s my band. I pay them, you know what I mean. I don’t ask for much of my band members. Other than be there on time, be prepared and let’s play! But when it gets to a point where it becomes a chore. And they claim that they can’t do it, for whatever reasons. Then again, I have to make decisions Especially if I’m taking guys all over the world, I expect the same amount of professionalism. Like any job, you know. That’s what it is, yeah!
– You’re travelling quite a bit, don’t you?
– We just got back from Switzerland, where we did Lucerne Festival. Before that we were in France, where we did Marseilles. And then Spain. And before that, we toured in Germany, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. Then we did the Legendary Blues Cruise. That was very cool, as was the San Francisco Blues Festival. Then Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Latvia wanted me three years in a row, and Armenia twice. I can’t forget Mexico and South Africa..
– So, you have a good booking agent?
– Oh yes. Intrepid Artists International. Now when I got with Alligator, I guess they thought that I was marketable enough to represent. They work with other countries too.
– Is there any highlight in you career, that you want to talk about?
– Oh, wow! The Chicago Blues Festival. To play in front of such a huge audience. Of course a home crowd, but thousands of people. I’m being conservative when I say thousands. But they were like 8-10 thousands, ha, ha, ha! All looking at me in one time. At The Petrillo Stage, that also staged Taj Mahal and Buddy Guy that same day. I had played at the Festival several times before, but mostly as a sideman. But this year 2015 sure was a highlight! And if there was a second highlight, Alligator Records would be a close runner up. Because, nothing against Delmark, but being on both of those labels, I think is an achievement that not many have done. Jimmy Johnson has done it, Maurice John Vaughn and a couple of others, including Luther Allison. But in this generation, I’m the guy. That’s an achievement that feels really good.
– Last question, to take it home with. Where do you keep the alligators in your bus? Up front, or on the back row?
– I keep the alligators right here on my belt buckle. Ha, ha, ha, ha! There they go! Ha, ha, ha!
Interview and photos by Krister Palais