Since the 2016 release of his Alligator Records debut, The Chicago Way, contemporary blues guitarist/vocalist/songwriter (and Chicago Transit Authority bus driver) Toronzo Cannon has burst onto the international stage as one of Chicago’s – and the world’s – most acclaimed next-generation bluesmen. He’s earned his fame through the overwhelming response to his album, the sheer force of his music, his original songs, and his live charisma. Since the CD’s release, he’s played major cities all over the U.S., Canada and Europe, delivering one hard-rocking performance after another.
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.
In addition to his devoted fans, Chicago media helped launch Cannon toward blues stardom. Powerhouse television station WGN won a local Emmy Award for their six-minute feature story on the hometown bluesman. Public Television’s WTTW interviewed Cannon on multiple occasions, and local CBS, FOX and ABC affiliates all featured him and his band. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine ran in-depth stories on Toronzo. With all of the positive local coverage, national and international media soon came calling. CNN filmed Cannon leading a tour of Chicago blues clubs and then broadcast the piece around the world. England’s MOJO magazine declared The Chicago Way the #1 Best Blues Album Of 2016, as did the readers of Living Bluesmagazine in their annual poll. The album and Cannon were also nominated for four Blues Music Awards (the Grammy of the blues) in 2017. And the world champion Chicago Cubs invited Cannon to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the September 13, 2017 game.
The Chicago Way contains nothing but Cannon originals and is powered by his blazing 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. 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.”
Cannon began his rise in the intensely competitive proving ground of the local club scene, 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.
Toronzo 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.
Cannon has played the Chicago Blues Festival on nine separate occasions, either as a sideman, a special guest, a band leader or, more 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.”
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 festival 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.