Blues guitarist Toronzo Cannon’s life has changed a lot in the year that’s passed since he announced he was signing to Alligator Records and proceeded to steal the show at the Chicago Blues Festival in June 2015. With his show-stealing performance, Cannon won the praise of local media and has since been building momentum toward his debut album, The Chicago Way, which was released in February 2016.
“The added attention is very cool because it seems like you get your music out easier and people are a little more in tune with what you’re trying to say or what you’re trying to put down,” Cannon said.
“And it definitely lets you know that you’re on the right track of achieving something or doing something for the blues because I was always one that…even though I would travel to Europe four or five times a year and do my gigs around the Midwest, I would always question myself if I was doing the right thing.”
He said that his signing with Alligator Records has led to attention from other parts of the country, which is “kinda cool,” he said. And although Cannon’s relationship with Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer formed long before he signed with the legendary blues label in 2015, they now have a much closer working relationship. Cannon and Iglauer produced The Chicago Way together.
“He always challenged me as far as my writing and things like that. He’d take something and ask how could you get this message across with the least amount of words,” Cannon said.
“He wouldn’t change anything, but just challenge me, which is cool because I’d look at my previous album and saw that I was a little bit too wordy…. So I dug the challenge and of course you’ve gotta dig the history of what Alligator put down with Luther Allison, Albert Collins, [Koko] Taylor and Lonnie [Brooks] and the list goes on. So sometimes I would pinch myself and say ‘You know what, I’m sitting across from Bruce, even though me and Bruce were friends 10 or 12 years before this whole thing went down.”
Prior to Cannon signing to Alligator Records, Iglauer played more of an occasional advisory role in Cannon’s music career. And even earlier than that, Cannon started his career as a sideman for several notable blues artists. But although he’s been playing the blues professionally since the 90s and gigs regularly, he has a day job as a bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority. He uses most of his vacation days and days off to practice, perform and record music and works four ten-hour shifts a week in order to arrange his schedule to gig out of town as much as possible.
He started his latest run of shows on July 6 in Grand Rapids, Mich. and will be playing at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. on Friday, July 8 with Carolyn Wonderland as his opener. He’s had plenty of experience balancing his job as a bus driver with his work as a musician, but the amount of recognition he gets from his fellow city employees has changed recently.
“My co-workers knew that I played on the weekends and knew I did things and a couple of them knew I’ve played overseas, but now management knows,” Cannon said. “The people downtown know and I’ve been doing TV interviews and things like that, so now it’s kind of like ‘Oh, this is who we have driving our bus’ and it’s been positive. It hasn’t been negative in anyway.
“I haven’t been gaining any favor from my bosses, but it’s like this secret side of me that’s out now. I’m not just a bus driver now [to them]. I guess it’s kind of like finding out that the librarian is a stripper.”
• For more information about Toronzo Cannon, visit toronzocannon.com.