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Chicago bluesman Toronzo Cannon’s next chapter

Blues musician Toronzo Cannon smiles with a guitar in his hands. He's kicking up left foot against a bright red background.
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Toronzo Cannon is launching his upcoming tour this Friday, May 31, at the Hidden Gem Music Club in Centerville.

Toronzo Cannon has entered a new phase of life with his forthcoming album, Shut Up & Play! The Chicago bluesman’s third album for venerated label Alligator Records is his first release as a fulltime musician. The former bus driver launches his new tour in support of the album at Hidden Gem Music Club, 507 Miamisburg Centerville Road, Centerville, at 8 p.m. Friday, May 31. Noah Wotherspoon and his big band will open the show.

“I’m looking forward to promoting my new album because my last one came out in September 2019,” Cannon said recently, speaking by telephone from his home in the Windy City. “Then COVID started in March. That album and all those originals weren’t a waste, but I didn’t get a chance to promote it properly because there were no festivals. There was nothing going on. I’m looking forward to the energy from promoting the new stuff while it’s still hot, while it’s still new.”

Full immersion

Shut Up & Play! is another sizzling slice of electric blues recorded at Joyride Studio in Chicago and co-produced by Cannon and Alligator president Bruce Iglauer.

“I recorded my first two Alligator Records at Joyride Studio, which is on the Northwest Side of Chicago,” Cannon said. “We recorded this album last fall, in October, and we did all the mixing in December. I had never been this involved in the process because I had a regular job. I was there every day with my little tea in my hand. I thought it was going to be a three-hour mix down. They’re like, ‘Oh, we’re here for seven hours.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ It was what it was, so I was involved in the process, which is what Bruce Iglauer at Alligator Records wanted.”

Iglauer founded Alligator in Chicago in 1971. He is known for being heavily involved with the label’s roster of artists, which includes current acts like Lil Ed & the Blues Imperials, Shemekia Copeland and Tinsley Ellis and legends like Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks and Albert Collins.

“Bruce is hands on,” Cannon said. “I have the luxury of being in close proximity to the guy that put me on and turned the world onto me. He’s a perfectionist. He wants to have the best possible sound and the best songs we can have. I’m writing the songs, but he has been in the business for years and knows how to curate songs and put them together into something that’s sellable. When you’re dealing with two personalities it can sometimes be contentious when those two energies come together but it’s all for the betterment of the song.

“I invited that energy,” he continued. “It was never the mentality like, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ He asked questions like, ‘How can you make this song better with the least amount of words?’ ‘Can you explain this better to the listening public?’ Sometimes I didn’t want to do that. There are some things I wanted to say where I wanted the listener to find it. If the metaphor is too strange, then let them think about it a little while. Sometimes I don’t like holding the hand of the listener but there are times, with Bruce being in the business, where he knows what works.”

No more moonlighting

Cannon, who was born on Chicago’s South Side in February 1968, was late to music. He started playing guitar in 1990 at the age of 22 but proved to be a quick study. He started his career as a bus driver in 1993 and by 1996 was splitting his time between transporting passengers by day and playing in blues clubs at night. Cannon played guitar with Tommy McCracken, Joanna Connor and other artists before forming Cannonball Express in 2001. His first album as a solo artist was My Woman (2007). Cannon released a pair of records for Delmark, Leaving Mood (2011) and John the Conquer Root (2013). In 2015, he signed with Alligator, which released The Chicago Way (2016).

“Bus driving was just my job,” Cannon said. “I had to focus on that. I never really cared if people paid their fare as long as they were nice and weren’t getting on the bus and causing confusion. Even when I was working with the bus company, I was doing Europe probably three times a year. I worked Monday through Thursday and then I’d fly to Europe and play a few gigs. When I was driving, my mind was always on the next gig, or I’d do a lot of reminiscing. I’d tell customers on the bus I’d just seen the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben. They’d just look at me like, ‘Yeah, sure you did.’ Being a musician and a bus driver kept me grounded but it was time to stop.”

Cannon retired from the Chicago Transit Authority after 27 years in October 2020.

“I was losing my patience a little bit,” he said. “It was during COVID and there was a lot going on in the neighborhood. There were riots and all that stuff. I was like, ‘You know what, let me get out of here. I’ve served my time. I have a music career I think I can survive on so let me do my thing.’ Even if I had to live in a one-room country shack, I needed to do it. I needed to go somewhere and get into myself, take some self-inventory, and find myself so I could do my music stuff. It felt good to wake up any time I wanted to in the daytime. I didn’t have to check in or punch in. It freed me up. I feel freer.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m lazy because I don’t have anything to do until the gig,” Cannon added. “Being a guy who has been working that long and really that hard when I think about it, I feel there’s always something around the corner that’s going to derail things and I’ll have to start working again. But so far, it’s four years and I’m paying my bills. I’m feeling good, man. I do a lot of selfcare. I go to the spa now. I lay up in the heat room and sweat and think about myself, think about my future and what I put out into the world.”

Show info: Toronzo Cannon performs with the Noah Wotherspoon Band at Hidden Gem Music Club, 507 Miamisburg Centerville Road, Centerville, at 8 p.m. Friday, May 31. Doors open at 7 p.m. Admission is $20 in advance, $25 day of show. Visit hiddengemdayton.com or toronzocannon.com.

Don Thrasher has been playing music locally since the 1980s. He has been writing about music and arts for local print outlets since the early 1990s. He has also been a fill-in host for Evan Miller’s “Midday Music” program on WYSO since 2022. To contact Don, email him at: donthrasher100@gmail.com