Toronzo Cannon is becoming an explosive force in the competitive Chicago blues scene.
The fiery 51-year-old singer/songwriter is touring to support his latest record, “The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp,” bringing him to Davenport's Redstone Room on Thursday, Oct. 24.
“Cannon is one of the best songwriters working in roots music today and has a talent for writing compelling new material that speaks to modern listeners about modern topics that still rocks the house,” a September review at rockandbluesmuse.com said. “ 'The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp' is his most powerful effort to date and is a definitive statement about what the term `contemporary blues' actually means.”
A 26-year bus driver for Chicago Transit Authority, Cannon works 10-hour days and typically tours Thursday nights through weekends and vacation. PBS Television’s Chicago Tonight summed it up: “Cannon is just your typical CTA bus driver who moonlights as a sought-after Chicago blues musician. As a guitarist, singer and songwriter, he drives the sound of Chicago blues from the city to blues clubs and festivals around the world.”
“It's all building, constantly trying to prove myself,” the musician said in a recent interview. His songwriting is inspired by his Chicago roots, the wisdom of his grandparents and his years of observing the public while driving a bus. His songs tell stories of common experiences in uncommon ways, according to his biography.
“It’s not about the solos,” Cannon said. “It’s about the songs. People get used to everyday life, so it’s easy to miss the things around them. I write about those things. I see things while driving. That's my office for 10 hours a day; I'm kind of alone by myself.”
He's played major cities all over the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and recently performed for the first time in Japan. “When we did songs in Japan earlier this year, I had a translator, they were laughing, having a good time,” he recalled. “It touched me that my songs could translate; that's pretty cool.”
“The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp” features 12 Cannon originals, ranging from the burning social commentary of the title track to the wryly told, up-to-the-minute truths of “Insurance” to the trademark Cannon humor of “Stop Me When I’m Lying” and “Ordinary Woman.” He gets serious on the haunting “The First 24,” the Martin Luther King-inspired “The Silence Of My Friends” and on the moving final track, “I’m Not Scared.”
“The title track, you forget sometimes they're all the same,” Cannon said, noting each of the three make people do things against their own best interest. “They can be interchangeable. ... They may have the gift of pretty words, but they make people do things not good for them.”
A preacher may be Christian, but they can have a big church and massive house, where their parishioners barely afford food or rent, and the church asks for them to donate 10% of their income, he said.
The current president is a perfect example of corruption and self-interest taken to unimaginable depths, Cannon said.
“It's super obvious, super disturbing to see that dance; it's delusional,” he said. “We're all adults. Other than the lies, the fact that someone would just lie to my face, so often, that's more disturbing. One of my lyrics says, people will do what you let them do. ... It's an ongoing fight from corruption in political office.”
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Cannon says he tries to not get too heavy in his songs, and in “Insurance,” he said it's probably the first blues song to include the word “colonoscopy,” which he rhymed with “the third degree.”
“It's a fun tongue-in-cheek song; I don't hit 'em over the head,” Cannon said, noting it addresses the vital issue of affordable health care. “It's hard for people to retire; health care is expensive. That's my personal blues.” He also sings of hard topics like domestic abuse, immigration and teenage homosexuality.
“I think my songwriting has gotten better, fine-tuning the songs,” he said. “I don't have to use as many words to get my point across. The rhythms are intoxicating, different moods on the CD, the overall things that people will go through.”
“I want to spark the thought, the thinking what people can do, it's collective,” Cannon said of positive action. “If a person is on the fence, maybe that song, after Monday morning, they need to rethink their insurance needs or whatever, if it sparks a thought, I've done my job as a writer.”
He heard blues growing up in his grandfather’s Chicago home, and listened to soul, R&B and contemporary rock on the radio.
Cannon bought his first guitar at 22, and was 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 said, absorbing sounds, styles and licks from Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Hound Dog Taylor, B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King and Jimi Hendrix (with whom he shares his left-handed guitar playing).
From 1996 to 2002, Cannon played as a sideman for Tommy McCracken, Wayne Baker Brooks, and L.V. Banks. In 2001, he formed his own band, The Cannonball Express. Cannon’s first three albums — 2007’s “My Woman,” 2011’s “Leaving Mood” and 2013’s Blues Music Award-nominated “John The Conqueror Root” — document his rise.
Upon the 2016 release of “The Chicago Way,” Chicago media helped launch Cannon toward blues stardom. 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 Blues Album Of 2016, as did the readers of Living Blues magazine 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 had Cannon throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the Sept. 13, 2017 game.
“I feel like I’ve become an ambassador for Chicago blues. People expect a lot from me,” he said. “But it’s good because I’m forced to keep upping my game.”
Blues Music Magazine wrote: “His guitar playing has all the fire and spontaneity of the Chicago legends he carries; his songwriting is a timely and original look at the world he sees by day on a bus and in blues clubs by night, and his assertive voice is the perfect vehicle to deliver the message.”
“I choose to love and respect the city because of the Chicago blues giants that came here from down south,” Cannon said. “I’m proud to be standing on the shoulders of every great Chicago blues musician who came before me.”