A FEW MINUTES WITH… Toronzo Cannon
By Don Wilcock
There’s a chasm between the lyrics of legacy blues artists like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf and today’s performers who want to capture the sparks of delta demons exorcised by Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana sharecroppers who escaped the cotton fields 60 or 70 years ago. Those icons plugged into the teeming energy of
postwar Chicago nightclubs playing for fellow Delta escapees, hardworking meat packers, longshoremen and their ladies out for a night on the town.
“My grandfather raised me,” says Cannon. “So, I’ve got the ideas and ideals from a guy that was born in 1926 in Mississippi. I was raised like that. My grandmother was raised in Memphis, and they moved up here to Chicago in in ’47 or ’48. So, I got that kind of ideas or ideals, whatever you call ’em.”
Today’s blues lovers include a much broader mix of blacks and whites. Their jobs, their recreation and issues may broil in a different context, but their anxieties, fears, anger and love issues are the same. The trick of the modern blues artist is to write music that today’s fan can relate to without losing the fire and sizzle of
their mentors. Cannon does this as well or better than any Chicago blues artist in the business. He’s a left-handed guitarist who plays right handed. He’s got his own style of playing guitar that’s as valid as Freddie King or Buddy Guy, but it’s his lyrics that bring down the house.
Cannon lives his songs. By day he’s a bus driver just one year away from retirement, and by night he’s capturing the city’s blues culture. And on a long weekend you might find him playing in Germany or Finland.
“(My grandfather) worked for Continental Can for 46 years on a forklift. I remember him getting up. ‘Put your clothes on. We gotta go pick your grandmother up,’ and she worked for Spiegel’s in Chicago, and he’d make me an egg sandwich. He worked overnight, he’d go pick up grandma. I’d be in the back of the car, my legs not even
touching the floor. My legs were on the back of the front seat. That’s how little I was. Now, I remember that. I started doing this later. I was like 23 when I first started playing guitar.”
He didn’t write a song until 38, and didn’t record until his 40s.
On “Pain Around Me,” from his fourth LP, and first for Alligator Records, he sings, “Six kids on the corner up to no damn good/That’s six broken homes strugglin’ in my neighborhood/You got liquor stores everywhere on my side of town/I don’t want my kids to go outside, ’cause the thugs are hanging around.” On “Bad Contract” he
regrets a marriage where “the house was mine, now she got the key.” In “Midlife Crisis,” he’s 50, acting like he’s 22.
But its “Walk It Off” that has become an anthem for the mean streets grit that is the hallmark of the blues’ Windy City. In the song he sings, “We don’t know if the baby is his or mine.” He confronts his woman’s other man first with a knife, then with a gun and finally “I pulled my hand grenade, shook it in his face and pulled the pin, ’cause that’s the Chicago way.” From Capone to the rising weekend death tolls, this song captures the angst of the West Side, the nation’s most segregated urban jungle and a route he takes every day as a bus driver.
“When I go to my shows, and I sing it,” explains Cannon, “they’ll sing the chorus when I get to the part about the hand grenade. Basically, the song shows I’m really blowing both of us up to have the last word ’cause that’s the Chicago way.
“I don’t want to be singing “Mojo Working” and all that stuff. I don’t wanna be singing other people’s songs. So, when I got to Delmark Records (2011) that was a thing where I co-wrote with a guy. Your friends start getting these little problems ’cause his wife is in his ear talking about you should get the money on top of this, and it’s like, ‘Dude, dude! Nobody’s getting’ rich from this, man.’”
He doesn’t see himself as doing much different after he retires from bus driving because his agent can’t get him gigs on Tuesday and Wednesday anyway. The first thing he’ll do in retirement? Write a five-word song. Right now, he’s just happy that Buddy Guy likes his lyrics.
“It was like if he recognized my song and my face and knew it was mine, that was good enough for me, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I heard this song.’ I told him again if the guys want to cut it, it’s yours. But, again, I’m glad he recognized it was my song. So, that was a feather in my cap.”
At the end of our interview, I thanked him for spending an hour talking to me. I consider it an honor. “Oh, thanks a lot. I mean it’s just me. This is what I do. I’m a regular dude, you know. (Chuckle) But thanks, though. Thank you.”