Anyone who attended last year’s Chicago Blues Festival will never forget the sight: Toronzo Cannon, dressed in a bright white suit, hopping off the stage at the Petrillo Music Shell to stroll the periphery of the audience, never missing a note on his guitar. “It was the best 45 minutes of my life,” says Cannon, 48, grinning.
The gregarious bluesman, known for impeccably tailored suits, stylish fedoras, and jubilant guitar licks, won a standing ovation that night, kicking off a frenzied six months that yielded his breakout third record, The Chicago Way (Alligator Records). Released in February, the hard-knuckled album—Cannon’s first on a prominent blues label—takes an unapologetic look at the city in all its glory and grit.
This is Toronzo Cannon’s year. In June, he returns to the blues fest as part of a set headlined by Tommy Castro. The next night, he’ll headline the festival Blues on Water Street in suburban Batavia; then he hits the road, appearing on stages as far-flung as Belgium and Germany. Cannon has even won a fan in Mayor Emanuel, who hired him to play at a reception in March for the visiting Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi: “Toronzo’s story proves what is possible in Chicago,” said Emanuel in an email.
A CTA bus driver, Cannon knows the pulse of the city better than most. For 24 years, working 12-hour shifts, he has shuttled commuters back and forth on the West Side, all the while taking notes on the street scenes rolling by. It’s a job he keeps not only to support his wife and 14-year-old daughter—superstar or not, blues doesn’t pay the bills—but also as his chief source of inspiration. “Some guys get into a trance when they drive the bus, thinking about their personal lives,” says Cannon. “Me? I’m thinking about other people’s lives, and how can I flip that into a song? I try to be that open vessel. Like a blues griot.”
Growing up in Bronzeville, Cannon was the youngest of three, raised by his mother and grandparents. That exposed him to three generations of music, from Little Walter to Smokey Robinson to the Police. “I’d go to sleep, and there would be a party downstairs or my grandfather falling asleep listening to Al Green,” says Cannon. “I’d hear that needle go back and play it again and again.” A leg injury at Truman College derailed Cannon’s promising basketball career, so his older sister, a pianist, bought him a guitar at a pawnshop. Cannon began teaching himself reggae by playing along with Bob Marley videos.
Blues always called to Cannon, who would frequent neighborhood clubs such as the legendary Gerri’s Palm Tavern. He began playing the open-jam circuit in the late 1990s, earning backup gigs with local luminaries like Joanna Connor and Wayne Baker Brooks. Over time, he developed his own style, a modern take on blues that blends in gospel, reggae, and even New Wave. In 2001, he finally formed his own band, the Cannonball Express, and eventually landed a deal with Delmark Records.
Propelled by Cannon’s eye for detail, The Chicago Way tells the story of the place where he climbed to blues stardom. “I Am” delves deep into neighborhoods crippled by drug and alcohol addiction, while “The Pain All Around Me” takes an unblinking look at Chicago’s escalating gang violence—Cannon says it has touched his family personally, but he does not go into specifics.
“The range of subjects he tackles is fascinating,” says Aaron Cohen, a Chicago R&B historian and former editor at Downbeat magazine. “People make a big deal of him being a bus driver, but his curiosity about the world goes way beyond that.”
After years cataloging his hometown, Cannon relishes taking on the role of storyteller, parking his bus at the end of 48-hour weeks to hop planes to concerts in Finland, Germany, and Latvia. “I have a voice now,” he says. “And I feel it’s my duty to tell the world that Chicago blues is still alive.”
GO:See Cannon on June 10 at the Chicago Blues Festival, Petrillo Music Shell, at 6 p.m. (free) and on June 11 at 8:30 p.m. at the Blues on Water Street fest in Batavia ($15 to $20).