"Paying your Dues" is a saying heard frequently in blues music. Chicago's Toronzo Cannon has been doing that nightly for two decades ... while driving a CTA Bus during the day. Cannon began his dues paying as a sideman with some of Chicago's big blues names. He later formed his own band and worked his way through the city's club circuit, and eventually to large crowds in Europe and a label deal with Delmark Records.
Last year Cannon was signed by Chicago's Alligator Records, considered to be the "Cadillac" of blues labels. Cannon and fellow label mate Selwyn Birchwood play the Blues For a Cause fundraiser April 8 at the Limelight Eventplex in Peoria. WGLT's Jon Norton recently caught up with Cannon via Skype. Cannon says he's still getting used to being an Alligator Records artists.
"The added attention, you know, just how I'm being handled by the label is different. I was kind of looking at it as a smaller thing than what it has turned out to be. "
He says it's beginning to dawn on him that he's on the record label that includes Chicago blues legends Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Luther Allison and Lonnie Brooks. On his first recording for Alligator, Cannon says similar to his recordings on Delmark, he wasn't shy about "pushing the envelope" during the recording session for "The Chicago Way."
"I wanted sound bites, I wanted a female singer on this first CD. But the difference from the Delmark albums is that the songs are tighter. And (Alligator Records head) Bruce Iglauer challenged me in the studio, saying 'can you make the story tighter? Can you use less words to get your point across? Can you do this nah da dah.' Never telling me what to do, just asking me what to do to make the song better. Because to him, it's always about making the song better.
Cannon gets asked frequently when he finds time to sleep. In addition to recording albums and playing in Chicago's blues haunts and touring Europe, he drives a CTA bus 10 hours a day. He says much of what he sees on his regular route finds its way into his songs.
"You know there are things I see on the street that I go 'wow, that is song worthy.' And I write it down because the bus is my office 10 hours a day. And that's a big chunk of time of just not doing anything but driving a bus. I'm constantly thinking and looking and trying to be an open vessel to see things and absorb things. Like 'how can I make that a song?'"
The gritty realities of those living in Chicago's south and west side neighborhoods has received a lot of media attention in the last few years, and Cannon says telling those stories is a natural extension of being a blues artist in Chicago:
"Most people I pick up on the bus everyday are good, honest people, but they can only afford to live in those neighborhoods and they need to raise their kids in that environment. The blues needs to hear that. Not everything in the blues is about 'my woman left me, and she came in at 3:00 o'clock when I came in at 2:59.' If that's their experience, that's fine, but mine is on that bus everybody, trying to provide for my family and the stuff I go through as a man and human being .... as a cat with a blue collar job, trying to keep my head above water"
You can hear more from Cannon and hear songs from "The Chicago Way" by clicking the play button below.