By Ed Spinelli
Under normal circumstances, I get assigned to photograph concerts in Chicago and the surrounding areas, but lately with the current pandemic situation, there are no normal circumstances. All the upcoming concerts on my calendar are steadily getting cancelled, and I pretty much expect the rest of 2020 to be a complete bust. The last concert I covered was on February 1st of this year at a weekend blues festival with Chicago’s own Toronzo Cannon ending the main day of the fest. When I was asked to submit something to In The Loop Magazine, I thought about my last show and how many years (haha) ago it was. I wanted to hunt down Toronzo and chat about this new world we live in and how quickly everything changed in just two and a half short months. It took a little bit of organizing, but the two of us met at a forest preserve on a gorgeous day.
The area was pretty crowded with hikers and bikers, but social distancing was definitely in full swing. We hung out for a few of hours first taking photos, and then sat down for a chat. I found Cannon to be an extremely genuine man who is very passionate about his music and even more so about his life. And when he talks about his daughter, his face lights up with a smile that can melt your heart.
By day Cannon’s a CTA bus driver (and has been for 27 years) and by night he is loading in and out of venues to feed us the blues. You may recognize him by his signature Chicago stars and stripes that he proudly displays at any given chance. Though he doesn’t have an official title to the city I could see him being Ambassador to Chicago someday.
Ed Spinelli, In The Loop Magazine: So you have a new album that came out late 2019?
Toronzo Cannon: Yeah, it came out in September. Called “The Preacher, The Politician, or the Pimp.” It was doing pretty good when I was working. But this whole pandemic thing came down and kind of put a stifle on everything. The lifespan of this CD is already pretty much over, so I’m going to start writing new songs. Even though these are, in my opinion great songs, and thoughtful, I think once we start touring again it’ll be a whole new world and strange and maybe not as many people coming out. People are going to be gun shy, like “I don’t know if I wan to go to a big crowd of people.” We’ll see what happens when they open up the city. I’m hoping if they come out with a vaccine that will ease a lot of people’s minds. I just know it’s going to be hard to play in front of crowds again and travel like we used to. We’re not essential workers. I mean, we’re essential for the soul and living and people who love music but not a front line worker. I was planning on retiring from the bus this year, I’ve been there for 27 years, you need 26 to retire, but now for insurance purposes I’ve got to keep driving the bus. I didn’t even know I was an essential worker until they were like “you’ve got to keep coming to work.” But I’m very grateful to have a job through this whole pandemic. But yeah, my CD. “The Preacher, The Politician, the Pimp.” They’ve all got the gift of words and how to make people do things against their best interests.
ES: It’s very fortunate that you have this income. But the rest of your band members, do they have day jobs? How are they surviving?
TC: No, a couple of them have wives and girlfriends who are still working. Other than that, I did a PayPal thing with the band before the whole shut down and it was a pretty penny. I split it because half the income I normally get, I’m not getting anymore either. So no more guitars for me for a while. [Laughs] But yeah, I don’t know how they’re doing it.
ES: Is there any type of public aid out there for musicians?
TC: Yeah, Joe Bonamassa mailed me a letter the other day about a fund helping musicians asking for donations. I guess it’s a lottery of sorts and I sent that to my band members. They’re going to help musicians through a lottery, like $500 gas cards and like $1000 for whatever, like maybe late bills. It depends on the companies too, man. Some of these companies have to be more forgiving too when they know no one is working.
ES: Do you like the mayor of Chicago, how she’s handling things?
TC: She’s trying her best, man, but you’ve got bunch of hard-headed people who want to do what they want until they get sick. They’re like “these are my rights.” I understand cabin fever and all that, but she’s been a little more vocal than previous mayors. Rahm Emmanuel knew of me and I did some things for him, he gave me a personal call one time. But I think he had to be mad for anything to go down. But I think Lightfoot is doing the best she can with what she’s got. She’s very vocal and she seems like a strong-willed woman, which is cool. Shake it up a little bit. I don’t see any harm in what she’s asking people to do. I mean, who wants to suffer like New York? I think sometimes America is too moral. Star showing them body bags, a bunch of body bags like this is what we’re faced with, this is what’s going on. Then people will be shocked, because people aren’t shocked any more.
ES: Yeah, what’s even real anymore?
TC: You’ve got heads of state saying to sacrifice your elderly and old for the economy. People keep pushing the envelope until it falls off the table. Who would think sacrifice the old and elderly citizens, who have paid their dues and a bunch of taxes? Now in a pandemic, you’re saying go out and work for the government’s sake. I don’t get how people can say that and how there’s a certain percentage of people who can agree with that. Then they turn around and talk about third-world countries and how they don’t love their people and how they killed their own people. But what are you doing to your own people? How can you say that about other countries when you’re doing the same thing?
ITLC: With today’s divisiveness, do you think twice before you speak up?
TC: That’s part of the problem, people don’t want to talk about hard things that happen to other taxpaying citizens. And when it comes to black-American and white-American and Asian-American and Latino-American, etc. And the stuff that we’ve been saying for years about police brutality, like the thing that happened with the jogger. These people thought they could tell this guy to stop. “Dude, I’m jogging!” Where do the balls come from? And then they’ve got guns so he’s fighting for his life. Even if it’s not a racial thing, it looks like a racial thing. It’s not a human thing. You don’ tell someone to stop unless they’re on fire! But as far as me thinking twice, I used to think that maybe I’m being too strong. But then I’m thinking, my feelings are being hurt and I’m being disrespected and disregarded every day. And if nobody knows about my feelings, nobody knows about my feelings. But you have to let people know what’s going on. I mean believe me, I work on the West Side of Chicago, so I see thugs, I see drug deals going down, I see the whole thing, and I don’t like that about black people and I wish they could shape themselves up. But that’s not the only narrative. But if you go to a place where there’s poor white people, like trailer parks, there are drugs running rampant there too. But people don’t see that side of life. But when it comes to me thinking twice about what I’ve got to say, this is a matter of life and death now, so why should I shut up until I get pulled over by a police officer or shot in a black neighborhood where the conditions are so poor because people are so desperate for money? So why should I shut up about something that concerns my life? I don’t want to die in the black community, I don’t want to die at police hands, and I don’t want to die in the white community just jogging down the street. So when I say something about it, don’t get offended or wonder why I’m talking about it. I’m not just yelling stuff off the roof just to start shit. So if I offend you, that’s on you, not on me I’m just saying how I see it from this side. But if you’re telling me I’m messing up my fan base, I don’t want anybody with that kind of backwards thinking to be a fan. If you’re a racist I don’t want you to be a fan of mine. I’m not doing Beyonce numbers! I don’t want that racism stuff around me, black or white. And this goes back to the Blues. The Blues has always been message music. The slaves weren’t allowed to read, so if you wanted to tell someone something while you were in the fields, you sang it and the overseer just thought they were singing or whatever. But the Blues in my opinion has always been message music, not just about my woman left me or whatever.
ES: Do you think the pandemic was handled right from the start?
TC: Nope, there’s proof he said it was a hoax. And if there’s a misunderstanding of who “he” is, he is the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. He said it was a hoax, and then he said he was occupied with the impeachment. C’mon man. You just banned the WHO people from doing what they need to do. This is all documented, it’s not just I heard, I heard. Just look on YouTube, and he’s saying it. He said it was a hoax, and he’s just worried about his election. And there’s a saying that if white people catch a cold, black Americans catch the flu. That’s an old saying. In the beginning black people were like “we’ve got melanin, we can’t get it!” I don’t know where they got that from. And then all of the sudden, people forgot about pre-existing conditions and food desserts and how we’re not the healthiest eaters in the world, and diabetes, and once that virus gets you and gets to your lungs. Now a bunch of black people are getting it because of conditions and how we eat and not getting healthy food because that’s another thing Trump overturned that Michelle Obama did, fresh food in low-income neighborhoods. He cut that. If that’s not a certain amount of evil and spitefulness. We’re only 13% of the nation. There are more poor white people than poor black people. So he’s hurting white people too. Like when McConnell talks about the red states and the blue states, I thought we were America. Aren’t we the United States of America? United. But to go back to what you said about losing my fanbase and stuff, a lot of people think I’m not even qualified to speak on matters of America. Because in some people’s eyes, we’re babies, we’re insignificant and we don’t contribute. But I pay taxes. You find out the character of some people during pandemics. It doesn’t create character, it shows character, something like that. But you find out how people are. Like the guy who runs to the store and buys all of the hand sanitizer so he can make a profit. Like, dude that’s some scavenger shit. Just take what you need. But that’s the mentality of people, they need to make a buck. And if it comes to you dying for me to make a buck.
ES: Would you have felt this way 4.5 years ago? Or have we gone backwards a little?
TC: It was clearly not about politics at one point. I could see democrats not liking republicans and vice versa, but when it came to hanging effigy and talking about go back to Africa, and “Oh my God Michelle Obama showed her arms!” This first lady showed her vagina! And then you try to rationalize with them, she was naked. And now you’re saying she’s the best first lady we’ve ever had? How can you reason with a person like that? How can you reason with a person like that? Just because Michelle showed her arms and this lady did lesbian (nothing wrong with being lesbian, by the way) shoots, and her parents were fast-tracked here, and you’re telling other people to wait in line? How do I turn my back on someone that delusional?
ES: How’s your daughter handling this pandemic?
TC: She’s a little upset. Imagine a little 18-year-old girl, 17 at the time. Buys her prom dress, two weeks later, then hit with the pandemic. She’s graduating from the number four school in the city, Whitney Young, good grades, and she’s making all these plans. So she buys her dress, and two weeks later the whole thing goes down where you have to stay home. And now there’s no graduation. And now her memories during this whole pandemic time are just gone. But she’s doing the work and fulfilling the home-schooling requirements and all that stuff.
ES: I wanted to ask you, who were some of your guitar heroes growing up? Some of the stuff you listened to?
TC: Well I started late, man, I was in my twenties when I got my first guitar. But I’ve been a fan of music for years. My brother would bring in rock records, like Devo and Peter Brown, which was kind of Funk. He also had Ohio Players and Donna Summer, and David Bowie and Blue-Eyed Soul Brothers, and I listened to WVON and WJPC back when they had house music and all that stuff. So I’ve always been a fan of music. And now that I hear music in a different way other than just dancing to it, I’m like, “Man, if I would’ve been a guitar player then!” But who knows if I would’ve been anything, I could’ve just been a cat just trying to get hired at CTA, you know, just thinking I can do this for a living. But I think things happen for a reason, that I picked it up at the time that I did. And people don’t believe me, but John Cougar was an inspiration, when he was John Cougar. Now he’s John Mellencamp.
ES: I don’t know if many people would admit that.
TC: Yeah, well again, I just listen to anything. Bob Marley, John Cougar, I remember Paul Simon in 1986 when he won album of the year with Graceland. I would listen to all of that stuff. Kaja Goo Goo, the Fix, Pebbles, which was Baby Face’s wife, you know, Natalie Ko. I’m a 70s/80s baby, so Chaka Khan was one of my first loves. If I can say this in a clean way, she could still get it. She’s Chaka, baby! But I digress. I’ve always loved music. My sister, she got my first guitar because she was practicing piano, so she was running around he house like, “Hey, do you want to play an instrument?” And reggae was big then, and I was listening to Bob Marley, the Police, that was my nickname. Sting was my nickname. But man, John Cougar. If I ever met him, I would give him a hug like he just came home from the army. He was one of the guys that just got me thinking about guitar, you know? And then you go to Jams, because there were no reggae jams, and that’s how I got into Blues jams even though I was listening to it as a kid. It wasn’t Blues, it was the music I grew up to, my grandparents’ music. Like Muddy Waters, or Al Green, or whatever the case is. And then I just kind of started taking on and listening to Cats Albert Collins and Elmore James, and you know, Buddy Guy, Lonnie, all those guys. Albert King, all the three kings. And I just tried to go to jams every week and get with like-minded people as far as music.
ES: And that changed everything?
TC: It did. I met a guy named Tom McCracken. And I wasn’t thinking globally with music, I was just going to jams, and you try to get a couple of gigs in the neighborhood or on the circuit. I wasn’t even thinking about the music being played over the seas. But I played with a guy named Tommy McCracken, and he said, “You got your passport?” And I had been working for CTA for two years, I went and got an expedited passport, which took three weeks, supposed to be playing Brazil. A couple of weeks later, Tommy said, “We’re not going to Brazil, the gig fell through.” So I’m mad, I’m like, what am I doing with this damn passport? About four years later, Kenny comes to me at Harlem Avenue. He goes, “You got a passport kid?” “Yeah.” “You wanna go to Latvia?” “Latvia?” I said, “Ok, alright.” I went to Riga, and everybody was so gracious. At that time, Latvia wasn’t with the Euro. When you walk in the club, it’s like you walked in a south side club, you hear Bobby Blue Bland, in Latvia! It was two shows, a weekend, left Thursday I was back Monday. But it was so cool, I’ve been there three times. I’ve learned a lot from traveling, and traveling and being a musician has been very helpful in my understanding of world stuff.
ES: My next question would be what’s next for you, but I guess it’s hard to really know isn’t it?
TC: Yeah, I think there’s going to be a lot of changing of let’s say the guard. A lot of people who had momentum are going to lose momentum, people who did this for a living are going to change their minds. I think America and other countries have a Boogieman now, and if we have the wrong people if office and the wrong people who are supposed to be looking out for your best interest, they can use that Boogieman any time they want to shut your city or whatever down. So I think a lot of musicians and other people will be looking in other industries for job security because they can put this virus in our face any time they want to shut our shit own. And it’s scary to know our lives are in the balance and subject to whatever, I mean they always are, but when you see everyone’s lives in the balance and still get notices about cutting off your water or cutting off your whatever, that’s kind of like how a couple of queens cut their heads cut off. But my thing is just to keep my face out there and just to keep chopping away and letting people know that we’re still doing Blues. I’m trying to keep a visual presence with my fans and people that like my music and just keep a visual presence until this whole thing is over and then try to capitalize on that. It’s going to even the playing field for a lot of people.
ES: It’s like there will be less bands out there, but there will also be less clubs.
TC: Less clubs, more clubs and owners saying, “Well, we don’t know if we’ll get this many people in so we can only give you this much money, take it or leave it.” There will be a lot of wheeling and dealing going on. Stuff that musicians used to get, we’re not going to get for a while until people come out and support the music. So those guarantees that we’ve been getting that were nice, you find out you’re worth nothing now. Everybody’s worth has gone down because you’re not playing. We haven’t played in what, six weeks now? I think my last gig was at Fitzgerald’s on March 13, and he had hand sanitizer and all that stuff too.
ES: Was that under the new ownership?
TC: It was.
ES: Can you imagine that, man? Just taking that place over?
TC: I’m doing something with him on the back of a truck on May 26th or May 23rd. On the back of a pickup truck, we’re going to go around to different neighborhoods and play like two songs at each corner. It’s sad, it’s motivational, but you know now you’ve got to think outside the box. What can you do?
ES: Sort of like starting over.
TC: Yeah. But to go back to my original statement, this album is pretty much over I think. And all of my old songs, my Dellmark songs, I’m doing those acoustic. I’ve got over like 50 songs that I’ve written that are mine. I’m doing this Battle of the Blues Lyricist on Facebook, it’s a battle of the songwriters to keep my face out there.
ES: And to keep your chops up, right?
TC: To keep my chops up and to further the blues genre when it comes to songwriting. Cuz it’s been hard! It’s been hard to find people to write their own music. People are always like, “I write songs.” Okay, do you have it on CD? “No, but I write songs.” But the idea to sell CDs has been looking at you for the past six weeks. To maybe get your face out there so your fans can see you talk intimately about your music or about this or about that or whatever, you know? So that’s my little side, not hustle, I’m not getting paid for it. But just something to keep my mind out there and to help the genre.
ES: And not only that, but you’re bringing pleasure to people while we’re basically in a depression. If you think about the depression years ago, at least you could go see music if you wanted to. But who would’ve thought we’d get stuck in our fucking homes.
TC: Thank God for Facebook and Zoom and all these social media outlets.
ES: Well it was great talking to you, thank you!
For more on Toronzo Cannon, click here
For the Toronzo Cannon photo shoot, click here