CHICAGO — Blues musician Toronzo Cannon was a little too young to get into Theresa’s Lounge, the raucous South Side basement bar where a young Buddy Guy was a regular and Junior Wells led the house band.
But he heard stories.
"I knew what was happening there. My uncles Pee Wee and Ricky told me and things started to come into focus for me. You get older and you discover things, like 'Oh, that’s what was going on in there.''
Inspired by the club's famous blue-collar, gritty vibe and the legends who performed there, Cannon picked up a guitar in his early 20s, first learning to play reggae, then dropping into blues jams across the city.
On Friday — the 12th anniversary of his first-ever real gig in a Berwyn blues bar — the Bridgeport resident and CTA bus driver takes the stage with his band the Cannonball Express at the Chicago Blues Fest.
The band will release a new album on Chicago’s Delmark Records, “John the Conquer Root,” in August.
For Cannon, 45, Friday's gig will be his eighth consecutive appearance at the city’s signature blues event, either as a sideman for various artists or as leader of the Cannonball Express, which has played the festival three times.
His guitar prowess has earned him gigs from the city’s famed blues clubs — his No. 73 bus route brings him right by Rosa’s Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage Ave., where he’s seen his name on the marquee — and onto stages in Mexico, France, South Africa and Latvia.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, he burned a vacation day to fly to Amsterdam to play a weekend festival gig and got back for his Tuesday morning route, just in time to be "cursed out by some old lady being late."
The hectic schedule is worth it, he said, especially for the international crowds who “get it."
"It’s cool to be the circus in town. Sometimes in Chicago … people don’t have to go out of their way to see you. But these cats drove for like an hour and a half. It’s cool and humbling. People put on their clothes and their perfume to see me, a bus driver, play some blues."
But he said there’s nothing like a hometown gig.
"As a bluesman, it’s what you want ... there’s a lot of cats around the world who want to see what’s going on, like who’s the cats now playing blues in Chicago and hopefully I’m doing my little part to the keep the genre alive,” he said.
Toronzo Cannon and the Cannonball Express play the Bud Light Crossroads Stage in Grant Park from 12:45-2 p.m. Friday.