Parlor Showcase

CHET CANNON: Welcome to the Church of Right Now!

Chet Cannon. Photo by Steve Covault.

Chet at his Sunday Blues Jam at the Downtown Cafe in El Cajon. Photo by Steve Covault.

Chet & the Committee at the Julian Blues Fest

Chet behind the drums

Chet & his wife, Marie

Photo by Steve Covault

I came up the hard way…

The Big Man on stage—the one with the white hair and the Wolfman Jack grin—his name is Chet Cannon. He’s a blues shouter and a harmonica player and a drummer and a band leader. He busies himself around his musicians and their microphones and their gear, and he twiddles the knobs and dials, and he worries their sound levels down to a tolerable level, because he loves dynamics, has reverence for the very craft of the blues as revealed through its various subtleties and nuances, and wants that his fans should not have to leave a Committee show with ear bleed.

I had to work both night and day…

He moves with a practiced elegance but anyone who knows Chet Cannon knows otherwise: his recently battered knee hurts like friggin’ daggers. His jaw quavers a bit, and his hands palsy from time to time. The Big Man on stage is the worse for wear, and he knows it. But when the Blues Shouter opens up and takes over, the lake of fire ants in his belly is quieted, at least for minutes at a time. And the audience sits, spellbound by what they are hearing: truths about life from a man who truly knows the blues.

It’s a shame shame shame that a poor man has to live this way…

There are maybe four authentic bluesmen who live in San Diego, and Cannon is one of them. No, he does not have the prettiest voice, not by a long shot. It’s a bowl of gravel compared to the syrup offered up by some of the others working the same music. But, when Chet sings, you believe each and every word. This is his gift: to transport a listener to a place one has never been to and likely never wants to return to. One feels it, the deeper sting of Cannon’s blues, and you can feel it even on a sunny Sunday in the middle of the afternoon, which anyone knows is not your traditional time for the blues.

But in true Chet style, he wants to begin his profile in this way: “I’d like to start by thanking the many true blues cats who have inspired, encouraged, and supported me from near or far, and especially those who have actually stood up on a live stage with me over the years! Way too many to list, but some readers maybe will know those whom I mean. Now, if you happened to have caught our group, the Committee, lately, then you are most likely familiar with the current “A-Team,” once referred to by a random fan at the old Patrick’s II downtown as my Trauma Unit. I couldn’t do any of this without them, including Steady Freddie Lawson, Preacher Don Jazewski, Mr. Judd Austin, and a rotation of talented percussionists such as Marcus Bashore, Malachi Johnson, and lately even Kurt Kalker.

Blues critics have hailed Chet Cannon and the Committee as San Diego’s favorite good-time swingin’ blues band. With nearly 20 years of experience, the band has released four CDs, and received five San Diego Music Award nominations for Best Local Blues Band and Best Local Record. “We’ve performed in and around San Diego at venues such as Humphrey’s Lounge, the Julian Blues Festival, Warner Springs Resort, the Tiki, Spring Harp Fest, Tio Leo’s, Adams Avenue Street Fair, the Original Blue Cafe in Long Beach, Over the Line Baileys BBQ , Gator by the Bay, the Kona Kai, San Felipe Blues and Arts in Baja, and numerous house parties and corporate affairs scattered from Ocean Beach to Yuma, Arizona, from South El Monte to Palm Springs, and many points in between.”

The Committee’s been hand-picked to open shows for a wide range of blues royalty, such as Candye Kane, James Harman, Curtis Salgado, Earl Thomas, Savoy Brown, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Mississippi Mud, and many others.

But Chet Cannon wasn’t always a blues shouter. In fact, way before he got the blues, he was a clown.

“Actually that was my earliest debut into the so-called show biz arena. I studied clowning locally through an SDSU Extended Studies course with Master Dee Gee and several guest instructors from the San Diego All Star Clowns group.” Later, Cannon attended Ringling Brothers Clown Camp at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. “I fine-tuned this training by attending several big clown conventions with workshops on everything from character development, to the greats of silent comedy, balloon animals, what is mime?, drama in comedy, face painting techniques, communicating with others as a clown, and are clown shoes right for you?”

For a time Cannon worked as an advance contact smile runner for a smaller traveling circus. “Later, I clowned from home for several years doing assorted mall grand openings, a few TV commercials, hospital visits, marched in over 100 parades, and acted as Chief Piñata Server at private events across the county.”
The Big Man loved the gig. He was Gizmo T. Clown. He was Wally A. Clown. The clown shoes, as it turns out, were a fit. “All and all, I would have to admit that it was an incredible time of light, blessings, and personal growth in my life.” Then one day, some blues came down on Gizmo/Chet hard like a runaway train. The clown troupe had been putting in time sitting with terminally ill children. One of them left Chet a note: Don’t cry Gizmo. I’m okay now.

And then the child died.

“I was just never able to put on my clown face again without breaking into tears after that.”

Oh, it’s so cold up north the birds can’t fly…

Chet Cannon says he was born somewhere on the East Coast during a classic Nor’easter storm, “while the wind wailed and the snow was blowing on a bitter cold and dark night.” He has worked an astonishing variety of jobs in his time: construction, retail, delivery driver, cab driver, breakfast cook, window washer, roach coach driver. “I collected recyclables, drove an ice cream truck, once tried a bank job, and sold my plasma.”

Chet says that “through it all, there was this crazy little voice in back of my head insisting that someday I’m going to have a blues band of my very own.”

And now, he does. Today, Cannon is the full-time leader of the highly regarded Committee, even though he claims financial indigestion is part of the deal. Mostly these days—as for so many of us—he says, are spent in between coin.

“The deal was sealed one night in 1980 as far as my getting a group together when I had the opportunity to sit and have a chat with McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield on his Minnie Winnebago, parked in an alley behind the Bacchanal in Clairemont while we drank a $40-bottle of champagne. I bought it as a welcome-to-San-Diego gift at a liquor store, conveniently located next door when I learned it was what Muddy drank and the club didn’t carry any champagne in stock.”

Drinks with the Muddy Waters?

“I spent much of that time trying to convince Muddy I should act as his driver, bartender, laundry valet, and bring him wild women on tour or whatever it took; he wouldn’t have to pay me, I just wanted him to teach me how to sing the blues. He had a good chuckle, shook his head, and told me he “didn’t have time for any of all that.” Sadly, it turned out he was right as he went home to his rewards less than three years later and I’m still out here trying to get this darn thing done right.” Cannon points to that as 30 or 40 minutes that changed the direction of his life. “Though it still took another 18 years for me to quit saying one of these days I’ll have a band and actually start making a move on it.”

You’re only burning a torch you can’t lose…

Music began for Chet Cannon—as it does for so many—at home, and, in church. “My Grandmother would make me sing praise. As a pre-teen, I did some backup vocals with my dad’s band.” Cannon’s father played drums in the Dick Aranjo and the Travelers band. He remembers doing “Love Potion Number Nine.” “My dad is a drummer so I naturally started jumping on the kit pretty young. I attempted to play in a few teenager bands in the drumming position, but none of them ever really stuck.”

Basic training: Cannon admits to singing along to the stereo, “dancing around trying to duck-walk like Chuck Berry, practicing my gravelly impersonation of Howling Wolf’s vocal prowess or Pete Townshend’s signature windmill maneuver. During the manic ’80s I ran wild with a few other unknowns: Rod Richardson, Jim Peck, and Don Musial.” They had a garage band called LON [shorthand for Loud Obnoxious Noise], and, boy, was it ever! We didn’t have a PA, so I would stand in the center of the room and holler out at the top of my lungs. Though we never actually played a show anywhere, we certainly did have real good times.”

Chet says he tried to teach himself to play guitar for a while, “but really, how does one teach themselves something they have absolutely no idea how to do? Especially at 59 years old! A friend helped me hash out a few rudimentary chord progressions not long ago and I practiced them in the garage for about five months until my fingers were bloody. OUCH!”

But the guitar practice paid off. “When my mom passed in April—with help of friends who put up a Go Fund Me page and those who so kindly donated—I was able to journey east for a visit with my dad and brothers for a week in that very difficult time of mourning. Upon returning to San Diegoville I was really in need some extra strength therapy. I broke out the rhythm guitar and sang three or four songs at our Downtown Cafe Sunday Jam. It worked out pretty good for me, and some the folks seemed to enjoy it, which is actually the most important part of all this.

“Anyway, as it turns out, my voice was the one instrument that I’ve always been able to carry wherever I went and usually could afford. So, I decided to concentrate on trying to be a blues shouter. As a point of reference a few of the authentic blues shouters you may be familiar with would be Big Joe Turner and Mr. Jimmy Rushing. Truth is that I’m still out here working at it and hope to get it right one of these days.”

He recalls that some of his earliest attempts at singing the blues with other people took place at the Stage Door in PB. “For a long time that joint was the official gateway to Crystal Pier. Looking back on it I’m sure we stunk the place up real bad but nobody cared very much and everyone applauded because they were so drunk or just because the song was finally over.”

But you’re on the right track for learnin’ the blues…

Then one day he heard about a nightclub called Blind Melons, just a few blocks away from the Stage Door. “I started going there to hang out since, at that time, it was a real blues club, featuring cats like James Cotton, Smokey Wilson, William Clarke, and Jimmy Rogers, along with fine local acts like Mississippi Mudsharks, Tomcat Courtney, Billy Thompson, Blonde Bruce, and a long list of other regional and national artists. Scott Slaga [Blind Melons owner] sure knew his stuff! Barney Roach hosted an out-of-sight Monday Blues Jam where I met many members of the blues community. I’m still friends with most of those guys.”

He says someone came up with the idea to start up a new jam after the Melon jam dried up. “It was at this cheesy joint in Lemon Grove called the Pelican Pub. There were some legal troubles there with insurance payments, if memory serves me correct, and the front door to the pub was shuttered for good. Well, there we were once again, all geared up and nowhere to go to have some good clean blues jamming fun. Our pal “Lucky” Dan Marolt [of San Diego’s Blues Hall of Fame:] later found Etta’s Place on University Avenue. He was able to convince the owner, Etta Keeler, to host a Blues Jam there on Sunday afternoons with alternating hosts. At one time the host bands included Lady Star, Len Rainey, Big Slim, and myself. The partying that went on at Etta’s is legendary to this day.”

Here is something you don’t know about Chet Cannon: that he once attended 26 blues shows in almost as many days.

“After years of listening to my parents’ music thinking that Hank Williams was close to God [not realizing until later just how close], someone invited me to a show in early 1970s with Canned Heat, Johnny Winter, and John Lee Hooker. Need I say more?” It would be nearly 30 years from that concert before Cannon would put a band of his own into play.

“It was for a Rock for Children event. We were collecting school supplies for children in need. It was hosted by Etta Keeler and Holly Ansman at one of the best clubs around. They needed one more band to fill the lineup. We were it. Someone decided at the last minute that we had to have a band name for a poster and the T-shirts, so we were listed on the bill as Chet Cannon and Friends. I believe that early lineup included the late Steve Welles, Judd Austin, Harmonica John Frazer, and Paul Rosko or maybe Bernardo Rodriquez—but they were foggy times for me back then.”

For a time Cannon hosted a jam called Way Out Wednesday. “Shortly after this, Guitar Paul Rosko and I put together Chet and the Automatics with Gary Easy Money York and Steve the Driver Brickman, which contrary to popular belief that name had nothing to do with weapons and was based on a habit we had where more often than not the band would start some random groove. I’d think up lyrics on the fly or automatic and begin to shout it out. We buckled down at one point and actually got a pretty solid set together with a few Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Junior Wells tunes in it that we played at Spring Harp Fest [] just a short time before we decided to split up.”

The Automatics segued to Saturday Night Special. “This was not my name choice, but I wasn’t in charge. We played a few casinos and opened for Eric Burdon and the New Animals, where a promoter made posters that read, in part, Catch Saturday Night Special ~ They are Hotter Than a Two Dollar Pistol! And oh, what a night it was with a full moon rising above the Cahuilla Mountains. According to one of the suits that evening, we got a thumbs up from Eric during our set.

Though a founding member of SNS, Chet was later excused from active band duty. “I was voted as most likely to cause trouble. Sad to say at the time it was probably true—my old running partner Jack Daniels and me were in it pretty tight by then. Yeah, buddy, have just one confrontation from the stage during a live show, and nobody wants to let ya forget it.”

Ain’t but one thing give me the blues…

Chet Cannon has mentored countless musicians (including yours truly; Chet has graciously allowed me, and my sax students, stage time at his gigs) in his time as a band leader. What advice would he give to aspiring bluesers who are reading this profile? “I would share the advice given to me one night at Blind Melons by Smokey Wilson. He said, ‘Man, if you are getting into playing blues to make some money, then you are choosing the wrong business. If you want to make money you should consider being a politician.’ He trailed off, so I asked, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘If your hat still fits your head when you get up in the morning, then you are doing all right.’

“Follow your dream of being a musician or whatever artist may live deep in your soul but remember the music and arts business has about a 90% failure rate. So, also stay in school and become a computer technician, brain surgeon, rocket scientist, or maybe even an entertainment industry attorney so that you always have that back up plan to cover your ever increasing cost of living.

“There is something vital at the blues jams that you just can’t get from playing along to iPhone videos. Learn from other actual musicians! I think an hour of real-time performing live can be equal to a week in the garage alone and is usually a heck of a lot more fun.”

And another thing you don’t know about Chet Cannon: he has hosted countless fundraisers to help fellow musicians and persons in need from all walks of life. “My first-ever show was at a benefit to help children in need. So benefits, food drives, medical expense fundraisers, and just plain trying to help folks through the power of music has just become an integral part of who I want to be and what is important to me. If you’ve ever been down with nobody available to assist with your getting back up, you realize even more how very important these events are. We have put together so many benefits for our music friends that it’s difficult to remember who the first one was for but to mention a few I remember would be for Candye Kane, Chris James, Steve White, Thomas Yearsley, Kid Ramos, Greg Willis, and so many others. The bad news is the need for fundraising concerts like these never really subsides. Hollering out a word of thanks here to my good pal Budd Willis [aka the Banker] who I appreciate for his friendship and assistance with most of them.” Cannon also works in Baja with the Blues Against Hunger Society.

And now, in true Chet Cannon style, the Big Man tells me that he wants to close his profile in the same way he started it: by offering up more of his thanks.

“Guys like Billy Watson took the time to teach me a concept that has seen me through this insanity: ‘Book the gig and you will have a band.’ Finis Tasby is an influence. Eric Lieberman always extended an invitation to sit in with his fine band and he allowed me to feel comfortable on stage. Tony Agosta was our right hand man for several years and was always willing to work on that groove and tone to help bring out the better in me. Neil [aka ‘Buick’] Wilson, who recorded and co-produced my first live record, Don’t Get Me Started!, at Etta’s.

“Then there are all them wild women like Ms. Alberta Hunter, the fantastic Candye Kane, Mickey Champion, Big Mama Thornton, Lady Star, Lucille Bogan, and Miss Koko Taylor. I would also include James Harman, Taj Mahal, Billy Boy Arnold, Kim Wilson, Li’l Ed Williams of the Blues Imperials, Sugaray Rayford, Rick Estrin, Bob Margolin, and, of course, my dear Uncle Charlie Musselwhite.

“Karl Dring has been my partner in crime since back in 1999. I would, of course, be remiss to not mention my Brother Dana Duplan who stepped up into our group for several years. With his musical expertise, sincere style, experience, and outstanding guitar abilities he helped us reach a whole ’nother level. Also a must shout-out to Scottie Blinn for his direction and inspiration. But I should stop now to protect the innocent or this article will just be a long rambling list of friends, past bandmates, and other assorted rogue accomplices.

“I am happily married now but let’s keep it on the down low and not let my girlfriends find out about it if that can be helped. As an aspiring blues man I’m proud to wear the pants in our home and for complete disclosure I am glad to say that I have my wife’s permission to say so.

“Thanks, Everyone!”

If you would like to read more about the local blues scene in and around San Diego, be sure to visit Chet’s Blues Community Service website: The Committee favorites compilation CD For Love Or Money? Send a check or U.S. Postal Money Order for $20.00 (includes shipping and handling) to Chet Cannon, Post Office Box 12016 El Cajon, CA 92022.

You can catch Chet Cannon every Sunday, hosting his Blues Jam at the Downtown Cafe in El Cajon, starting at 3:30pm.

  • Categories

  • Archives