Hanging out in a recording studio on a Friday night with white dudes half his age has apparently become routine for Sonny Knight, a retired truck driver and grandfather who said he was otherwise “ready to be doing not much of anything.”
“Now, I’m busier than ever,” Knight, 65, said with a go-figure laugh.
Seated on the other side of the glass at the Secret Stash recording studio on W. Lake Street last weekend — sipping a can of Miller High Life provided by one of his younger bandmates — Knight listened intently as his new backing group worked on a slow, swaying groove that would be one of the last tracks on an album due later this year.
“We’re calling this one ‘Ketchup & Mustard,’ ” the studio’s flaming-redheaded engineer, John Miller, told the bald but fit Knight, who had yet to lay down vocals for the sketch of a song.
“We’ll have to pair it with ‘Jucy Lucy’ then,” Knight cracked, naming another track he and the gang hashed out in a prior recording session. “It’s not really about hamburgers,” he admitted.
One of the “lost” stars from Secret Stash Records’ stable of 1960s-’70s soul singers, Knight wasn’t even featured on the Minneapolis reissue label’s warmly received 2012 double-album “Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves From Minneapolis/St. Paul 1964-1979.” He did, however, sing at the revue-style concerts organized after the compilation’s release, including memorable appearances at last year’s 89.3 the Current birthday party and Summit brewery’s Backyard Bash.
Previously known from the bell-bottomed ’70s R&B group Haze, Knight made a big enough impression at those gigs to make him the star of the label’s new venture as a recording studio and maker of new/non-reissue funk and soul albums — in the vein of hip Brooklyn record companies Daptone and Truth & Soul.
Just as Daptone did with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and Charles Bradley, Secret Stash has organized a new band around the hidden-gem singer. Dubbed the Lakers and made up of members of the Secret Stash Soul Revue, they had one of the standout cuts on last month’s “Minnesota Beatle Project, Vol. 5” charity album (a horn-blasted “Daytripper”) and have been steadily working their way through local clubs in recent months.
At a November gig opening for Truth & Soul Records’ star act Lee Fields at the Cedar Cultural Center, Knight got to ask Fields what it’s like launching a new music career in your 60s.
“You still gotta get up there and put on a high-energy show” was the dictum from Fields — advice that Knight already seemed to follow.
A sunny disposition
Offstage, the native of Jackson, Miss., is low-key and surprisingly soft-spoken. In fact, Knight’s laid-back personality was a big reason why Secret Stash co-founder Eric Foss picked him — of all the “TC Funk & Soul” singers — to build a new band and album around.
Knight lives in Uptown near the Secret Stash office/studio and often would stop by just to chat.
“Obviously, he’s a great singer and entertainer first and foremost,” said Foss, who is the Lakers’ drummer, “but he’s also very likable and easy to get along with. That’s important when it’s a long-term, full-fledged band.”
That ease factor plays into the music, too. As Foss explained it, “A lot of the [‘TC Funk & Soul’] singers are set in their ways, and rightfully so — they’ve been doing it a long time. Sonny is more open and adventurous, eager to try the sort of things we have in mind.”
Adventurous ideas such as cutting a song named “Jucy Lucy” that’s not about hamburgers. Or recording Rodriguez’s ’60s psychedelic-rock nugget “Sugar Man,” featured as a B-side to the new Knight & the Lakers original “Hey Girl” on a Secret Stash 7-inch single issued last summer. Or releasing a 7-inch single in the first place, a sign of the label’s cachet with hip, young record collectors.
Said Knight, “I figured at 65, what’s left to learn? But I’ve already learned a lot from these guys. This feels better than anything else I’ve done in my music career.”
Knight’s career has been an off-and-on affair. After moving to St. Paul at age 7, he started singing in his midteens with the R&B band the Blue Jays and cut a single with them in 1965 as Sonny Knight & the Cymbals, titled “Tears on My Pillow” (not to be confused with the Little Anthony hit of the same name). Facing the draft after high school, Knight joined the Army, serving in Korea and then Vietnam.
After three years of service, he wound up in Oakland, Calif., and sang there around truck-driving gigs. He moved back to the Twin Cities in time to join Haze.
A semi-psychedelic and eventually disco-ized R&B group with multiple singers, Haze landed a Billboard top 40 hit in 1975 with the organ-laden smooth groove “I Do Love My Lady” and was wooed for a label deal before a 1979 breakup. More recently, Haze was featured in a City Pages cover story and has a track on the exhaustive new two-CD compilation “Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound,” from Chicago reissue label Numero Music Group.
Summing up Haze, Knight said, “It was just a really good band, with a lot of innovative ideas.”
In the ’90s, he joined the Bachelors, a vocal group featuring former singers from “TC Funk & Soul” standouts the Valdons. He wound up singing with the Valdons at the Secret Stash shows.
“It’s amazing — spooky, really — the roundabout way things added up to me being where I am now with these guys,” Knight said.
Meet the Lakers
As the Lakers geared up for another go at “Ketchup & Mustard,” the studio engineer talked up their combined talent.
“These are guys who — whenever somebody says, ‘Oh, I know this really amazing keyboard player you probably don’t know,’ or, ‘You gotta hear this guitarist’ — they could all be any one of these guys,” Miller said.
Bassist Casey O’Brien is probably the best-known of the Lakers, having collaborated with late rap star Eyedea in Face Candy and gigged with No Bird Sing, Coloring Time and various jazz stalwarts. He actually wrote the music for “Ketchup & Mustard” (eventually retitled “If This Is All”). Other members are organist Sam Harvey-Carlson — who also wrote a ballad for the new record that is among Knight’s favorites — plus true discovery Blair Krivanek on guitar and horn players Brian Highhill, Cole Pulice and Tony Beaderstadt.
Knight and the newly formed Lakers started recording during a trip to a cabin over Labor Day weekend. In November, they stretched out and made a coming-out of sorts with a month’s worth of midweek gigs at the Eagles Club.
“Those were great because, you know, it’s the Eagles Club and you can basically do whatever you want, which we did,” Harvey-Carlson remembered.
Knight and the Lakers seem to have bonded like your average new band with big ambitions, despite their differences in age and backgrounds.
“We really had a blast playing Loring Pasta Bar on New Year’s Eve,” Knight said, recalling the reaction from the young audience.
“Some of them came up to me and said, ‘Wow, I’ve really been hearing a lot about you.’ ”
Marveling at the thought of being in one of the Twin Cities’ buzziest new bands, Knight said, “I’ve been here a long time, but I’ve never been here.”
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658
SONNY KNIGHT & THE LAKERS
With: Lesser Jackson. When: 10 p.m. Fri.
Where: Turf Club, 1601 University Av. W., St. Paul.
Tickets: $7, eTix.com.