Artists often spend years struggling before they achieve success. Soul singer Sonny Knight spent half a century.
“I guess inside of us all we’ve got that dream that says something will happen that’s good,” Knight said.
In Knight’s case, the dream never died; it just took its own sweet time coming true.
Now 67, Knight spent much of his life plugging away at small-time gigs with little-known bands, meanwhile earning his living as a truck driver. He recorded a couple of songs, had a brief top-40 hit in the 1970s. By the ‘90s, he was performing in nursing homes.
Then, three years ago, he began fronting a new band, the Lakers. Now he’s playing places like South by Southwest, the Monterey (Calif.) Jazz Festival, House of Blues in Chicago, the Minnesota State Fair. He and the Lakers headlined a sold-out show at First Avenue and have performed in Spain and France.
Is he more successful now than he ever thought he’d be? “Absolutely,” Knight said without hesitation. “By far.”
Born in Mississippi, where he sang in church at an early age and “got used to standing up in front of people,” Knight moved with his family to St. Paul when he was 7. By 15 he had a band, Little Sonny Knight and the Cymbals, that recorded a song in 1965 called “Tears on My Pillow.” If the title sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of a more famous song of the same name by Little Anthony and the Imperials.
Knight interrupted his singing career at 18 to enlist in the Army. He spent three years in combat in Korea and Vietnam. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d think about it a little bit,” he said, “but I’d do it again for my country, anytime.”
After he was discharged, he joined an R&B group that came to be called Haze. They spent time in California and Delaware, played here and there, made the Billboard Top 40 with a recording called “I Do Love My Lady.”
“The music was magic with those guys,” Knight said. “I learned a lot and really enjoyed them.”
But bigger gigs and a livable income proved elusive. “Money is hard to come by in this business,” Knight said. Whatever they earned had to be split among about 10 band members. They would pool pocket change to buy food from convenience stores.
Members of Haze went their separate ways in 1979. Although Knight kept hoping they’d get back together, “it didn’t work out like that.” In the 1990s, Knight joined a trio called The Bachelors that played venues like nursing homes.
Then, three years ago, his fortunes changed. Knight landed a gig singing with Secret Stash Records, a Minneapolis label that had just compiled an album of reissued music from Twin Cities R&B bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though Knight wasn’t featured on the album, he was invited to join the revue-style concerts the label held to celebrate the album’s release.
His performances went over so well that Secret Stash invited Knight to be the lead singer for the Lakers, a band the label had organized to record funk and soul albums.
“Everybody is half my age; I’m the old guy wherever we’re at,” Knight said. “I’m trying to keep up with these young cats and they want to do it like this, and I’m learning that way.”
It’s a steep learning curve and a physical workout. He can’t be a “laid-back crooner,” he has to belt out songs and jump around the stage.
“I’ll do anything humanly possible to get people interested and enjoying our show,” he said. “I’m up there to entertain, and I don’t think I’m doing a good job if I’m just standing there blurting it out. I’m soaking wet by the time I get done.”
He considers himself in good health and works out regularly. But he wears hearing aids after a lifetime of loud music and loud trucks. He uses an inhaler. He has some arthritis in his back. And thanks to what he’s been told may have been exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, he suffers tremors in his hands so severe that he can’t pick up a full glass of water without spilling it.
Not that he’s complaining.
“I see a lot of my friends, they kind of give in to the aches and pains or the first heart attack,” Knight said. “You’re not too old to keep moving and doing what you want to do. Some people, I think, give up on that and I don’t want to give up. I feel like I did when I was 15.”
Katy Read • 612-673-4583