As Sonny Knight and his eight-piece band, the Lakers, relax at Secret Stash Records headquarters, their thoughts turn to the music they love. At the five-year-old reissue label's office/recording studio in Uptown, the basement level is like a miniature music museum, with obscure classic records lining the walls. The band members arrive to rehearse there, and call out encyclopedic details — chord changes, session players, time period — about records playing on the turntable.
It's a cold spring night, so the 66-year-old Knight is wearing a flannel and a winter cap. After feeding the meter outside, he's ready to practice for this Saturday's album release party. The night will celebrate his very first full-length album, I'm Still Here. His group — composed of Secret Stash co-founder Eric Foss on drums, Sam Harvey-Carlson on organ, Blair Krivanek on guitar, Casey O'Brien on bass, Bryan Highhill on trumpet, Cole Pulice on saxophone, and Tony Beaderstadt on trombone — is much younger, but they have expert ears for Knight's retro R&B sound, and serve as co-writers on nearly all of the album's 11 cuts.
"Some of the songs came from a time when we went up north into the woods for a weekend," Knight says during an interview with City Pages before rehearsal. "We put on some gospel records and listened to those, and came up with ideas of our own."
This evening's tasks include run-throughs of "Baby, Baby, Baby" and a lively cover of the Beatles' "Day Tripper," but for the most part, they work meticulously on song-to-song transitions. Highhill is adapting the crowd-enciting speech ("Opening Fanfare") from James Brown's Live at the Apollo to bring out Knight. It's focused work, but they crack jokes to keep the mood light. Knight remains mostly silent, however, until he starts singing. Put a microphone in his hand, and an inner spirit comes through. On cue, he conjures up energy that usually takes a whole show to build.
In conversation, it's a little hard to hear the soft-spoken Knight, and a bit of a Southern accent lingers from his upbringing in Jackson, Mississippi. Fun moments and good friends make him laugh some, but he mostly remains serious when reflecting on a 50-year journey along the fringes of the music industry.
At age 5, Knight learned gospel harmonies when his mother took him to church in Mississippi. They later moved to St. Paul, and as a teenager he was already singing into a little reel-to-reel recorder. After a friend heard these homemade recordings, Knight was invited to join a doo-wop vocal group, the Blue Jays. In 1965, the 17-year-old singer recorded "Tears on My Pillow" as Little Sonny Knight & the Cymbols. After military service in Korea and Vietnam, he eventually returned to the Twin Cities in the mid-'70s, and joined up with the funk-fueled R&B outfit Haze.
Shady industry deals and the death of the disco era led to Haze's demise in 1979, and Knight spent much of the next decade out of music while crisscrossing the country as a truck driver. Later, his old friends Monroe Wright and Maurice Young of the Valdons — another '70s-era Twin Cities R&B group — convinced him to join their new group, the Bachelors.
In 2012, Knight got a huge break when the reformed Valdons invited him to perform with them at a Secret Stash-sponsored show celebrating the release of the Twin Cities Funk & Soul compilation, featuring rediscovered gems by them and others from a vibrant local scene. The label quickly brought Knight into the Secret Stash fold, and developed the Lakers' organ- and horn-drenched arrangements around him to bring his songs — like "Hey Girl," initially released as 7-inch — and his rich, sonorous voice to life.
"It's kind of like living the dream. There were many things that I wanted to do that I didn't get a chance to do with those other bands," Knight admits. "And with these guys, man, I've been doing those things and more. They give me that push, and they set me out there in front of people. All these cats, they are the best cats I've ever been with."
Tonight, they're making sure to leave enough energy for the encore of their big release show — being careful to pace themselves while giving the audience, and Knight himself, time to catch their breath. To add to the throwback nature of their performance, at next week's rehearsal, the night's dancers will join them. "We've got to go all out for this," Knight jokes.
I'm Still Here is Knight's first full-length under his own name in a half-century of making music, and the title captures the determined spirit of a man who has given himself to music for the love of it. The Lakers' passionate live energy translated well to the Secret Stash studio, where they recorded I'm Still Here last year. Swinging, funk-styled R&B jams ("Juicy Lucy," "Hey Girl," "Get Up And Dance") blend with and more introspective, soulful numbers ("I'm Still Here Pts. 1 & 2," "When You're Gone"). The group's vibrant arrangements announce themselves boldly, but Knight sneaks up on you a bit, alternating between resonant verses and emphatic, James Brown-like exhortations.
Based on the affectionate way he speaks of both his album and his bandmates, Knight is clearly relishing his moment. The timing feels right. Like fellow soul revivalists enjoying success later in life, among them Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, Knight has an appeal that carries to younger listeners looking for more depth in this age of pop vacuity. After the record is out, Knight has no interest in sitting at home like a lot of 66-year-olds; he wants to hit the road.
Touring defines a band and brings them closer together, Knight's experience tells him. During the Lakers' well-received shows at SXSW, Knight enjoyed the spectacle of Austin, and relished playing multiple sets in a day to unfamiliar audiences that they had to win over. He also wants people to buy his record, both for the obvious financial reasons, but also because he is quite proud of the work. Everybody needs a reason to dance, and this album gives you 11 of them.
"When you get up on stage, man, and you see people getting down to what you are doing, that feels good," Knight says. "I like the stage, I like the music, I like the fun. As much energy as I can put in to get it out there to the people, the more they give back to me. And when I get that back, it's like 'Whoa!'"