Sonny Knight: Some personal memories of the late Twin Cities soul man

Sonny Knight. (Photo by Joanna Fox.)

Sonny Knight. (Photo by Joanna Fox.)

[ED NOTE: Sonny Knight passed away this weekend, and Twin Cities music fans are still in mourning. To commemorate Knight's life and his music, we asked two City Pages contributors who knew the singer to share their memories here.]

I can still hear his voice booming around our basement office at Secret Stash Records on Lake Street: “DAAAAAANNNNNNNY!!!”

Bouncing down the stairs fresh from the gym with sweat on his brow, in a pair of tight bicycle shorts, Sonny Knight was always ready to pitch in. “What’s happening, my man? What you need a hand with today?”

We’d only known Sonny for a few weeks back in 2012 since he came onboard as a singer with the Valdons as part of our shows to promote the compilation, Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves from Minneapolis & Saint Paul 1964-1979.

Amid the record’s success, Sonny was the most courteous, appreciative, and down-to-earth cat from the crew we’d assembled for the record’s release show, virtually never asking for anything but an opportunity to be of help. Sonny got us and what we were doing and we loved him for it. He was the “Sugarman” we were looking for.

Eager to learn and perform before we even had a band put together, Sonny was on fire. “Man, I been working out and riding my bike every day. I’m ready to play!”

It was Sonny’s humble nature, and ultimately his shyness, that made him so endearing, so exciting to witness – a sleeping giant about to take on the world. One day he sheepishly asked me how to talk to interviewers. For an afternoon we practiced. I told him to treat every question like an outfielder. Whatever the pop fly, if you didn’t know what to say, always return to the center and the one or two main points you are confident about. When he was concerned about his shaking hands on stage, I advised him to make it a part of his performance, to make it a dance like his hand was stuck in a light socket. He laughed pretty hard at that idea.

The few times I hit the road with Sonny and the Lakers I remember the late nights post-show. It’d take hours afterward for Sonny’s energy to settle. We talked typically over whisky and a joint until dawn – about music, about growing up but kind of always kind of feeling like a child, about what it’s like being black and how it’s never really changed.

Standing backstage at the Dakota in 2014 and watching Sonny work the room for what would become the band’s Do It Live record, I witnessed what a well-oiled machine he and the band had become. It was pure actualization and a spirit of being alive in its most raw and aggressive form.

With the crack of the snare drum, the massive whirl of the Leslie cabinet, and infinite relentless bass grooves as his chariot, Sonny led an overflowing house through round after round of jumps accented by charging horn vamps. It was this sense of togetherness Sonny Knight and Lakers had perfected and turned into an infectious assault in the Twin Cities and the world over. It was the eagerness in his voice and sweetness in his steps that we were lucky enough to have seen come to fruition so late in Sonny’s life.

From a dream he never let go of, it was exhilarating to see the rapid progression firsthand and the effect of a man who was passing an abundance of love and willingness to entertain on to so many. Sonny Knight was the real deal and I’ll be forever grateful to have been a part and to him for showing us the way. -- Danny Sigelman 

Sonny is gone, and it sucks.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but when a man who brought people together through music passes on, it hurts. It’s happened over and over, of course. But Sonny is a special case.

His back story, his warmth and generosity when I interviewed him, and his onstage exuberance – these are things I will never forget about Sonny. I was lucky to get to know him, and I was impressed by his ability to bring people together.

My wife had been friends with Sonny’s daughter in high school, but they drifted apart. In 2014-2015 they reconnected because of Sonny Knight and the Lakers’ I’m Still Here, and I was able to interview him a number of times because of this connection.

“I’m Still Here” means so much to me. It’s not that I can relate much to the timeworn tale of post-Vietnam War wandering and wondering. It does make me think more of what my own father, also a Vietnam War vet, went through. That’s not just the power of song. That’s the power of the singer.

Sonny talked about his shaky hands, attributed to wartime exposure to Agent Orange, and in the next sentence he reminisced about singing “(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay” during a church service at the Qui Nhon bay.

There wasn’t much Sonny couldn’t turn positive. He said it best:

“Everything is just a bonus for me; living life. Just to be sitting here doing this interview with you. That’s a blessing in itself, too. I take each and every one that I get, and be thankful about it. Like I told Eric [Foss, the Lakers drummer], we’re making memories. This is how things work. And when you are dead and gone, I hope to have left something good.” -- Chad Werner