Sonny Knight cut his teeth as a teenager in the music business after releasing his first 45 in 1965. He went on to become a member of the band Haze, that developed a cult following, and whose records are highly sought after today. When the spotlight faded, so did Sonny. Out of the action for a decades, he jump started his career after a meeting with Secret Stash label founder Eric Foss, and the rest is history. Sonny Knight and the Lakers were born, and the resurrection of Knight’s music career has brought much joy from the Twin Cities in Minnesota to the far corners of the world. With a new record out on Secret Stash entitled I’m Still Here, Knight sat down with Flea Market Funk to talk about his four decade career and how it feels to make music again in 2014. He is not going anywhere, and neither is his music. Both are here to stay.
FMF:Tell me a bit about your music history Mr. Sonny Knight. What was the motivation for you to get behind the microphone and make music back then, and what is your motivation to make music now?
SK:I just liked the feel of music. It probably started going to church with my Grandma. Just growing up with the sound of the singers in the church and trying to mess around with that. I’d say it was that and the stereo at home. The turntable and the radio. As far as making music now, I do it ‘cause it’s still fun. It’s my favorite pastime. The fun of still doing it! I just love to sing.
FMF: You first put out a record at 17 with Little Sonny Knight & the Cymbals, was the music business something you wanted to do full time back then? Where did you expect to go after making that first record?
SK: Yeah, I didn’t know where it would take me or what it was really about. But, yeah, it was something I always wanted to do. I remember going to a Temptations concert with Ike and Tina on the same bill. I saw that and said, man this is really cool! I didn’t know how far I could go, but I knew I wanted to do it. I had no idea where things would go after that first record. I think the dream back then was something like going to American Band Stand. I was just going along with what the manager said. We made a record and played some gigs over in Saint Paul.
FMF: Your music career was interrupted by some military service. While you served your military duty, did you continue to play music throughout your time away (let’s say if you had free time), or was it put on the back burner?
SK: Well it was put on the back burner. I sang “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay” at a church over there. Aside from that, me and a few of the guys in the barracks would sing some doo-wop every now and then. But mostly, I’d say it was on the back burner.
FMF: Who were/ are your musical influences? Did you have a mentor that showed you the ropes, and have you mentored any other artists over the years?
SK: It’s a broad range of people. When I was a kid, it was Sam Cooke for sure. The Mighty Clouds of Joy and other Gospel groups like that. I got way into the Temptations. Moving to Minnesota when I was kid totally changed things for me. I started to get into Country a bit. I understood Country when I was in the South, but up here I got into it a bit more.
I really never had a mentor in the singing biz. I just jumped in and went for what I knew. I mean, once I started singing with other cats, they’d sort of tell me what they wanted me to do. But no, I never had a mentor. I think I’ve always had a pretty good ear for picking up on stuff. I wouldn’t say I’ve mentored anyone. Some people have told me they’re inspired by what I do, but that’s about the extent of it.
FMF: What did you do in between your late 1970’s/ 80’s work with Haze and when you got into The Bachelors?
SK: I drove a truck. That was my basis of making a living. Even when the Bachelors started, I was on the road working. I’d come back in town for gigs when they had stuff booked.
FMF: How did you meet Eric Foss and get involved with Secret Stash Records?
SK: It started with Eric getting in touch with the Valodons. A couple of them were in the Bachelors. One of the Valdons couldn’t perform, so they asked me to do it. Secret Stash put together this big Soul revue show and I sang with the Valdons. Then one of the guys from Prophets of Peace couldn’t perform, so I sang their tunes during the revue as well. I started making a habit of stopping by Secret Stash on my way home from the gym. I’d just come down and hang out with Eric and the guys. Next thing you know, Sonny Knight & The Lakers started.
At a point in time, I probably thought it was just black folks’ music. But I don’t really see it that way anymore. It’s really just about what comes out of whoever is performing it.” – Sonny Knight on what Soul is.
FMF: What are your thoughts on sampling in the music industry, and would you let your music be sampled?
SK: I think sampling is being kind of lazy. I’ve never given it a whole bunch of thought. But, would I like for my music to be started? I guess-if they got a shit load of money. But I think sampling is kind of cheating. If you’re just sampling shit, you’re not putting in a whole lot. It’s almost like going up and doing karaoke and then deciding you’re going to cut a record. It’s not like writing it and pulling it out of your head. I don’t mean any disrespect to hip-hop, but it’s not like you’re using your brain to put stuff into it. I guess it just shows how strong music was back in the day. For me I just like the creative part of putting something together from scratch.
FMF: How do you feel about being compared to artists of your generation that made comebacks such as Charles Bradley and Lee Fields?
SK: I feel great about it. Just the fact that I have a chance to make a comeback or be heard by people period, it means a lot to me. We opened for Lee Fields last year at The Cedar in Minneapolis. When I saw Lee Fields, I was very excited to learn what he knew, to see how he’s been doing stuff out there. It felt good to see him on the stage and it felt good to hang with him and compare how he is doing things to how I am doing things. That was a good meeting for me.
FMF: How does it make you feel to see a whole new population of people being exposed to Sonny Knight’s music?
SK: Man, I’m kind of like in awe that people are interested or that I have something that they’re interested in. It’s a very good feeling. But I don’t feel that it’s just me. I feel great to be in that generation of people who have made something that is standing the test of time.
FMF: What kind of music do you listen to on your own time?
SK: A bunch of different things: Gospel, Country, Jazz, Blues, all of it.
FMF:What’s your definition of Soul music?
SK: Hmmm. I think the definition of Soul music for me would be what you feel and how you present it when you sing it or perform it. It’s the soul that comes from within you. Some people think it’s like James Brown, right? But that’s something that comes out of your soul. I think a lot of people have a screwed up idea of what Soul music is. But for me, I just think it’s what I can get out of me. I mean, it’s rhythm and blues for sure, but it’s just as much about what’s coming out of the performer. At a point in time, I probably thought it was just black folks’ music. But I don’t really see it that way anymore. It’s really just about what comes out of whoever is performing it. Look at Stax and Atlantic Records. Everyone was thinking they’re black cats, but a bunch of those dudes were white! Even when I listen to Country, I can hear Soul in that. It’s just about bringing that feeling out.
FMF: Describe your most favorite music career memory.
SK: Well, I would say playing at First Ave for 89.3 the Current’s Birthday Party in early 2013. It was the first time I found myself playing in front of such a large audience. I felt really good that night. Everything was just popping. That was a good time. The hype of going out and playing with Haze in Lake Tahoe was cool too. It was cool, yet it was a disaster at the same time. At least that’s how I remember it now. One time in San Francisco I wound up on stage with Pharoah Sanders and Freddie Hubbard. That was cool. Good times.
FMF: Do you collect records, and if you do, do you still have any of your own releases?
SK: No I don’t collect. CDs and tapes happened, but over the years I lost a lot of my vinyl records. I still have a copy of that first 45 I cut, though. It’s in a frame with a picture of the group.
Photo by Nick Kozel
FMF: Please give some parting words of wisdom to your fans.
SK: Always believe in your dreams, no matter what you’re feeling. Look at life and take it one step at a time. Don’t be getting in the way of yourself.
A very special thanks to Eric Foss for making this interview possible.
Get the new Sonny Knight and the Lakers record I’m Still Here on the Secret Stash site.