Sonny Knight was just 17 years old when he released his first 45’ in Minneapolis, featuring signature Motown doo-wops overlaid with Knight’s powerhouse presentation that tugs at the heartstrings. He went on to serve in Vietnam for three years before joining the band Haze, but eventually took a position as a full-time truck driver, appearing to have quit music for good. A brief musical revival in the ‘90s reintroduced Knight to the scene, and after working closely with Secret Stash Records’ Eric Foss in 2012, he’s found himself in the spotlight once more at the helm of funk and soul group Sonny Knight & The Lakers, bringing back the sounds of his past with more energy than ever. As Knight states, “Stax might be gone, but the music lives on.”
I had the chance to chat with the R&B veteran before his TD Toronto Jazz Festival performance on June 26th at the Horseshoe Tavern, discussing his upcoming album, the genius of James Brown, and his motivation to hit the stage again.
TDJ: How has it been getting back into touring mode?
SK: It’s been good, it’s been stressful; a little bit of both, but for the most part it’s exciting to get back into it.
TDJ: And Toronto will be one of your first dates in Canada with the Lakers. What took you so long, man?
SK: Well, I don’t know, it took a little while to get back on track and make things happen. I’m excited to be coming to Canada to visit, it’s awesome. I haven’t been to Canada since forever.
TDJ: When was the last time you were in Canada?
SK: Oh my God … you know, I think when I was in Canada I was driving a truck, and I was over in Winnipeg. I wasn’t even singing at that time. As far as going to Canada musically, I’ve never been there until now, and I’m very excited about it. So close to home, and I haven’t stepped across the border to go visit, so I’m looking forward to going and doing this.
TDJ: That’s the amazing thing about your story. You released your first single fifty years ago, and here you are today. Breaking through with your album I’m Still Here last year, do you still feel taken aback?
SK: I do, and to keep it real, I have to stay focused at where I’m at, and then if it should take off, where would it leave me, you know? Is this a road that I’m ready for? So many things could come at me but I’m feeling really good about it. And the fact that I’m still here to be able to sing and do things at 67 years old, I feel really good having my health and the strength to be able to get up on stage and do what I do.
TDJ: Do you ever wish that you had been discovered earlier, or do you feel like musically you’re in your prime right now?
SK: You know, I would always say, “yeah, I wish I had been discovered earlier,” because I wouldn’t have the aches and pains that I have at this old age now. But I guess I was discovered when the time was right, and that’s the only way that I could really put that. The time is now, and that’s where I try to stay in my head and stay focused in. It didn’t happen back then because it wasn’t my time for it to happen back when I was younger; it happened now, and it’s happening with cats that are much younger than myself, which kind of drives me and keeps me going, so I stay stuck in the present.
TDJ: Speaking about the present, when I listen to your music, I hear a lot of James Brown, Motown and Stax vibes, but do you take any inspiration from today’s music?
SK: Not really. I think we’re more about the old school feeling of things, because I don’t ever want that to be lost with what’s going on today. A lot of what they’re doing today is taking samples of what happened way back when, so when writing and doing our music we try to stay focused on what happened during those times and bring it to today, but with the same frame of mind of what they were doing back then, you know what I’m saying?
TDJ: Definitely. And you’ll be bringing more music on June 23rd with your new album, Do It Live. What was the significance of recording it at the Dakota Club in Minneapolis?
SK: Well it was a good location, and it was a home location, and it seemed to fit what we wanted to do as far as recording and everything. It was two nights of doing the shows, and it was our way of coming back home after a year of going around the world and out to the east coast. It was also our way of sharing it with the people of Minneapolis and doing something live with them.
TDJ: Was giving back to the community a part of what inspired you to make this album?
SK: Yeah it was that, and like I said, to show the people what we had done. But it was also to take on the challenge of doing something live, which I must admit I was absolutely scared to death, because this is live, this is right here, this is now, and I had never ever done anything like that whatsoever. Y’know, you’re up there on stage with, “okay, this is it, this has gotta be right, this is one time,” and boom boom boom!—we start doing it and it turned out to be a lot of fun. So in the end it was to share with the people here, and yet to challenge our creativity of being on stage and doing something live.
TDJ: I remember reading in an interview that one of your favourite live acts was James Brown’s Boston Garden performance in ’68. What significance does that performance hold to you?
SK: That was kind of during the time when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and just the way that he got the crowd together … James Brown is a phenomenal guy, his whole persona of doing things, and to see that going down there at the Boston Gardens was really cool, how he worked with the audience. And that’s what I get off on: working with the audience. I like to see the audience happy, I like to see the audience being a part of what I’m doing.
TDJ: I was checking out the track list for Do It Live and noticed one song on your track list, “Sock A Poo Poo” by Maurice McKinnies, and I honestly have never heard of it before. How did you initially come across this song?
SK: Eric Foss is the main man at Secret Stash Records and he worked putting together Twin Cities Funk and Soul, and that was how “Sock A Poo Poo” came to play. We were trying to put together these artists from back in the day and it just worked. And that was about the same time when I first met Eric and we started discussing, and he decided he would put the Lakers together as a band who kind of put me out there, and “Sock A Poo Poo” happened to be one of the songs we put into our repertoire.
TDJ: What does it mean to you to be playing music with that older Motown/Stax vibe in the 21st century?
SK: It means good things. It feels good, it’s keeping it alive, and it’s not letting you forget it. We’re still here trying to put it in your face. Stax might be gone, but the music lives on. We get a mixed crowd of young and old people, and the older folks can recognize the songs or sound from back when in their day, and for them to approach me and say, “wow, I really liked the way that sound hit me, you got that old school feeling!”—That really feels good to me, that we can still provide them that. And to have the younger audience there as well groovin’ and diggin’ on what we’re doing is even better, because we’re making that happen.
TDJ: How does that feeling affect the way you write music?
SK: Well, we’ll write about good things, we’ll write about “love and happiness,” as Al Green would say. Or we’ll write about the dark side of life. Life is everything, so it’s kind of like where you’re at, where our minds are at and how we come together. When we write songs, different people write in the group, we come up with the melody line, and then we’ll start writing.
TDJ: Can we expect any new tunes coming in the future?
SK: Oh definitely. For the new album coming up we are working on new songs which will be in our show when we come up there to play. We’ll be playing a few of those, as well as some of the old songs from the album.
TDJ: Now that you’re performing on an international level, what kept you motivated during your time away from music?
SK: I like to sing. I’ve always liked to sing ever since I was a little kid when I was living in Mississippi. Once I moved to Minnesota, my aunt would give me music lessons, and she had the most valuable thing I could ever have, which was a stereo that played records. She had Gospel records, and she had R&B records, and I would play these all the time. I would practice, and I would develop an ear and listen to it. Karaoke came along and different things other than playing with bands which allowed me to keep my chops going when I wasn’t playing with other bands.
TDJ: So would you say it was your passion to perform that pushed you to pursue music again?
SK: Exactly. It’s this feeling from within. I just love to sing, I love to perform for people, and I like to make people happy if I can. If you come to a show, you know I’m gonna give you every inch of what I’ve got to give of myself in that show. That’s what I do, and that keeps me going.
This interview has been edited and condensed.