66-year-old singer Sonny Knight has a down-to-earth humble charisma that charms everyone he meets. Born in Jackson, Mississippi and raised in Minnesota, Knight describes his career as a series of “ups and downs.” He released his first single—as Little Sonny Knight and the Cymbols—almost 50 years ago, but his career stalled when he was drafted for the Vietnam War. After years of singing backup and working as a truck driver, he’s now back in action, with a new album being released April 29 on Secret Stash Records.
“I think with this band, everybody’s kinda working together,” Knight said, referring to his new group, the Lakers. “There’s no, ‘I’m the star.’ I’m not the star, we all are the stars. That’s the way I kinda look at it and that’s the way it’s been working.”
The group’s sound echoes an earlier age of R&B, referencing early soul music infused with elements of gospel and jazz. “I like good gospel,” Knight said. “You know, good harmonies and things like that really have a root there in my heart. But I would say [my music includes] the R&B side of vocal harmonies and a little bit of jazz mixed in.”
Echoing sounds of the late 1960s that came out of labels such as Stax and Atlantic, Knight said the group was focusing on bringing back a classic R&B sound with their own “twist.” When asked to mention a few of his favorite soul artists, Knight was happy to oblige.
Sam Cooke, otherwise known as the King of Soul, inspired and influenced many great soul singers with his unique vocal style and countless Top 40 hits. “I loved the way he sang,” Knight said “I’d try to sing like Sam Cooke.”
The Ohio Players, an American funk and R&B group based out of Dayton, Ohio, known for their hits “Fire” and “Love Rollercoaster,” were one of Sonny’s favorite groups when he was “coming up” in the 70s. “I used to love the Ohio Players and different vocal groups like them and Earth Wind & Fire,” Knight reminisced.
Marvin Gaye was one of the original members of the Motown family, creating seminal records from the 1950s until his tragic death in 1984. Gaye’s sex appeal and incredible vocals captivated audiences. Sonny said Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On was pivotal for him as a young singer. “When I got back from Vietnam I was pretty much at that same point. Well, what’s going on? What do I need to do here? You know, where’s things at? And the way he was singing it, you know, it was cool. He had that swag with himself, singing and doing his thing. And that inspired me to want to do some things when I was in California I was working with some different bands, trying to figure my way. He influenced me a lot with the things he was singing—the way he could take his voice and go real high and then be in the lows of things and make it work.”
Al Green is perhaps best known for his string of successful 70s soul hits such as “Love and Happiness,” “I’m Still In Love With You,” and “Let’s Stay Together.” He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which recognized him as “one of the most gifted purveyors of soul music.” Green “brought the gospel,” Sonny reminisced. “He had that southern thing, that rub on, down there, that bluesy gutsy thing going on, and that inspired me a lot at the time.”
Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner are recognized as two of the most influential female soul artists. “These women went up there too and had this gutsy sound and they were just jammin’ it,” Sonny told me. “And they could rock the house, you know, get the people involved in the thing, and I think that’s what it’s all about. It’s the people in the show as well, and not making it about, you know ‘It’s me!’ It’s about all of us. It’s about me and the band and people out there. That makes it all come together, and that’s working.”
Recently returned from a successful stint at SXSW, Sonny Knight and the Lakers will celebrate the release of their debut album, I’m Still Here, with an album release party at First Ave on May 3. When asked where they’re going after that, Knight smiled and replied, “To the top!”
This Sunday on the Current’s Local Show, hear a session performed by Sonny Knight and the Lakers live in our studios, as well as songs by other classic and contemporary Minnesota soul artists.
Mallory Guinee is a blogger, a harpist, and a French major at Carleton College. She loves traveling, long chats over tea, and listening to great music while lying on the living room floor.