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I Met Him At Matt’s: Newswhistle’s Interview With Musician Sonny Knight

I recently reviewed Sonny Knight And The Lakers’ fantastic 2014 album I’m Still Here, and I promised an interview that would fill in some of the blanks in the Sonny Knight story. True to my word, recently Sonny and I sat down, appropriately, at Matt’s Bar in South Minneapolis for a couple of Jucy Lucy hamburgers (that is the correct spelling), and a discussion that ranged from Viet Nam to using music to help people through the lives.

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CW: There is a reason I wanted to meet you at Matt’s. It’s the first line on the album (“I met her at Matt’s…”). Why did you call out Matt’s?

SK: Well, the Jucy Lucy is either by Matt’s or the 5-8 Club, and everybody is more about Matt’s than the 5-8. So, in the song, “I met her at Matt’s, she was looking so great. From head to toe, she stood 5 foot 8.” We threw in both bars. It rolled into whatever you wanted to make of it.

CW: Do you want to make a stand on who has the better Jucy Lucy?

SK: No, I don’t. I’m from St. Paul, but a lot of folks over here in Minneapolis prefer Matt’s.

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CW: I’ve read your bio, checked out information online, but do you want to fill in the gaps on the early years? You cut a 45 when you were 17 (Little Sonny Knight and the Cymbols)…

SK: …Well, actually, 15. The Cymbols were a singing group, but the Bluejays were the band.

CW: Do any of these 45’s exist anywhere?

SK: Just one I know of on my wall.

CW: Did you feel you were on top of the world when you had a physical record to show for your efforts?

SK: Back then? Yeah, a bit. I was just young kid being a kid, and every now and then I would hear something about it on, I think it was, KUXL back in the day. I was excited, yeah, but then I joined the military.

CW: So, the draft was happening at the time, but you volunteered? Do want to talk about the army experience at all?

SK: I don’t have a problem with that. I learned a lot from it. A lot of people were going, you know, north to get away from the draft. I was pretty lucky, I guess. The good Lord took care of me… to get through that situation. I grew up on pure luck, I guess.

Sonny gets up to get a straw for his Sprite.

SK: I get the shakes really bad. They say, it’s that agent orange thing from back in Viet Nam. It started coming on in the 90s. As years went by, it got a little worse. It’s not Parkinson’s or anything like that…

CW: So, when you signed up for the army, you were in the thick of it?

SK: I begged them to send me to Europe, but they never did send me there. They sent me to Korea first. I did 13 months in Korea, and then I did maybe 6 months in St. Louis, then from St. Louis, I volunteered to go to Viet Nam. It was what it was. We lost a lot of people, guys in the infantry [Sonny was in Combat Engineers] caught a lot of hell, we would get mortars coming in on us, but I looked at it when I was over there as such a beautiful country. So rich and green, to have such a war going on was just crazy. Even over there, I was in tune with music. At the church, the chaplain asked me to sing “(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay”. We were at the bay of Qui Nhon.

CW: Did you end up in San Francisco after the military?

SK: Oakland…

CW: Sorry, Oakland, and then you came back to the Twin Cities after that?

SK: I stayed out there for maybe three years in the Bay area. Searching for the music game. Tower of Power was coming out at that time, and they were pretty hot. Sly Stone, I knew that he had been out there doing a DJ thing… So, I joined a band. I got to meet Larry Graham. He was just putting together Graham Central Station.

CW: This is the mid 70s?

SK: Mid 70s, yeah.

CW: And then around the Twin Cities, Haze started happening in the late 70s?

SK: Haze actually began before I went to California. They were called Soul Sensation, and I played with them for a little while, and I broke off and went to California. When I came back they called themselves Haze, or Purple Haze, and I rejoined the group.

CW: I don’t want to dwell too much on the past, because you have a current album, a live album in the works, but you have such a great back story… I don’t want to say you gave up on music, but according to your bio, after the 70s and Haze, you basically took a straight job until somewhat recently. How true is that?

SK: I’ve always had two loves. Music and driving big trucks. I took up long-haul truck driving.

CW: Did the places you hauled, Memphis, Chicago, inspire you to, I don’t know, keep the music flame alive?

SK: I wouldn’t say that. I was sitting there driving, shifting gears, thinking about it, singing… It was always there. I like what I do.

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*Some light banter while devouring our burgers*

CW: Are you on the jukebox here?

SK: I don’t think so.

CW: That is a damn travesty.

SK: I don’t think they know who I am.

CW: We should do something about that.

SK: There you go.

CW: It seems like, more recently, things started moving pretty quickly. Secret Stash [record label] got up and running, they released the Twin Cities Funk And Soul compilation, and then I’m Still Here came out. Is it a fair to say these things happened in a pretty compressed amount of time, and how did I’m Still Here come out of that?

SK: They did. I was singing with two guys who played with the Valdons back in the day, and Eric [Foss – Secret Stash president, and drummer with the Lakers] was interested in putting them on that compilation. One of guys in Valdons wasn’t able to be there, so they asked me to be a part of it. That’s when I met Eric. I started wearing different hats… “Sonny can you sing for the Valdons”, and then, “can you sing for the Prophets of Peace [another group highlighted on Twin Cities Funk And Soul]?” We put on a show, and I am jumping from one outfit to another outfit, and with that going on Eric asked me to record this Beck song, “Sorry”, for The Current [local radio station], and so I did the song, and we went to First Avenue, and did a show there, and the next thing I know it was, “we’re gonna put a group together behind you”, and I was like “ok, cool, all right.”

CW: This was 2012ish?

SK: Yeah, that’s when Sonny Knight And The Lakers started, and once we got it down we went to SXSW, and that gave us our overseas connections. Everywhere we went, the crowds accepted us. To be over in Europe, in Spain… I don’t speak Spanish, but to get them singing the songs is great.

CW: I’m Still Here is very, very old school. It almost ignores the last 40 years of music, and focuses on the early 70s and earlier.

SK: Yeah, it’s basically out of the 60s. We looked at Stax music, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke…

CW: I noticed on the album that there are a lot great party songs, but also a strong emotional center in I’m Still Here parts one and two.

SK: When I was 23, I hadn’t made it yet. I’m still here today to sing for you. To make it back from Viet Nam, and at the age of 66 to still be here and able to sing for you. At the same time, to say that you’re still here, too. No matter what life has thrown at you, you’re still here to make it better. That’s the idea.

CW: You played in December [2014] at the Dakota in Minneapolis, and you recorded a live album. What was that like?

SK: It was kind wild. We had the people jumping, and the whole floor was going “woo woo,” and we had to stop that.   It’s great. Any time you can get people involved from the stage it is awesome.

CW: The live album comes out in, what, May?

SK: Yes. We don’t know what to call it. We want to give the people something. It’s not about me. There’s a lot of people hurting. I want to give people hope.

CW: The best live albums, in my opinion, are a collaborative effort between the performer and the audience, and show the interaction between the two.

SK: And that’s how I work. If the audience ain’t into it, my job is really hard.

CW: Are there covers on it, new songs, or just material from I’m Still Here?

SK: There’s a few covers on there like “In The Pines,” no new ones on the live album.

CW: Was recording at the Dakota conscious decision, instead of, say, the Fine Line or some other place?

SK: We had two nights coming up at the Dakota, and we thought why not make live recording to sum up our year?

CW: I was reading your blog (a VERY good read) on The Current about Al Green and revisiting your roots in Mississippi before writing the next album, so it feels like it isn’t going to get any more modern.

SK: No, I feel the next album will have some more twists and turns that I’m not aware of yet. I just knew that I needed a vacation, and I love to drive, so I would go down there… I’m from Jackson, Mississippi. I thought I would try to check out Al Green’s church in Memphis, but it didn’t work out.

CW: Will there be a more gospel feel to the next album?

SK: You know, I don’t know. Gospel has a certain feeling that gets people moving. If you can keep that feeling going, then you got something happening. That’s what I look forward to anytime we play. Giving the people what gets them moving, and makes them feel good. That’s what I want to write about on the next album; things that make people feel good. And I want to make ‘em get up and dance.

CW: Are there other Secret Stash guys in the Lakers, or is it just Eric?

SK: Well, Eric is pretty much the Secret Stash man.

CW: It’s a pretty tight band.

SK: The guys are amazing. The guys are great. This is pretty much the first band that I have played with that have given me recognition, and allow me to be myself.

CW: What else in your future?

SK: 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, we’re making memories. This is how things work. And when you are dead and gone, I hope to have left something good.

CW: It’s hard to argue with that philosophy. We all just want to leave a mark.

SK: But some people don’t know how to get up and leave that mark. They stay stuck in yesterday, or worrying about tomorrow, instead of living right now. I try to keep my focus on right now. I think I want the new album to be about taking care of people. It can be very hard, because when you try to look out for people, some people who aren’t used to it take advantage of it. They take your kindness for weakness.

CW: You couldn’t be who you are today with any other path, but the one you took. Am I right?

SK: It took a lot of different things, both good and bad, to get me to where I am today. A lot people look at life as “Aw, this is so screwed up,” but it isn’t. It’s just opening up something else for you to do. Sometimes it’s hard for people see that. If you have all your limbs, get up and move around… Some people can’t do that, but some people are like “I ain’t got this or that.” You got everything.

CW: Are there any movies, books, etc. that you find influential to your life?

SK: I’m not sure how they influence my life, but I like movies from the 50s. Marlon Brando in The Wild One, James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause

CW: There’s a theme there!

SK: Even that one with the pods… Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. On The Waterfront, Apocalyspse Now.

CW: The cover of I’m Still Here reminds me a bit of Miles Davis … Kind Of Blue

SK: And it’s like the ugliest picture you could find, thank you very much.

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Watch Sonny’s website for upcoming tour information. It is my understanding that there are shows in Iowa, Chicago, and New York coming up for Sonny Knight And The Lakers. While you are at his site, do yourself a favor, and buy I’m Still Here. On vinyl, preferably. If you have read this far, I guarantee you will love it.

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NewsWhistle music contributor Chad Werner is “ahead of the curve, behind the times.” You can contact this rock n’ roll sphinx at chad@newswhistle.com.

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Interview Photos Courtesy of Chad Werner; I’m Still Here Album Art Courtesy of Secret Stash Records

*** mattsimbed