Knight time

Minneapolis soul legend Sonny Knight is back on the scene and better than ever

Sonny Knight, a prominent Minneapolis R&B musician in the 60s and 70, at local label Secret Stash Records on Monday. Knight held a release party for his new album at First Avenue on Monday, April 28, 2014.

Image by Chelsea Gortmaker

Sonny Knight, a prominent Minneapolis R&B musician in the ’60s and ’70, at local label Secret Stash Records on Monday. Knight held a release party for his new album at First Avenue on Monday, April 28, 2014.

by Grant Tillery

Few activities are more enjoyable than belting out the chorus of an old school soul song with Sonny Knight. He knows all the hits and deep cuts. His magnetic, calming presence strips away all inhibitions and fears, aiding his congenial demeanor. Singing along is a natural reaction to his feel-good music.

The Minneapolis soul luminary returned to prominence in late 2012, thanks to the success of Secret Stash Record’s compilation album, “Twin Cities Funk & Soul,” which featured rare cuts from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Knight was rediscovered by Secret Stash’s co-founder Eric Foss and is giving his all to his latest project, Sonny Knight & the Lakers.

“[Foss] said, ‘Man, we’re going to put a band together behind you,’” Knight said. “It’s such a great group of guys. We get along — there’s no ego tripping, not even on my part because I wouldn’t be nothing without them cats.”

Knight’s work with the Lakers hearkens back to his days with the Blue Jays and the Cymbals, his horn-heavy bands from the 1960s.

Sonny Knight & the Lakers’ debut album, “I’m Still Here,” was released Tuesday, and their Saturday show at First Avenue will be its official release party.

A native of Jackson, Miss., Knight moved to the Selby-Dale neighborhood in St. Paul when he was 7, and his music career began when he was 15. His first band, the Blue Jays, gigged around town at VFWs and traveled to towns throughout the Midwest — anywhere to make a buck on a gig. The pay was initially a pittance — Knight earned $2 for one of his first gigs in 1965.

“That would be crazy at this time,” Knight said. “Being kids, it was cool.”

In 1966, Knight joined the military and served tours in Korea and Vietnam. When his tours culminated in 1969, he headed back to Minneapolis and joined Soul Sensation, which later morphed into Haze.

Haze fused the soaring falsetto of Earth, Wind and Fire with the smoky funk of the Ohio Players. They’re often credited as the predecessor to Prince’s Minneapolis Sound.

They hit the Billboard Top 40 with “I Do Love My Lady” in 1975, though Knight wasn’t with Haze then.

During that time, Knight lived in Oakland, Calif. He played in several bands, allowing him the opportunity to spend time with Bay Area funk legend Larry Graham, bassist for Sly and the Family Stone and leader of Graham Central Station.

Upon mentioning Graham, Knight burst out into “The Jam,” screaming out the chorus “They call me Larry Graham … doo, duh duh duh,” and mimicking the organ fills.

Knight also met Tower of Power’s lead singer Lenny Williams and played with jazz luminaries like Freddie Hubbard and Pharoah Sanders.

When Knight moved back to Minnesota, he quickly rejoined Haze, and the band moved to California.

But the Golden State proved to be unfruitful for Haze, and the band briefly relocated to Delaware.

“We regrouped, put the ‘Black’ album out and sent it to a guy in Delaware,” Knight said. “He liked what he saw, and he shipped the whole band out there, bought us a house to stay in and the whole nine yards.”

Haze broke up around 1979, and Knight briefly helmed the Philadelphia band Sun Street before stepping out of the limelight to become a trucker.

“That’s something I did when I first moved to California,” Knight said. “I started driving trucks because I wanted to see what this country had, and I figured that would be a cheap way to go and do it. And so, I got a truck and went traveling.”

Knight avoided long-haul burnout, falling in love with trucking.

And his love for transportation extends beyond trucking. Knight’s a car aficionado who’s owned every ride car fanatics have dreamed of and could wax poetic about them for hours. Knight fondly reminisced about his 1963 Chevrolet Impala SS convertible and numerous other auto purchases.

“I just bought a Ford F-150 King Ranch, which I love,” Knight said. “My first car was an old Dodge — it must’ve been about a 1951 or ‘52. I’d drive my aunt’s cars all the time, whenever I could sneak [them] out.”

 Knight is fastidious about his cars’ cleanliness.

“I got this deal with Mr. Carwash — I’m there just about every day — wash my truck off, wash my car off.”

Though he’s 66 years old, Knight’s voice remains youthful. On “Hey Girl,” Knight howls like the best of them. His antics follow suit, and Knight, along with the Lakers, are a guild of merry pranksters. He beamed as he recalled an incident with Lakers trumpeter Bryan Highhill at South by Southwest festival this March.

“We had this house that we rented for a while,” Knight said. “Bryan was sleeping on this air mattress in the front room. Quite naturally, everybody’s going to flip him over. The last night we were there, he decided he [was] going to move the mattress out to the garage and sleep out there.”

Amid the fun, Knight’s keen on letting music heads know that he’s still here, the overarching theme of the album and its title track.

“The song ‘I’m Still Here’ means that me, an old guy, hanging out with a bunch of young guys — I’m still doing it,” Knight said. “It tells a story about my life, such as joining the military, coming back home to St. Paul, what I found there, how I felt, and then finding myself and grounding myself in the present [and] now, not worrying about yesterday or about tomorrow, but right now.”


What: Sonny Knight and the Lakers
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: First Avenue Mainroom, 701 First Ave., Minneapolis
Cost: $10-15
Age: 18+