Sonny Knight's hands tremble in our interview, but it's not clear whether it's nerves or his age. He's 65, after all, and as the leader of Sonny Knight & the Lakers, he's not totally comfortable being the center of attention.
Get used to it, Sonny. With performances clocked at SXSW, the Cedar, and First Avenue, and a headlining performance on the books for Grand Old Day, the Lakers are on a roll.
“It’s moving in such a way that is so beautiful and scary at the same time,” Knight says as we sit in lounge chairs in the basement recording studio of Secret Stash Records. It’s an odd position for a man who’s been around the block, quite literally. When he was 16, Knight recorded his first 45. “Now here it is, 2014, I’m down at the other end of Lake Street creating an album, you know?”
He’s as incredulous as anyone. A life spent in and out of bands and cities, he started his musical career by imitating gospel singers at church on a backyard stage with friends, getting picked up to record by a friend’s brother. Before he got too far, the draft pulled him into Vietnam. He returned a few years later, shell-shocked and untethered, moving back and forth between truck driving and music to make his living, truck driving and music. On stage, he always stood just left of the spotlight, taking places in popular Twin Cities funk and R&B bands such as Haze and the Bachelors, playing VFWs, minding his own, and making it work.
When Secret Stash scooped him up as a long-lost talent, hoping to form a band about him, he describes it as being plucked up out of nowhere by founder Eric Foss. He’s an enthusiastic band member, but one who’d rather make someone else look good than draw attention to himself.
But what Foss saw in him, audiences see too. The energy he exudes on stage and the soul in his voice are that of a leading man, now that he’s grown into his talent, learned to step out in front and own the performance. “These boys, the Lakers”—Knight loves his younger bandmates, heaping praise on them every chance he gets—”Sometimes they just throw me out there in the middle and say, 'Go ahead man, do it!' Okay. I can swim.”
This life-long arc of Knight coming to terms with his talent through his humility is best summed up in the title of his new album with the Lakers and its lead track: I’m Still Here. Knight isn’t ashamed that this round of success is coming this late in his life because it’s the most authentic: he’s learned things, he’s grown, and essentially, he’s found the part of himself he wants to share with the world. “As you grow, you finally realize where you’re at in life. Because you come to that one part that—everything starts from within.”
Get the new album from Sonny Knight & the Lakers, I'm Still Here, online or at their record release show at First Avenue on May 3.