Sonny Knowles would have been ninety this month, and here Maxi recalls an interview she did with her great ‘mentor, friend and confidant’, a singer who had charmed audiences in Dublin and throughout the country for decades before his passing in 2018.
“Why is that tape unlabelled?” I ask myself and, with one swift movement, place it in the machine and wait.
The velvet voice of Sonny Knowles fills the air around me and lands on my heart. I am thrown backwards with surprise. What a treasure to unearth, on this, the year Sonny would have celebrated his 90th birthday!
I am transported back to the day of recording, I listen to him relate his life journey in the music industry in Ireland. For twenty minutes again I am holding a microphone to the lips that have launched a thousand melodies and bathing in the warmth of the man who was so childlike that every day was a sweet surprise.
From the recording, the speaking voice as soft as loved leather is telling me he grew up in the Liberties in Dublin, born to parents Tommy and Mary Knowles. His down to earth dialogue was unique to that part of the city. Whilst qualified as a tailor he couldn’t deny the fact there was music in his DNA, and so, he enrolled in a music school to study saxophone and clarinet.
That lead to a gig with The Johnny Butler Band and later, to a position with the Dermot O’Brien Band. Earl Gill was the band leader in the band in The Shelbourne Hotel and he picked up on Sonny’s talent. Sonny continues:
“One day, when I was in the Earl Gill Band, he asked me if I could sing. I said I can, but sure you couldn’t listen to it! The idea was that I was to learn some songs in order to give the lead singer a break. I was years working as a saxophone player and I was happy with that. However, I did what I was asked and sang two songs. After six months, Earl said ‘would you consider learning another song?”
“That’s how the idea of me becoming a singer happened. That was around the mid-nineteen fifties” he added, as I recall, counting on his fingers.
“Things began to change in the industry around then”, he continued. “Bands that sat down and read music were being replaced. The Royal, Clipper Carlton, and the Capitol began drawing crowds with the new-look entertainment. The ‘showbands’ took over.
“I was doing a two band gig with Acker Bilk when I was singing with Earl and one of the management of The Pacific showband saw me. They offered me a job. I asked ‘playing which instrument, tenor, alto or baritone sax?’ The guy said ‘as a singer’.
“I knew the industry was changing so I took up the challenge. Then I saw myself advertised in the paper. It read ‘Sonny Knowles Vocalist’ I said ‘whoopee’ and I was away with a mixer!”
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own