Born Joseph Coleman Smith, 17 May 1934, Maywood, Illinois
Joseph Smith's ambition was to be an author or a jazzman. Born in Illinois, he moved to Los Angeles with his family in the early 1950s. Intending to pursue an academic career, the urbane Smith was slowly drawn toward the music business which he viewed with a permanent air of bemused detachment.
In 1953, while attending Los Angeles State College, he went to see the Mesner brothers at Aladdin, trying to sell a song to his idol Amos Milburn. The Mesners were not interested in his song, but signed Smith as a singer. He was dubbed Sonny Knight (his own play on words) for two releases on Aladdin, the first of which was "But, Officer" (Aladdin 3207), which was covered for the white market by comedian Steve Allen on Brunswick.
Except for a 1955 single on Cal-West as Joe Smith, all his further recordings would appear under the name of Sonny Knight. His next stop was Specialty Records, for which he recorded "Keep-A Walkin'"/ "Baby Don't Want Me" (Specialty 547), two good but very different sides. Art Rupe, Specialty's owner, paid royalties of only one half cent per record (for both sides), out of which the artist had to pay for the session and the musicians. Sonny was already becoming disillusioned by the music business, but then he met Hite and Dorinda Morgan, a white middle-aged couple who operated on the fringes of the record business and were later to discover the Beach Boys. They were like parents to him (Sonny's mother had recently died) and he spent most of his time at their house, where they had a little recording studio. Sonny recorded Dorinda Morgan's song "Confidential", an R&B ballad sung with a controlled vibrato. The label read "Sonny Knight with Jack Collier Orchestra", but in reality the backing was supplied by the Ernie Freeman Combo, which included Plas Johnson on tenor sax, Irving Ashby on guitar and Freeman himself on piano. The song first came out on the small Vita label from Pasadena, but when the record started selling in large quantities, Vita transferred the master to Dot Records. "Confidential" peaked at # 17 pop and # 8 R&B in the autumn of 1956. However, Vita continued to press it after Dot had bought the master. Neither company reported van accurate count of the number of disks sold. "The case was settled out of court, eventually ... out of the whole thing, I got $ 2100."
Dot released several follow-ups (produced by Lee Hazlewood), but Sonny Knight would not chart again until 1964, when his "If You Want This Love" on Aura went to # 71 R&B. In the meantime, Knight worked as a session pianist in Los Angeles (for Sandy Nelson for instance) and recorded for Art Laboe's Original Sound label, among others. Finally realizing his ambitions as an author, "The Day the Music Died" was published by Grove Press in 1981, under his God-given name, Joseph C. Smith. It was a work of "faction", a novel based on Sonny's own experiences in the music business. The reviews were generally good and 25 years later, the book is still in print, both in hardcover and paperback. By the time the book came out, Knight was living in Hawaii, where he died in 1998.
Acknowledgements : Stuart Colman, Wayne Jancik, Rob Finnis.
Further reading: "Repeating Echoes with Sonny Knight". Interview by Stuart Colman, Now Dig This 266 (May 2005).
CD : Confidential (Pacific 625). 25 tracks. Released circa 2001.
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