Monday 16 September 2019

Obituary: Sonny Knowles

Talented musician who became popular 'King of Cabaret', writes Liam Collins

VERY SPECIAL MAN: TV and radio star Sonny Knowles
VERY SPECIAL MAN: TV and radio star Sonny Knowles

Although he was best known as a crooner and the 'King of Cabaret', Sonny Knowles - who became known on the circuit as 'the window cleaner' because he held the microphone in one hand while making a circular motion with the other - was also an accomplished musician and part of a session group known as Family Pride.

Brought up in The Liberties area of Dublin, his parents died while he was still young and, as was the custom at the time, he was largely raised by his elder brother, Harry, who for many years was a trombone player in the RTE Concert Orchestra. Because of his musical ability he was sent, at the age of 16, to the Dublin School of Music in Chatham Row where he studied the clarinet and saxophone. Unlike many of his later colleagues in the showbands, he was classically trained and expert at reading music.

Sonny trained as a tailor in Polikoff's, a Jewish tailoring firm near Rialto Bridge, while honing his musical skills as a member of the Post Office Band.

Sonny, who died on Thursday, aged 86, in Kiltipper Woods Care Centre, was born on November 2, 1932 and named after his father, Thomas. He was known by close friends, including fellow musician Des Smyth, as 'Tomo' rather than Sonny.

After attending local schools and working for a period as a tailor while playing at night with the Johnny Butler Band, he became a full-time musician with the Earl Gill band in the early 1950s. It was a dance orchestra rather than a band, with the musicians sitting down, reading their music sheets and playing to the instructions of the band leader. One of their regular gigs was in the ballroom of the Shelbourne Hotel, where Sonny played second alto sax to Jim Farrelly.

It was also where Sonny first took centre stage. "Earl said to me one day 'I believe you can sing?' I said, 'Not at all I'm rubbish; you could hardly listen to me. I only sing the odd song for fun'," he later told John Costello in an interview. Despite this initial reluctance, he was given two Dixieland songs and "inch by inch as time went on I got few more songs to sing". He said later, "that is how the world around me changed; it was a great thrill to go from sidelines to centre stage".

By then he was married, and had moved into a house in Muckross Park, in Perrystown, Dublin 12, where he remained for the rest of his life.

"He was a very special man," says his friend of many years, the RTE radio presenter and drummer Ronan Collins. "He was a musician first and foremost and known as that in the musical fraternity. But the extraordinary thing was that everybody thought and knew that Sonny Knowles was a star, except Sonny Knowles. He never thought he was a personality. He regarded himself as a working man who happened to get a chance to sing a few songs."

As the music business changed and the new dancehalls mushrooming around the country attracted a mass dancing audience, the newly-formed Pacific showband was looking for a musician who could sing. Sonny got the gig. The original band included Sean Fagan, vocals; Sonny Knowles on sax and clarinet; Shay Curran on trombone,;Jimmy Dumpleton, guitar; Marty Fanning on drums; Freddie Martin on trumpet; and Harry Parker on bass.

The band had a number of hits, including She Wears My Ring, which went to number three in the Irish charts. But Knowles always had a jaundiced view of fame, saying in an RTE interview in 2008 that the Pacific were "a great Northern Ireland band" meaning they were popular there, but down south they could play to empty halls if a local band was also playing in the vicinity.

The band broke up in 1968 and Sonny joined accordion player Dermot O'Brien and his band The Clubmen for two years, before deciding he had enough. "I was tired of life on the road, dashing to the country and back in the one night. I no longer wanted that," he told Spotlight magazine at the time.

He took his career in his own hands; his home number was in the telephone book and remained there for the rest of his life so that booking agents could contact him. He became 'king' of the cabaret circuit, dressed in a black and gold jacket, crooning in the big new lounges like The Hitching Post near Leixlip, The Drake Inn in Finglas, Clontarf Castle, and hotel lounges around the country. His fans included Dunnes Stores boss Margaret Heffernan, who insisted that Sonny's autobiography, Sonny: For the Good Times, written with Frank Corr, should be sold at all the company's supermarket checkouts in an effort to boost sales.

While his signature tune was I'll Take Care of Your Cares, he also had other hit singles and albums over the years. He was a fixture on the television programme Cabaret and on Live At Three for many years. He was also a fixture of his friend Joe Duffy's 'Funny Friday' Liveline with the comedian Syl Fox.

He was also a jazz fan, and loved to attend the Cork Jazz Festival, and go out to Kinsale to play music with old friends like Paddy Cole in Acton's Hotel. On Thursday, following the announcement of his death, many of the callers to Liveline, including entertainers and members of the public, spoke of his kindness and good advice down through the years.

Although he suffered prostate cancer, he recovered and resumed his career. Six years later, he contracted cancer of the oesophagus, which would prove far more challenging, although he also made a comeback, packing the National Concert Hall for one of his concerts.

He also had the dubious distinction of having two songs in the National Song Contest in 1966, one in Irish and one in English, neither of which garnered any points, so he ended up sharing 10th place with himself. (Dickie Rock was the Irish entry that year with Come Back to Stay.)

"He was a most extraordinary family man," said Ronan Collins this week. "His children went to live in Perth, Australia, and they wanted him to join them. He would visit, but after a while tell them, 'I need to go home', because at home, when he went out for a paper at 10 o'clock in the morning, he might not get home until 12, because people would stop him to say hello and have a chat. He treated everyone, whether he knew them or not, exactly the same."

Sonny Knowles died surrounded by his wife of 62 years, Sheila, and their children, Geraldine, Gary and Aisling. His funeral takes place this Wednesday.

Close musician friends are lining up to make his funeral a celebration of his life.

Sunday Independent

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