Sonny Knowles, popular entertainer for 60 years, dies

The musician, showband singer and National Song Contest entrant has died aged 86

Sonny Knowles, showband and cabaret singer and musician, and a popular entertainer for six decades, has died, aged 86.

News of his death – peacefully this morning, surrounded by his family – was announced on Twitter by Joe Duffy, whose RTE Radio 1 LiveLine programme shared friends' and fans' tributes and memories.

Knowles was born born November 2nd 1932 in Dublin's Liberties to Tommy and Mary Knowles, and started playing the clarinet and saxophone at the Dublin Music School. He trained as a tailor before going professional in music. He joined the Johnny Butler Band in 1952 and in the 1950s was a clarinetist and sax player in bands such as the Earl Gill Showband – playing sax and also singing – he earned equal billing with lead singer Sean Fagan.

He was also in the Pacific Showband, which broke up in 1968, and Knowles joined Dermot O’Brien’s Clubmen.


Knowles went solo at the peak of the cabaret era, and recorded and released eight albums for Pye, which continued to sell into the mid-1990s. Knowles also performed regularly with orchestras, and played at the Split International Song Festival in Yugoslavia in 1973. He also toured in the US and Europe.

Knowles had two songs in the 1966 Irish National Song Contest: The Menace from Ennis and an Irish song Chuaigh me suas don chluiche mor. Neither song scored any points and he finished joint 10th with himself. In the 1971 National Song Contest final he also scored zero points with his song An fhaid a mhairim.

Frank Corr, who helped Sonny Knowles write his autobiography, Sonny: For the Good Times, today described him as "a musician who sang, rather than a singer", and said he had great fun writing the book with the much-loved star.

Knowles is probably best remembered for his Irish TV appearances, including presenting RTÉ's variety series Cabaret for three years and and as a regular guest on other shows over many years.

In 1989, Knowles received the “Man of the Year” award from the Dublin Society of New York, and in 1999 he received the Hall of Fame Award at the National Entertainment Awards show.

Knowles survived two bouts of oesophageal cancer. He was also a regular supporter of the Irish Cancer Society and regularly performed at charity events.

On Twitter, people shared memories of Sonny Knowles today. Film-maker Jim Sheridan tweeted "Ahh RIP Sonny... He was the first Caberet STAR I ever played with back in the days of Clontarf Castle. A true gentleman."

The Festival of History tweeted that: “The late and much loved entertainer Sonny Knowles received a @LordMayorDublin Award in 2006”.

Ed Smith, presenter of Lost In Music/Ed's Songs Of Praise, tweeted RIP Sonny Knowles. "I can distinctly recall, as a child watching him on telly and the absolute joy he'd bring to an audience as they'd happily sing along. A true pro and a giant of Irish showbiz."

Former Horslips musician Eamon Carr tweeted: “A classic songbook gig Sonny Knowles performed for the Variety Club ranks as one of my all-time faves. A master craftsman. Top singer, musician & a true gentleman.”

On Liveline RTÉ presenter Ronan Collins said: “He loved the audience, and that showed. A very sad day, he was just a superb person. It was always a joy to work with Sonny, musicians were his friends on the stage and he made them feel like stars. He was an extraordinary man. He was a master.”

Entertainer Sil Fox said it was “a very sad day for all of us who worked with him, and his fans who went to see him”.

Sonny Knowles is survived by his wife Sheila and their children Aisling, Geraldine and Gary.

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times