Sonny Knowles obituary: Performer devoid of ego with the gift of enormous warmth

His rapport with the audience was the secret of the freshness of his nightly performances

Sonny Knowles brought out the best in his fellow musicians and made them feel like they were playing in the Count Basie Orchestra. Photograph:  Collins

Sonny Knowles brought out the best in his fellow musicians and made them feel like they were playing in the Count Basie Orchestra. Photograph: Collins

 

Sonny Knowles

Born: November 2nd, 1932

Died: November 15th, 2018

Sonny Knowles was a star of Ireland’s thriving cabaret scene during the heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, but his career spanned more than 60 years. He was a legend among performers, particularly in Dublin, where he often performed in three different venues on the same night, from the Old Shieling hotel to the Braemor Rooms.

Born Thomas Knowles, the fourth of six children to Thomas and Mary Knowles (née Dunne), his father died of pneumonia on the day of Sonny’s first communion. Sonny went to Mourne Road School in Drimnagh, but left at the age of 14, following his mother’s death as a result of a stroke.

His older brother Harry was a trombone player, and he took Sonny under his wing. Knowles learned to play the alto saxophone, and his early years saw him move from the Post Office band to second alto sax player with the Earl Gill Band (who had a regular gig in the Shelbourne Hotel) and on to the Pacific Showband, followed by a short stint with Dermot O’Brien.

Knowles tired of the road, though, and made the decision to strike out on his own. He very quickly established himself as a leading cabaret performer, where his trademark circular “cleaning windows” hand movement arose simply out of a wave he gave to an audience member one night who waved at him. By night’s end, everyone in the audience was waving at Sonny and he was waving back.

Audience

His friends have said that everyone knew that Sonny was a star, except Sonny. He was a performer who was devoid of ego, and a singer who had the gift of enormous warmth: a very giving performer. He held his audiences in the palm of his hand. But for Knowles, all that mattered was that his audience had a good time. And what he received from them in return was the fuel that propelled him throughout his career. That was the secret of the freshness of his nightly performances.

A contemporary and good friend of Des Smyth, Jim Doherty and Noel Kelehan, Knowles was a musician to his fingertips. His band was the backbone of his performance and he honed his craft with great care and attention to detail, but made it all look very easy. He brought out the best in his fellow musicians and made them feel like they were playing in the Count Basie Orchestra.

His easy informality and gregariousness meant that nobody was a stranger to him, nor he to them. A simple trip out to the local shop to buy the newspaper might take hours as Sonny relished his encounters with everyone he met along the way.

Wife and friend

Knowles and his wife Sheila were married for 62 years. She was his rock, and often drove him to his countless gigs. She was his wife, companion and friend, and the couple were everything to each other.

Apart from music, Knowles’s other great interest was amateur boxing and he was a Friday night regular at the National Stadium, where he used to meet his good friend, Jimmy Magee.

Ronan Collins, a long-time friend, described Sonny as “a man much loved and a life well lived”. Having survived two bouts of oesophageal cancer, Sonny died peacefully in Kiltipper Wood Care Centre, surrounded by his family.

Sonny Knowles was born on November 2nd, 1932 and died on November 15th 2018. He is survived by his wife, Sheila; his sister, Bridie; his children Geraldine, Gary and Aisling; sons-in-law, Kevin and Rob; daughter-in-law, Linda; five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.