Sonny Knowles’ final gig a sell-out performance
Entertainers bid farewell to man whose ‘life was happiness, music and sing-along’
Presenters Joe Duffy and Ronan Collins, and singer Tony Kenny pictured at the funeral of Sonny Knowles at St Agnes’s Church, Crumlin, Dublin. Photograph: Collins.
Sonny Knowles’ final gig was a sell-out performance.
And, just like at countless cabaret evenings, he left the stage to the strains of his signature number, I’ll Take Care of Your Cares, with most of the audience singing along gently, as his coffin moved down the aisle of St Agnes’s Church in Crumlin, Dublin.
Throughout a long and successful musical career, Knowles, who died last Thursday aged 86, had the knack of making everyone feel great and sending them home happy, said the chief celebrant Fr Brian D’Arcy.
He did it again on Wednesday – with a little help from family and the many friends who loved him and who paid tribute to him in music and words, spoken often with deep affection and emotion.
None more so than Fr D’Arcy.
The priest said he knew Sonny and Sheila, his wife of 62 years, for five decades, adding that the friends he had in the entertainment world were “the only friends I’ve had in life”.
He quoted GK Chesterton on the sadness of people dying with their music still inside them. That could never be said of Sonny, he noted. “His entire life was happiness and music and sing-along,” said Fr D’Arcy.
His funeral was evidence of that.
His plain wooden coffin arrived in the church, filled by at least 1,000 people, to Red Hurley singing Nearer My God to Thee in a strong, clear sonorous voice.
Tony Kenny gave a beautiful rendition of Ave Maria, accompanied by Seamus Brett on piano keyboard, as did soloist Helen Jordan, singing When I Leave the World Behind.
But the stand-out musical contribution came from Doc O’Connor, whose tenor saxophone rendition of the song Smile, played both loudly and lightly and with occasional detours into jazziness, managed to fill the great church with a sense of sadness and, at the same time, a feeling of pure, laid-back joy.
All performances earned applause from the congregation, as did Fr D’Arcy’s heartfelt homily. He took the congregation through Knowles’ life – from his humble origins as one of six children born in Dublin’s Liberties, to his early years and the loss of his father and mother, the influence of his brother Harry who steered him on to the School of Music in Chatham Row where he learned to read music and emerged “an extraordinarily competent saxophonist and clarinet player”.
A musical career followed, first in sitdown bands and then show bands before Knowles went solo, working at cabaret venues but capable also of filling the National Concert Hall.
He did numerous free gigs for charity, said Fr D’Arcy. He called such events “fire escapes”, said the priest, quipping to colleagues in light entertainment that the payment was avoiding going to hell.
The readings were from the Second Book of Chronicles and St Paul’s Letter to Timothy; the Gospel was taken from St Matthew (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”).
Knowles’ worshipped regularly in St Agnes’s (the church is a stone’s throw from where he and Sheila lived all their married life) and his faith was important to him.
“He ran the good race,” said Fr D’Arcy. “His faith inspired and kept him going. There comes a time when there is very little left except faith, a faith in something beyond us. And Sonny always had it but he never preached.”
Knowles’ daughter Geraldine read the poem, The Broken Chain by Ron Tranmer, while her brother Gary thanked everyone, especially for the past year’s help when their father was ill.
The main eulogy was given by Knowles’ longtime friend Ronan Collins. Fighting to hold his emotions in check, Collins spoke of “a man loved and a life well lived”. He was loved by musicians for more than just his musicianship; they loved him as a person.
“He exuded warmth and an honesty that I don’t think any other performer did,” said Collins. “Here was a man who was happy in himself.”
Sonny was known for his hairstyle (which earned him the nickname “Badger”), said Collins, for his well-tailored suits (he began life as a tailor), his shiny shoes and for being self-deprecating.
Knowles’ formula was simple.
“He’d sing a few songs and please the audience and he’d be asked back again. And again and again,” said Collins. He thanked his friend “for all the love he gave to me, to you, to everyone”.
Numerous luminaries from the world of light entertainment attended the funeral mass, as did President Michael D Higgins and the aide-de-camp to the Taoiseach, Comdt Caroline Burke. The chief mourner was his widow Sheila, followed by his children, Geraldine, Gary and Aisling, his sister Bridie, sons-in-law and daughter-in-law, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Sonny Knowles was buried at Newlands Cross Cemetery.