Singer-songwriter-pianist Joseph Coleman Smith of Maywood, Illinois, found having more than one area of expertise gave him an edge in his chosen profession but still didn't guarantee success. He kept at it for many years despite rejection, failed record releases, frustratingly long periods between opportunities, and what he felt was unfair manipulation by some in the record business. Early on, before he had honed his various talents, it seemed simple enough; his family moved to Los Angeles and while attending college in 1953 he approached Aladdin Records, run by brothers Eddie and Leo Mesner, with "Vicious, Vicious Vodka," a song he had written for Amos Milburn, who had already stacked up several top-selling 78s about the joys and evils of alcohol (the biggest: "Bad, Bad Whiskey"). They liked the song and Milburn recorded it. To Joseph's surprise, they also offered to sign him as an artist. Taking the cleverly oxymoronic professional name Sonny Knight, his career was under way. So easy!
"But Officer," a repetitive instrumental written by Tim Inocencio and Bob Wainwright featuring Sonny's mildly humourous spoken pleas to avoid being arrested ('But officer, I ain't done nothin'...'), was his first Aladdin single (it was also recorded by Steve Allen for Brunswick as more of a "hipster" disc; the flip of Allen's version, "But Baby," with the same tune, had similar comments from a husband sneaking home late at night). Knight had one more Aladdin single in '53 ("Baby, Come Back"), then more than a year of inactivity followed by a one-shot, "Keep A-Walkin'," for Art Rupe's L.A.-based Specialty Records in mid-'55. Lack of success with these efforts prompted Sonny to try a new approach. Cal-West, a Fresno, California label that usually released records by country singers, put out "Short Walk," a good piano piece with a smooth vocal, under Sonny's real name, Joe Smith. Good song, but still no luck. Not so easy!
In the summer of 1956 he headed to L.A.'s foothills and cut a record for the Vita label of Pasadena (a small company staying solvent thanks to one big hit, "Adorable" by The Colts, several months earlier). "Jail Bird," another wrong-side-of-the-law song, could be considered a sequel to "But Officer," only he sings this time and suggests he'll '...end up chippin' rocks.' Deejay Art Laboe, doing a nightly rock and roll show on KPOP (prior to the existence of a full-time top 40 station in the L.A. market), played the song but preferred "Confidential," the romantic ballad on the B side written by Dorinda Morgan (wife of well-known area record man Hite Morgan, best known for his later connection to The Beach Boys as producer of their first recording, "Surfin"). When local one-stops began ordering large quantites, Dot Records obtained the rights for national distribution. Hitting the charts in November, it took only a few weeks for "Confidential" to reach the top 20 of the pop chart and the R&B top ten.
Another Dorinda Morgan song, the similar-sounding "End of a Dream," followed on Dot, curiously credited to a misspelled Sunny Knight. Two more Dot singles, including his earlier Joe Smith recording "Short Walk" (as Sonny Knight, it also came out on the indie Starla label), were unable to get a foothold. "Confidential," meanwhile, had become a favorite request and dedication song on rock and roll radio shows. In 1959, when Laboe released the incredibly popular compilation album Oldies But Goodies Volume 1, the first of its kind, on his Original Sound label, the song was one of the 12 tracks chosen, a windfall for Knight. Over the next few years he recorded for several labels (Swingin', Fifo, A&M, Mercury and even Original Sound).
A long-awaited second hit appeared in 1964 on Aura, a subsidiary of the jazz label World Pacific. On "If You Want This Love" Knight delivered a graceful, haunting performance. The song caught on quickly at his familiar L.A. haunts, a top ten local hit in November that, along with its early-'65 follow-up "Love Me (As Though There Were No Tomorrow)," made only a modest showing on national charts (better than a no-show, which is all there had been since '56). Having a new radio hit, even if it wasn't a major seller, gave Sonny's career a boost; his live appearances were more frequent, he did a lot of session work as a pianist during that time and made a number of records, mostly pop ballads, for World Pacific until 1966.
Once this "second life" phase of his career ran its course he found it difficult to keep going, partly due to changing trends in music that he didn't seem to be able to adapt to. Disillusioned by it all, Sonny threw in the towel in the early 1970s and moved to Maui. For many years he appeared in nightclubs on the Hawaiian island...while absorbing himself in a completely different project. Though he had shown a knack for writing stories as a youth, the music career consumed all of his energies for about two decades. With more free time and a slower lifestyle on Maui, he took up writing again, using his given name Joseph C. Smith.
In 1981, Grove Press published his novel The Day the Music Died, set in the music business of the 1950s and early '60s. In the book, several camouflaged scenarios take place; parallels between fictional and real-life musicians, record company owners and the actual companies can easily be deciphered. Smith clearly had a bone to pick with the structure of the music business, in essence accusing white owners of holding black artists back, while those artists in turn hustle their talents and withhold their best for a much larger hoped-for payoff. Intense stories unfold with a cynical attitude toward the entire industry for which the author possessed a certain level of contempt. Reviews of the work were mostly positive; the book remained in print for many years and I recommend it to music fans interested in a mid-century story that pulls no punches. The book, perhaps, was the career-defining success he'd sought his entire life. The singer fondly remembered as Sonny Knight remained in Maui until his death in 1998. Confidentially, I'd say he did all right for himself.