Showbiz legend Sonny Knowles was a “gentleman to his fingertips” and possessed the “wonderful ability to make us feel great”, his funeral heard yesterday.
Ireland’s entertainment industry has been mourning the death of the country’s “King of Cabaret’, Sonny Knowles, who died last Thursday, aged 86, in the presence of his wife of 62 years, Sheila, and their children.
Fr Brian D’Arcy, who knew the showbiz legend for nearly 50 years, officiated at the funeral mass at St Agnes Church in Crumlin village, which was attended by President Michael D Higgins.
“Every time we met, or went to see Sonny, you came away feeling great. He had that wonderful ability to make us all feel great,” said Fr D’Arcy.
Sonny, who was christened Thomas after his father, was born on November 2, 1932 and was known to his close friends as ‘Tomo’ rather than the name by which the rest of Ireland knew him.
Like some other beloved Irish entertainer, he was raised in inner-city Dublin’s Liberties, an area whose population often contended with tremendous poverty and high mortality.
Sonny’s parents died when he was young and he was raised by his older brother, Harry, 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.
It meant that, although he never really let on, when he was performing with semi-amateur show bands Sonny was the one with a classical musical education and training.
As a day job, he trained as a tailor at Polikoff’s, a Jewish tailoring firm near Rialto Bridge, while pursuing music as a member of the Post Office Band.
He went to local schools, worked as a tailor during the day and at night played for the Johnny Butler Band before, in the early 1950s, making the leap to become a full-time musician, second saxophone, with the Earl Gill dance orchestra which regularly performed at the Shelbourne Hotel. He eventually became the band’s singer.
In 1966 he had two songs in the National Song Contest in 1966, one in Irish and one in English, neither of which won 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 married his beloved Sheila 62 years ago and they moved into a house in Muckross Park, in Perrystown, Dublin 12, where they remained for the rest of their marriage.
Sonny went on to join the Pacific Show Band, a Northern Irish band, which enjoyed a hit with She Wears My Ring, which went to number three in the Irish charts.
After that band broke up in 1968 Sonny joined the great accordionist Dermot O’Brien and his band The Clubmen for two years but tired of life on the road.
His career as the star of Irish cabaret began as he became known for his black and gold jacket at Ireland’s most popular cabaret venues.
His signature tune was I’ll Take Care of Your Cares among many hits he had over the years. he also had other hit singles and albums over the years and was a fixture of Irish tv and radio.
He was sometimes affectionately nick-named ‘the window cleaner’ because of how he held the microphone in one hand while making a circular motion with the other.
He was also a keen jazz fan and regularly attended the Cork Jazz Festival.
When his death was announced on RTE Radio One last Thursday the station received several calls from listeners who wanted to speak of his many personal kindnesses over the years.
He survived prostate cancer and resumed his career and later suffered oesophageal cancer but overcame that to pack out Ireland’s National Concert Hall for a comeback concert.
RTE radio presenter Ronan Collins said of him: “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.
“He was a most extraordinary family man. 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.”
His children, Geraldine, Gary and Aisling, were with Sonny and Sheila at his bedside in Kiltipper Woods Care Centre.