Sonny Knight thought he was doing something impressive in the gym a few years ago when he first noticed a lingering pain behind his shoulder blade. But when massages didn't work out the knot and the pain spread down his left side and into his ribs, he knew something else must be happening.
It was cancer.
Earlier this year, the lead behind Sonny Knight and the Lakers announced a short pause in shows to undergo treatment. But last week, the group announced all dates are being canceled. Knight still has tumors in his lungs, rib cage and shoulder, though there's been some shrinking with treatment.
It's a stark contrast to see a performer known for strong vocals in songs including "Hey Girl," "Sooner or Later" and "Juicy Lucy" now get easily winded.
"I'm not there [vocally,] and that's where I want to be," noted Knight during a recent interview with MPR News host Tom Weber. "And I'm the only one who will know. I got a lot of work to do and try to get well and keep pushing on.
"I want to be working. I feel like I'm letting the people down."
Knight has enjoyed a renewed singing career in his late 60s after abruptly stopping in his youth. After releasing his first record at age 17 in the mid-1960s,"Tears On My Pillow," and singing with the Minneapolis R&B band Haze, Sonny's career just stopped. He served in Vietnam and drove a truck for years, scratching the itch to sing at stops along the way that offered karaoke.
In 2014, the label Secret Stash Records — which has found a niche releasing and re-releasing lost or forgotten music from the Twin Cities during the 1960s and '70s — released "I'm Still Here." It was Knight's debut album, nearly a half century after releasing his first single. Sonny and the Lakers hit the road, including a tour in Europe, and they haven't looked back.
"I was finally having fun. I was finally with some cats that we could go through changes and still have fun," said Knight.
The cancer diagnosis halted all of that.
"When someone comes and tells you something threatening your life right at this moment, your mind goes on another world of trips and things, "Knight said. What seemed important isn't that important anymore."
In addition to not being able to belt out his vocals, Knight's frustration also lies in the logistics of it all.
"I got cancer. OK, fine. But your bills are still due. AT&T still wants its money," he said.
Knight admits going into the "pity bag" for a while but now wants to focus on all the things he can do to fight the cancer — a healthier diet and weight, included. The main tumor has shrunk but it's unclear what the long-term prognosis is.
For Knight, it's a moment of reckoning to evaluate life.
"I think about [death] all the time. But when I was in Vietnam, I thought about it, too — bullets whizzing by all the time," Knight said. "I've thought about death in the many different ways it comes at you. This way here gives me an option to say goodbye to people or clean up stuff in my backyard or teach people along the way.
"If this is the way it takes you, it's nothing to be afraid of because none of us make it out alive. I'm blessed to still be here. I've experienced a lot in these last couple months."
To hear the full segment, use the audio player above.