Little did I know when Jim Prather and I first met Sonny Turner on the streets of Manhattan in 1962 that we would later become good friends, and little did I know just how good Sonny was as an entertainer. All I knew was that he did a dynamite job as the new lead singer of the Platters.
Sonny had secured the Platters’ lead spot as the result of a nationwide search for the best replacement for the legendary Tony Williams. Tony had decided to go on a solo career, and the Platters were left in the lurch. The Platters had been the reigning vocal group in popular music since the mid-50′s, so there was a lot on the line with Tony’s departure. Very few things in life are any tougher than following in a legend’s footsteps, but that is just what Sonny did, and with much aplomb.
Before Tony left, the Platters’ career had been slightly declining but they were still widely popular. They continued to record until the mid-60′s but without their earlier chart successes. With Sonny singing lead they again hit the charts with “I Love You 1000 Times: and “With This Ring” in 1966. These two songs were more up tempo than the Platters’ earlier fare. Nonetheless they gave the Platters’ career a much needed boost, and they continued to perform extensively with Sonny as their lead singer. In the early 70′s Sonny left the Platters to go solo, as it appeared that their best days were behind them. The musical changes of the time left little room for the Platters’ style of music. That is when Sonny Turner’s strongest talents were revealed-as he developed into a top-flight nightclub act.
I was aware that Sonny was playing clubs in the South, but had not seen him in person during that time. Even Daddy and Betty had seen him perform live at a private Christmas party at a Greenville area country club before I had ever seen him, and raved about what a showman Sonny was. Though I had begun my radio show in 1976, our paths did not cross until 1980 when he was performing at one of South Carolina’s top nightclubs, Vince Perone’s Forum in Greenville.
I was able to arrange for Sonny to join me as co-host on one of my radio shows. It was to be the first of several times that he was with me in that capacity. From that point on we developed a real friendship and camaraderie. To this day, he calls me “Cousin Harry,” and I in turn call him “Cousin Sonny.” At the end of that show, I received a phone call from a listener who seemed real hesitant in asking me a question. Finally getting up her nerve, she wanted to know if Sonny and I were really cousins. I replied without hesitation that we were. She stammered and stuttered and finally asked if I were white. I assured her that I was. “Well,” she said, “that proves it. I have been telling my husband all throughout your radio show that the Platters were an all white group, and he didn’t believe me.” Black Sonny and white Harry both shared a big laugh from that call.
Sonny has been one non-wavering supporter of my efforts to give our type of music and its performers the respect that it so deserves. So when the Miller Brewing Company expressed an interest in sponsoring the Rhythm and Blues-Beach Music Hall of Fame (a brainchild of mine), Sonny joined Bill Pinkney, Maurice Williams, Billy Scott, Clifford Curry, Hall of Fame board members, certain city council members, and me at the Spartanburg’s City Hall chambers in taping a proposal to present to Miller. After the taping Sonny invited all present to his performance that evening at Vince Perone’s Forum. Much to my chagrin, disappointment, and embarrassment only record collector Jim Davis, my secretary, Betty Sharpe, my wife, and I from the Hall of Fame board bothered to show up to witness the historical appearance of Sonny, Maurice, Bill, Billy and Clifford performing “Stand By Me” together on the same stage to honor the Rhythm and Blues/Beach Music Hall of Fame. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the other Hall of Fame board members opted to support one of its fellow board members who was doing his weekly DJ stint at a Spartanburg club that same evening; despite earlier promises at the taping that they would join Sonny and the other entertainers at the Forum. It was a large, enthusiastic crowd that night, but not because of the Hall of Fame board of directors.
They missed on of the best stage shows anytime, anywhere. The reason is simple. Sonny is the consummate showman. He is the charismatic singer, dancer, and comedian, who has a tremendous stage presence and a special rapport with his audience. Yet he does it with approachable warmth, and not with the arrogance so prevalent with many other performers. Every show of Sonny’s, that I have seen, ends with the audience calling for more.
Sonny has always been true to his musical roots as he salutes many of the greats of early American R&B and rock and roll, including the Platters and his idol, Jackie Wilson. Even modern day numbers are done in the style and with the feeling of these musical types. He gently pokes fun at artists like Mick Jagger–then goes right back to what he does best, belting out a soulful song in his own inimitable style.
Today Sonny resides in Las Vegas with his wife and manager, Lois. Most of his performing time is spent in Las Vegas, Reno, and Lake Tahoe where he constantly knocks them dead. On several occasions, Sonny has been named Nevada’s lounge performer of the year. Consistent with the reality of the industry’s turning its back on Sonny’s type of music, he has been relegated to the secondary venues, the lounges, and not been featured in their main rooms.
When a friend of mine, Bobby Barber, informed me that he was traveling to Vegas to celebrate his birthday, I got on the phone with Sonny to find out if he was performing during Bobby’s trip, which he was. I told him about Bobby’s visit and asked him to say hello to Bobby. It blew me away when Bobby returned to Atlanta the next week and told me about the trip.
Bobby, his wife, and two other couples attended Sonny’s performance at the Aladdin. Not only did Sonny meet Bobby, he also invited everyone to an after show party at Sonny’s condominium, at which Sonny was celebrating his own birthday. They were made to feel totally at home, and they really enjoyed themselves. As they prepared to leave, Sonny announced they departure to his guests then walked with Bobby’s group to the cab. To top it off, he paid the cab fare and tip for Bobby’s group’s return to trip to the Mirage where they were staying.
Bobby wondered why Sonny was not playing the casino’s main room. I told him my theory about Sonny’s type of music never having gotten its rightful acceptance and respect. He looked at me and said, “I think you’re right, because I saw several main room shows, and Sonny’s show was better than any of them.”
Sonny Turner continues to perform at a grueling pace, because it is what he most enjoys doing. His show is not to be missed when visiting Las Vegas, Reno, or Lake Tahoe. Surely he will soon make the move to performing in the casinos’ main rooms and many more fans will have access to his great performances. But when he does, there is one fact of which I am certain, he will be the same warm person and consummate showman that he is now, and will still remain true to his musical roots. He will see to it that America’s golden music gets its proper place in the sun, just as he has. That is the promise of Sonny Turner, Mr. Ambassador.