Baker Knight

Author of such songs as 'Lonesome Town', 'The Wonder of You' and 'Somewhere There's a Someone'

Monday 17 October 2005 00:00 BST

Thomas Baker Knight, songwriter: born Birmingham, Alabama 4 July 1933; married (one son, one daughter); died Birmingham 12 October 2005.

One night in February 1970, after performing at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Elvis Presley said to his pianist and arranger Glen Hardin, " Do you remember that old song, 'The Wonder of You' by Ray Peterson? I want to do it at the first show tomorrow night." Even though it was late, Hardin called the composer, Baker Knight, who played him his song and relayed the lyrics. Hardin worked all night on an arrangement and then Presley performed the song for the first time. A live recording was issued as a single and it became a major US hit and a UK No 1.

Thomas Baker Knight Jnr was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on Independence Day 1933. He lost his father when he was six and, because of his mother's illness, he lived with various relatives. After graduation, he spent three years in the air force and then, in 1954, he studied art at the University of Alabama. It looked as though he would become a technical illustrator.

Knight had been stationed in Germany for his military service and, to while away the boredom, he had learnt the guitar. Inspired by the simple but brilliant construction of Hank Williams's songs, he wrote his own. Following the drift towards rock'n'roll, he formed Baker Knight and the Knightmares in 1956. Their first record, "Poor Little Heart", was made in a very basic studio with just one microphone, while "Bring My Cadillac Back" had backing vocals from the ladies in his church choir. The song became a regional hit, but it was banned from radio play when competitors complained that it was effectively a two-minute free commercial for Cadillacs.

With the promise of a film role, Knight went to Hollywood in 1958. He had only $60 and the film did not materialise, but his guitar was his entrée into the music world around Los Angeles. He befriended the up-and-coming Eddie Cochran. Cochran asked him for help on "Summertime Blues", but Knight fell asleep. By the time he awoke, the song had been written.

Through Cochran's friend the songwriter Sharon Sheeley, he met the teenage idol Ricky Nelson. He had hoped to interest the Everly Brothers in a song about LA, "Lonesome Town", but he offered it to Nelson who loved it and made an atmospheric recording with the Jordanaires and the lead guitarist James Burton. Nelson recorded another of his songs, "I Got a Feeling", for the B-side and both sides made the US Top Ten.

Nelson recorded prolifically but Knight had to compete with other excellent writers including the Burnette brothers, Jerry Fuller and Gene Pitney. Nelson recorded over 20 of Knight's songs including "Sweeter Than You", "Mighty Good", "Glory Train" and "I Need You", and they were published by his father, the bandleader Ozzie Nelson. At first, Knight had been reluctant to show "Never Be Anyone Else But You" to Nelson as he felt it was too simple and lacked depth, but it became one of Nelson's most memorable recordings.

Another of Knight's songs, "One Minute to One", was recorded by both Cochran and Nelson. Knight recorded "Just Relax" with Cochran playing guitar but the single did not make an impression: in 1995, he told the journalist John Stafford of Now Dig This magazine,

Ozzie offered me $10,000 to let Ricky Nelson record that song. Ricky wanted the song and I wish to goodness that I had given it to him but I had a deal with Coral Records, and it didn't come off for me.

In 1959 Knight wrote "The Wonder of You" as a gentle ballad with Perry Como in mind, but Como's arranger, Dick Pierce, played it to Ray Peterson, who recorded it instead. It was a US hit and several versions vied for UK chart placings - Ronnie Hilton (No 22), Ray Peterson (23) and Ronnie Carroll. However, the song was forgotten until Presley revived it with a very powerful arrangement on which he was backed by a full orchestra as well as the Imperials Quartet and the Sweet Inspirations.

Despite his success, Baker was anxious and depressed and drank to excess. Even his marriage and the start of a family could not lighten his mood. In the mid-1960s he wrote several songs about his divorce, many of which were recorded by Dean Martin. Martin recorded "Somewhere There's a Someone" (a US hit from 1966), "That Old Time Feelin' ", "One Lonely Boy ", "Nobody's Baby Again" and several others. Knight said, "Dean would arrive at about eight at night, park his Aston Martin in front of the door, do one or two takes and be out of there."

Martin recorded for Frank Sinatra's Reprise label and Knight also captured Frank Sinatra's love of big band ballads with the Forties-styled " Anytime at All", Nancy Sinatra's penchant for novelty songs with " Sorry 'Bout That", and Sammy Davis Jnr's wish for pop hits with " She Believes in Me". Showing he could write in any genre, Knight wrote "Shiftin' Sands" for the psychedelic Part One (1967) by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, possibly Reprise's strangest album.

Knight wrote several songs for country artists including "A Week in the Country" (Ernest Ashworth), "I'm Gonna Love You" (Dave and Sugar) and the award-winning "Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time", which was recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis's cousin Mickey Gilley, in 1976. Knight was amused when the magazine Psychology Today conducted tests to establish whether his jokey song title was true: it was.

Jerry Lee Lewis himself recorded "I Don't Want to Be Lonely Tonight" (1977) but Knight felt that he had destroyed the song as "I don't think he was awake at the time". Listening to it today, you can hear how Lewis's hoarse and wayward vocal destroyed an excellent composition, which deserves to be revived.

When Knight found the pressures of living in Los Angeles too overbearing, he returned to Birmingham, but his problems continued. Subsequently, he was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. He had a small studio built in his house so that he could record when he felt up to it. In the last 10 years, he released three albums, which have been sold over the internet, The Way I Hear It, Music is My Woman and (a CD intended to help fellow sufferers) Music for Romantic Dreamers.

Knight's older songs have been kept alive through new recordings, film soundtracks and commercials. "Lonesome Town" has been performed by both Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney and Nelson's recording was on the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction (1994). "I Need You" was one of Daniel O'Donnell's first successes and, of course, "The Wonder of You" is performed every night by at least 1,000 Elvis impersonators.

Spencer Leigh

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