After being blindsided with a terminal cancer diagnosis in April 2016, Lonnie Knight went about his usual business as best he could — which, according to those who saw the guitar ace and singer/songwriter in action, was still better than most musicians in the Twin Cities.
“I bet you he played about a hundred gigs over the past year,” marveled fellow tunesmith James Loney, who talked to Knight just last week about playing a show this weekend. “The guy didn’t stop until the end.”
Knight, 68, died Sunday from esophageal cancer while in hospice care at his home in Minneapolis. He posted a final note Saturday on Facebook announcing that doctors had given him, “best shot, a couple days.”
“Just wanted to say that I love you all,” Knight wrote to an outpouring of support from friends and countless other musicians.
“The care and compassion that you all have shown me has filled my heart. I’ll stay here as long as I can, and we will meet again.”
Knight started playing guitar at age 12 and jammed with an early lineup of the Castaways while at Richfield High School in the early 1960s. He went on to play with a long line of rock bands, including the Rave-Ons and Jokers Wild in the late ’60s and the Knight-Henley Band in the ’80s. He also joined Bruce McCabe in the Hoopsnakes for a while in the ’90s.
During the ’70s, Knight also began issuing a string of well-received folk-based solo albums, including his debut “Family in the Wind.” From then on, he struck a balance between acoustic singer/songwriter gigs and playing in electric blues and rock bands.
“He was equally proficient as both an electric and acoustic musician, and one side really fed the other to make him better at both,” said Knight’s longtime bass-playing partner, Reid Papke.
Blues, jazz and rock singer Mary Jane Alm got her start singing in an electric band with Knight called City Mouse, but she said it was his acoustic side that made a deep impression on her.
“I was only 20 when we met, and he was such a nice, classy guy even back then, he really took me under his wing and looked out for me,” said Alm, who also later worked with Knight recording jingles at the legendary Sound 80 studio in south Minneapolis, where he was on staff for many years. There, he helped make national TV and radio commercials for such clients as Northwest Airlines.
While at Sound 80, Knight missed a chance to work on Bob Dylan’s seminal 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” because he was out of town, but in recent years he took part in the “Blood on the Tracks Live” all-star concerts.
“A lot of guitarists in town say they should’ve been the one to get the call from Dylan, but Lonnie was the only one who could say that with truth — and he would’ve been great at it, too,” said guitarist Kevin Odegard, who did play on the album and co-hosts the annual tribute concerts.
“He’s the only guitar player in town who could jam with Bobby Z and Matt Fink [of Prince’s Revolution] one night and then go play an acoustic set with Mary Jane Alm the next night and not miss a beat.”
Knight chose to receive chemotherapy even though he knew it would probably only result in a few extra months of life, Papke said, in part because “it gave him extra time with Patti.” Knight’s partner, Patti Patton, supported him through the cancer battle, as did his sisters Kathy and Sally Jo.
“He put up a good fight, and he was amazingly upbeat and positive until the end,” Papke said, noting with a light laugh how disappointed Knight was about having to cancel a gig this past weekend. “He just loved to play.”
An early June memorial service is in the planning stages.