Baker Knight was a talented, versatile songwriter and musician who wrote a variety of songs, some of which were recorded and turned into hits by a number of different artists.
On the Fourth of July in 1933, Thomas Baker Knight, Jr. was born in Birmingham, Alabama. His father died when Baker was six, and due to his mother's poor health, he and his brother and sister were mostly raised by relatives. In the early 1950's he did a turn in the Air Force for three years, where he learned to play a guitar. He attended the University of Alabama for one year but left for financial reasons. He studied drafting and illustration, and took a factory job in Birmingham.
Inspired by emerging pop music sensation Elvis Presley, he formed a band called Baker Knight & the Knightmares. The group went to Nashville and did some recording; their only record to meet with even mild success was a self-written song titled ‘Bring My Cadillac Back’. During this time Knight was writing and recording songs. Eventually, back in Birmingham, Knight's group disbanded, the factory closed, and it was time to move on.
In 1958, with little money and somewhat disillusioned, he headed for Los Angeles in the hope of possibly landing a movie role, or maybe selling some songs. He became acquainted with young songwriter Sharon Sheeley and her boyfriend, singer Eddie Cochran, who had by this time placed one song in the top forty as a performer, ‘Sittin' In The Balcony’. Knight knocked on doors, trying to sell his songs, and making do with what little money he had. He continued to write and record songs, including one he composed about the loneliness and aliention he was experiencing as he tried to make a life for himself in Los Angeles.
Then one day he received a call from Sheeley's friend Rick Nelson. By 1958 Nelson had become an established rock-and-roll performer with several top ten hits. Nelson had a number one hit that summer with a song Sheeley had written titled ‘Poor Little Fool’. Sheeley would later team with Jackie DeShannon to write a number of songs, some of which were turned into hits such as Brenda Lee's ‘Dum Dum’ and the Fleetwoods' ‘He's The Great Imposter’. Nelson wanted to hear some of Baker Knight's compositions, in response to a suggestion from Sharon Sheeley. Knight performed some of his songs on guitar for Nelson, but the pop star showed little reaction.
Within days, however, Knight received the news that he had been hoping to hear for quite some time. Nelson liked his songs, especially the one that Knight had written describing his lonely feelings on his arrival in Los Angeles. A contract was signed, Baker received a $2,000 advance, and Rick Nelson had a top ten hit with Baker's ‘Lonesome Town’ in the fall of 1958. Nelson needed material. He would remain hot over the next six years or so, recording some old standards and hits by songwriters such as Dorsey and Johnny Burnette, Jerry Fuller, and Baker Knight (who sometimes wrote under the name Thomas Baker Knight). Some of the songs written by Knight that were recorded by Rick Nelson reached the top ten, such as ‘I Got A Feeling’, ‘Never Be Anyone Else But You’, and ‘Sweeter Than You’. Over the years Nelson recorded twenty or so of Baker Knight's compositions, a number of which made the top forty, including ‘I Wanna Be Loved’ and ‘You Are The Only One’.
The success achieved by Nelson with Knight's songs brought more opportunities to the young songwriter, and more money was coming his way as a result. He was becoming more acquainted with and accepted by the music scene on the West Coast, but Knight was still somewhat disillusioned, and returned to Birmingham briefly. His thoughts led him to writing a song that he thought originally might be a good one for popular singer Perry Como which he called ‘The Wonder Of You’. To Knight's surprise, the first person to record it was young actor Vince Edwards, who a short time later would become the title character on television's Ben Casey. A young singer from Texas,
Ray Peterson, had yet to have any type of hit. At the suggestion of Perry Como's arranger, Peterson recorded ‘The Wonder Of You’ and had his first top forty record with it in 1959. (The following year Peterson would reach the top ten twice, with ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ and ‘Corinna, Corinna’.) And a decade later Elvis Presley, a friend and admirer of Peterson, recorded ‘The Wonder Of You’ while performing live at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. It was a top ten hit for Presley in the United States in 1970, and an even bigger hit for him when it went to number one in the UK. Knight himself was delighted that the performer who had had such a profound effect on him near the beginning of his career, had now chosen to record his song.
Knight continued to feel isolated and alone at times, consumed more alcohol than he should have, and kept working at his songwriting. He married, had a son and a daughter, and later divorced. Singer Dean Martin took a liking to the music written by Baker Knight and recorded a number of his songs, including ‘Somewhere There's A Someone’, ‘That Old Time Feelin'’ and ‘Not Enough Indians’. Knight was present at many of Martin's recording sessions and the two became friends.
In the 70's Knight turned his attention to writing country music. Dave and Sugar did very well with Knight's composition of ‘I'm Gonna Love You’, Mickey Gilley had a country hit with Knight's ‘Don't The Girls All Get Prettier At Closing Time’, and other country songs written by Knight were recorded by artists such as Ernest Ashworth and Hank Williams, Jr.
He returned to Birmingham to live in 1985, and suffered from agoraphobia and chronic fatigue. Knight built a small recording studio in his Birmingham home, and continued with his songwriting, singing and recording. Daughter Tuesday Knight is an actress who had a starring role in the 1988 motion picture A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. His son Thomas Baker Knight III became a veterinarian and moved to Florida.
Later in life Baker Knight published his memoirs in a book titled A Piece Of The Big-Time: My Songs, My Success, My Story Of Survival. Finally at age 72, he died of natural causes in Birmingham on October 12, 2005. In his time Knight wrote more than 800 songs. In addition to such notable singers as Rick Nelson, Dean Martin, and Elvis Presley, others who recorded his songs included Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Paul McCartney and Jerry Lee Lewis. Perhaps the most notable of all his many songs, one that served to launch his career as a versatile and talented songwriter, was the one that Rick Nelson brought to number seven in 1958, ‘Lonesome Town’.
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