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Garage-Rock Pioneer Jimy Sohns Has Seen Enough for Ten Lifetimes

The frontman of Shadows of Knight, the band that made Van Morrison's "Gloria" famous, shares tales from his decades on rock's fringes.

by Miles Raymer
Sep 17 2015, 7:50pm

Vintage picture of Jimy Sohns and the Shadows of Knight performing live. Photo courtesy of Jimy Sohn

In just over two and a half minutes, the Shadows of Knight's version of "Gloria" sums up pretty much everything about rock 'n' roll of a certain era—that sweet spot between the genre's rise from juke joints to the pop charts and its evolution in the late 60s into "serious" music. "Gloria" was the product of a group of white teenagers in the Midwest bashing their way through a cover of song by a group of white teenagers in Northern Ireland who were themselves attempting to sound like an American black soul and blues band.

It's a chain of influence and mimicry that was pretty typical of the time, and the story of the Shadows is pretty typical as well. After "Gloria," they rubbed elbows with the Stones and the Who, but gross mismanagement ground the band down until they eventually split, their handful of hits seemingly consigned to the cutout bin of history alongside the rest of the garage rockers they came up with.

Frontman Jimy Sohns was never willing to accept a civilian life, though. After the original Shadows split, he scored another hit with the bubblegum-flavored "Shake" before starting an offstage career in the rock biz that found him road-managing Chicago punks Skafish. According to Skafish lore, Jimy would occasionally close out their shows by joining the band onstage and singing "Gloria."

In the early 80s, Jimy was busted for felony drug charges and spent three years in prison, where he formed a prison band called Jimy Sohns and the Cons. "We were actually quite good because there were a lot of musicians who played too near the flame, shall we say," he told me.

A recent shot of Jimy performing live. Courtesy of Jimy Sohns

Ever since he got free, he's been leading an all-new Shadows, playing for a growing audience of garage-rock obsessives. Earlier this year, Sundazed released Live 1966, which captured the band playing one of their regular weekend gigs at the proto-DIY show space they ran, blasting through a noise-drenched set that sounds less like the relatively clean-cut recorded version of "Gloria" and more like a Midwestern answer to the Velvet Underground. Between working on his memoirs and taking part in an upcoming television documentary on Chicago rock, I got in touch with Jimy, a voluminous talker who'd already started his spiel before I could start recording.

Jimy Sohns: I've never lived in Chicago proper. I've always been from the suburbs. When you're in a small suburb like Prospect Heights, Illinois, where I grew up, you always say Chicago so you seem like you're part of something bigger and more important.

VICE: I lived in Chicago for a while.
I lived in Florida for 11 years. I've been around. I lived in Europe for a while. I lived in New York a couple times when I was in the studio recording for Kasenetz-Katz—they had the Ohio Express and Fruit Gum Company–I did a lot of studio work for them. And I lived out West for a while.

You really got around.
Yeah, well, 50 years in rock 'n' roll, you tend to travel a lot.

I just checked out the Live 1966 record that was recorded at the Cellar, where you guys had a residency.
When the Cellar first opened, there weren't teen clubs. They were just starting that scene. We got together with our original manager, Paul Samson, and we'd pick out storefronts and rent them for a month or two at a time. We'd go in there, clean them up, make a stage, play there a while. I think the stage was five inches high, which at 5'7" makes me barely visible. The Cellar got so popular that we had to have two shows a night. That was the screaming era, where the kids would charge the stage and that kind of thing, and we got to be big enough to where it would disrupt the headliner coming on after us, because they'd charge the stage when we ended, and it would mess up the show. It was a really happening period, the whole British Invasion taken back over by us Americans. One thing we didn't figure... We'll get into the "Gloria" thing now, I guess.

Sure.
Yes, Van Morrison wrote "Gloria." It was the B-side to "Baby Please Don't Go," and I don't think it was meant to be an A-side because it was so long. It was three-and-a- half minutes long, and that was just unheard of back then. Anything over two minutes and 30 seconds got faded [on the radio]. Ours was 2:38, and at first at least a few places faded it. Van Morrison's "Gloria" was choppy. It had some mistakes in it. There's about 20 seconds before the solo starts where they're just doing the chorus with no words. We got it sent to us from my cousin, who was in the Army, stationed in Germany, and he sent me a whole bunch of records. So we kind of had a jump on stuff. And as a Chicago-based band, we kind of jumped into the Chicago blues scene early. We were the first white blues band. You know, all of us white kids were kinda playing a really white version of the blues, but at least we were trying, you know?

Six months before we recorded "Gloria," we knew it was going to be a smash hit. We had no doubt that we were going to be rock 'n' roll stars. Years later, in retrospect, you realize what a minute chance we had to pull that off. All the hundreds and thousands of bands who ultimately were probably better than us that never made it. Because half this business is being in the right place at the right time. The fact that we were pretty good didn't hurt. When you go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, they had a little pamphlet they handed out called "The 500 Songs That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll," and "Gloria" is in the top 100. Our "Gloria." They don't mention Van Morrison, Patti Smith, the Doors, Hendrix, nobody. I'm very proud of that fact.

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You became a rockstar when you were 19. What was that like?
I remember the first time I was ever in New York City in my life. It was about 11 o'clock at night that we were getting in there, and we flew over the Statue of Liberty, and I thought to myself, What the hell am I doing here, man? I'm 1,000 miles from home, nobody knows who we are, nobody's gonna come to see us play. I was wrong. We played 21 straight nights, the same set three times a night, and that was really when I found out what a groupie was. There was a whole network of New York groupies that was very sophisticated compared to what we had in Chicago.

A lot of people ask me, when was the first time you realized you were a rock 'n' roll star, and it was the first time I heard "Gloria" on the radio. There was a girl at McDonald's that we all hung out at down the street from the Cellar, who, let's say, had god-given assets that were overly abundant. We'd always say, "Hey Bonnie, get in the car," and she'd say, "Nuh uh." We recorded "Gloria" and three days later, before there were any records pressed, they played it on the radio, on WLS at 3:10 in the afternoon. I was in McDonald's eating a double cheeseburger, and all of a sudden... I thought I was hearing things. I had my radio on and I thought I heard "Gloria," so I turned it up a little and my hormones and my adrenaline were raging, and I thought, Oh my God, they're playing my song on the radio. Just then, here comes Bonnie with her assets pressed on my window saying, "I'll take that ride now."

What did you get up to after the band?
I wound up as a sound engineer and on tour, managing people. I toured with Skafish in the late 70s opening for Iggy Pop. The last date of the tour, we were in New York City playing at a club called Hurrah, and about halfway through the set I saw a big confrontation from the stage and I thought, Oh no, Skafish probably got into it with somebody. It wound up that Patti Smith's brother Todd, who was engaged to the drummer, got into a thing with Sid Vicious. I was probably the only person in there who didn't know who Sid Vicious was. I got over there and this guy, who turned out to be Sid Vicious, spit on me. So I did the all-American thing and beat the hell out of him. The next day, the Post had a picture—that I wish for the life of me that I had—on one of the pages with the caption, "Old punk teaches new punk lesson."

What else were you up to?
There was about a four- or five-year period where I stopped playing because I wasn't making enough money. Then I got busted. We do a great version of Uriah Heep's "Stealin'," except we call it "Dealin'": "I made my break and a six-year mistake dealin', when I should've been buyin'." I went to jail, at which point I was in the only other band I've ever been in in my whole 50-year musical career: Jimy Sohns and the Cons.

We actually won the Mississippi Blues Festival two years in a row. We did a lot of charity events, because of course we weren't allowed to keep any of the money. That was OK because I got to go in and out of prison, and I guess I'm not breaching any Department of Corrections things now. I got to be with a girl once in a while, and that worked for me.

I remember we were in Davenport, Iowa, playing a gig, and the guard said, "Get in the van. You've got seven minutes, Jimy. Is that gonna work?" And I said, "Seven minutes? What am I going to do after the first three? I've been locked up a year!" And away we went.

I did that, came out, got the band back together in '86, and started playing all over again. And I've been playing pretty much straight through ever since. I'm averaging 35 or 40 gigs a year now, which is good for what it is. I just turned 69. I never thought I'd get past 30 back in the old days when I was burning the candle in the middle and at both ends and upside down. I thought, Great, you fade to black and then you're out.

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