‘Rock Star’ finds solid ground in Wine Country
Jack Sonni grew up wanting to be a rock star. And then one day in July 1985, he found himself standing in the same back-stage line at Live Aid along with Elton John, David Bowie and Roger Daltrey, waiting to greet Prince Charles and Lady Diana – for the second time in a week.
“Prince Charles walked down the line, right up to me with his hand stretched out and said ‘Good to see you again, Jack,’” recalls Sonni. “It was ridiculous and amazing. I was living every little kid’s rock ‘n roll dream.”
And then some. Sonni was in fact in the midst of a mammoth world tour — one of the largest ever — as the rhythm guitar player for Dire Straits, in support of the multi-million-dollar selling “Brothers in Arms” record. The band would eventually play 256 dates over 350 days, be accompanied on stage by guests like Sting, Pete Townsend and Keith Richards and be a featured performer before 72,000 screaming fans at Wembley Stadium in London at the legendary charity concert staged to raise money for Ethiopian Famine relief.
It was a break that came after years of struggling to make it as a musician and mere months after a combination of events, including an illness that left him exhausted, had convinced him it was time to give it all up.
While Sonni, 58, now finds he is a long way from those heady days of being a rock star, a ride that lasted only a couple of years, he has, after winding a path through the music business, being a father and dealing with personal family crises, discovered a new eagerness to face the future with as much creative fire as he can muster.
And he has found that contentment in part right here in Healdsburg, a place that has been a home and a home-away-from-home since a friend introduced him to the area in the late 90s.
“This place just draws creative people,” he says. “Whether it be artists or chefs or farmers or whatever — I love it.”
And it is here that he has decided to return to fronting his own band, establishing “Jack Sonni and los Perros de Amor” with Roy Gattinella, an accomplished keyboard player, who, with his wife Johnna, owns Revolution Moto Vespa of Santa Rosa. The group, which also included Healdsburg’s own Brandon Hassur (formerly of “Crazy Famous”) packed the room in its first gig at Bergamot Alley in December and will be back for an encore performance Friday, January 25.
“I’m at a point in my life where I’m playing again and really loving it,” he says. “For a long time after Dire Straits, I didn’t even want to pick up a guitar.”
When he was a kid, that’s all he wanted to do.
Sonni describes his childhood as a “gypsy life” — his father worked in the insurance business and each move up the ladder meant moving the family to a new town. They finally settled in West Hartford, Ct., — Sonni’s third high school in three years — where his parents and sister still live. It was a house, says Sonni, filled with the smells of good Italian food and the sound of music — both his parents were music fans and his mother played piano.
He took piano lessons and then played trumpet in grade school, but all he wanted was a guitar. As it turns out, it was a teenager’s worst nightmare that was his saving grace.
“The day I got braces was the best day of my life,” he says. “Because I couldn’t play the trumpet anymore which I hated. So my parents got me a $20 Sears guitar with nylon strings for Christmas. My Dad later told me it was an afterthought. We laughed about it later because he thought I’d never stick with it. It never left my hand.”
After a brief attempt at college, Sonni persued his passion full time, eventually earning a degree from Hartford Conservatory of Music. Afterward, he put a band together and toured what he calls “the Holiday Inn circuit” playing gigs and trying to make a name for himself. And then he was spotted by guitarist Elliott Randall, a major session player who played with Steely Dan and most famously performed the guitar solo on their huge hit “Reeling in the Years”.
“He convinced me to move to New York City,” says Sonni. “And I did and I spent nine years there. It was a dangerous place to be but I loved it.
Sonni got to the Big Apple in 1976 and with his own band he called Leisure Class, toiled away in the evenings trying to make it as a musician. But by day, he worked at the city’s premier guitar shop, a must stop for nearly every great guitarist who played or visited New York. So while his music career stalled and he waited for that big break, he did get to meet many of the top guitarist of the era, even a few of his heroes.
One of those guitarists was Mark Knopfler, the founder with his brother and front man of Dire Straits. The two hit it off, sharing interests in movies and music, a friendship that would last throughout his years in New York.
As close as they were — they even took vacations together — the two never really talked about playing together professionally and Sonni continued to pursue his shot. But it was a schedule that was wearing him out – he would play gigs at night and then attend the afterparties in hopes of meeting someone who could help his career. Often, he would then go straight to his day job the next morning. It took its toll finally and a combination of exhaustion and severe migraines caused him to collapse. He ended up spending several months recovering, during which he made the difficult decision to give up on his dream.
“You get to this point where you think that you can’t stop hanging with these people because you just don’t know if someone’s going to hear you play and give you that big break,” he says. “I had to get away from that. It was killing me.”
Sonni, who had always wanted to be a writer, applied to Fordham University’s writing program. The ink on the acceptance letter was barely dry when his old friend Knopfler called and asked him to join the band to finish recording the new album “Brothers in Arms.”
Sonni was suddenly part of something big, playing before tens of thousands of fans and being part of a band that was sometimes hounded by papparazzi.
After the big Dire Straits tour, the band took a breather and Sonni spent some time in Australia to unwind and surf. While there he met his future wife and returned to the states with high hopes. But then Knopfler decided to take a long break from the band and, just like that, he wasn’t a hot ticket anymore.
“He told me he wanted to go in another direction,” says Sonni, who says he and Knopfler haven’t spoken in more than two decades. “Money and the business changes people. I think it was that and my anger because I felt he had made promises to me that he didn’t keep. It was an eye-opening experience for sure.”
Sonni found himself in Los Angeles with a new wife who was pregnant with twins and no work, light years away from where he had been just months previously when he was hobnobbing with rock ‘n roll royality as a member of their exlusive club, not to mention shaking hands with His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.
Burned out by the music business and faced with primary custody of his twin daughters, Nadine and Caiti, Sonni took a job as marketing manager for a small company making guitar pickups. He discovered he liked it and carved out a niche for himself in the corporate side of the music industry.
Then in the late 90s, he got a job working at a small music industry start up where he became good friends with one of his colleagues, Doug Provisor. It was Doug and his wife, Susan, who first brought Sonni up to Healdsburg.
“One day he asked me what I did in my spare time and of course I said I love to cook,” says Sonni, who has been a lifelong, self-taught cook, spending years perfecting his Italian Grandmother’s many recipes – one of which has been featured on the menu at Scopa Restaurant in town. “He asked me what wines I liked and I said ‘I don’t really drink wine,’ which he couldn’t believe. He said ‘You’re into cooking and Italian food and you don’t like wine? What’s wrong with you?’”
The Provisors, who have since moved full time to Healdsburg, invited Sonni to spend time at their then-weekend place here. Sonni says he got a “crash course” in wine appreciation. And he also fell in love with the area.
It was to Healdsburg he came in 2007, after he quit his corporate gig to take some time off and write a memoir. The book initially drew intersted from agents and publishers but their interest stalled after a series of rock ‘n roll tell-all books came out.
“Mine wasn’t like that,” he said. “I don’t think they really knew how to market it.”
Frustrated, he decided to walk away from it and when within a short period, his father, sister and brother-in-law became ill,he decided to refocus his priorities. He moved back to the New York area to take another corporate gig and help out his family there. While the job didn’t work out, his time with his family, he says, changed him.
He has plans to finish the memoir, get back into playing music and he’s working on a project he hopes will incorporate all the things he loves about the wine country’s creative culture — from art to wine to food and music. In the coming months, Sonni says, he’s planning to move back to Healdsburg.
“I had a lot time to think about life, the future, that whole thing,” says Sonni about his father who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease and his sister and brother-in-law, both of whom recently had bouts with Cancer. “It really gives you a chance to reflect on what’s important. But time goes by and it wears off a little – you fall back into a routine and you do routine things. I didn’t want to forget that feeling of wanting to make a difference, to do all those things I haven’t done yet. And I’m not done yet, not by a long shot.”