The late Birmingham songwriter wrote numerous hits as well as a brutally honest memoir.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Birmingham’s Baker Knight wrote more than a thousand songs. Ricky Nelson recorded 21 of them, placing three in the Top 10 pop charts before 1960. One of those hits, “Lonesome Town,” rode a second wave of popularity when it was included on the soundtrack of the film Pulp Fiction in 1994. Five years later, Paul McCartney recorded the song on his Run Devil Run album, and later sang it as a tribute at his late wife Linda’s memorial.
Knight’s fame and fortune, however, were forced to compete with the clutter of mental illness and alcoholism that dogged his life. Agoraphobia, addiction, and chronic fatigue syndrome were punctuated by panic attacks and drunken episodes.
Knight died in Birmingham in 2005, having published his memoir, A Piece of the Big-Time, earlier that year. He was a better songwriter than storyteller, yet there are plenty of dramatic escapades and erratic behavior; he puts his life on exhibit as a spectacular highway crash, insisting that everyone stick around to view the charred remains.
Knight has had his songs covered by a diverse group of artists. Elvis Presley made “The Wonder of You” a number-one hit on the easy listening charts in 1970. Frank Sinatra took Knight’s “Any Time at All” to number two on the easy listening charts in 1965, the same year Dean Martin scored a number-two hit with the songwriter’s “Somewhere There’s a Someone.” (From 1966 to 1969 Dean Martin recorded 11 Knight tunes.) In 1976, Knight wrote “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” a country music chart-topper for Mickey Gilley. Perry Como, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Eddy Arnold also recorded his songs.
While living in Birmingham during the 1950s, after being discharged from the air force for emotional problems, Knight formed a band called the Knightmares that had a regional hit with “Bring My Cadillac Back.” The band signed with the Decca label after the song sold 40,000 copies in two weeks. However, radio was forced to pull the song after it was deemed a free advertisement for General Motors. The band broke up, and Knight moved to Los Angeles in 1958. He was soon hanging around with Ricky Nelson and Eddie Cochran, but his life remained in turmoil. One of his early suicide attempts involved leaping off a cliff behind the Hollywood Hills home of Ricky and his “Ozzie and Harriet” co-star brother David when he discovered the two were not home. He survived and continued to have great musical success despite his mental problems.
In and out of psychiatric hospitals, Knight finally returned to Birmingham in 1977. After various treatments in psychiatric wards, he went to Nashville in a failed attempt to resurrect his career. When he returned to Birmingham, he got a job rewiring lamps for Goodwill Industries. By 1981, his mental problems were so debilitating that he agreed to undergo a new procedure for agoraphobia. Electrodes were planted in both his chest and the back of his skull. The operation was to be shown on “That’s Incredible,” a popular TV show hosted by John Davidson (who once recorded Knight’s “The Wonder of You”). The operation was a failure, leaving Knight in line for shock treatment, which he received. He finally quit drinking in 1982, but his emotional problems continued to haunt him.
In his book, Knight hides none of the embarrassing, unpredictable behavior that shadowed his problems. He treats suicide attempts as self-deprecating episodes of madness. While in Nashville, after his romantic overtures to singer Naomi Judd were rejected, he grabbed his gun one night and went in search of Judd and her date. He once turned on the gas while talking on the phone to his estranged wife not long after she had given birth to their child. As he started to pass out, he decided he didn’t want to die and turned off the gas. However, he forgot the room was full of fumes and lit a cigarette. The explosion hospitalized him for weeks with severe burns, and his alcohol withdrawal resulted in his suffering the DTs while in the hospital, where he had to be tied to his bed.
Raised by alcoholic parents, one of Knight’s sad childhood memories involved a local landmark restaurant: “Sometimes at night, [my mother and stepfather] would take me with them to a Chinese restaurant called Joy Young’s on 21st street in downtown Birmingham. Now don’t let the ‘Joy’ confuse you . . . They would leave me alone in a booth while they moved a few booths away to talk and drink with their no doubt very together friends. They fed me, I’ll say that for ‘em, but sometimes they stayed until closing time while I sat there waiting alone. The booths were large and very much enclosed so I couldn’t see much of what was going on. I could hear them, though, and the drunker they got, the sicker and weaker I felt inside . . . Going to Joy Young’s was a fairly regular outing for a while; one that I most certainly did not look forward to . . . for I knew they’d be drinking until all hours and there was nothing I could do about it. I was in my own little prison for the evening, like it or not, and the only crime I had committed was that of being a child.” &