'Gloria' legend shares stories of sex, drugs and rock
Fifty years ago, Jimy Sohns and his Shadows of Knight band recorded an iconic version of "Gloria" that still registers as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
"We recorded it on a Monday and I heard it playing on the radio that Thursday when I was at McDonald's," Sohns says, recalling how the album's release in the spring of 1966 changed his life forever.
"This girl came up and showed me how good God had been to her," Sohns says slyly, still boasting the "bad boy" persona that earned him plenty of female attention as a teenager. "That's when I knew I was a rock star. Who was Gloria? It was every girl I met in 1966."
That "Gloria" album kicked off a career packed with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in which the kid from Prospect Heights partied with Mick Jagger, jammed with Jimi Hendrix, toured with Iggy Pop, shared a hotel room with Janis Joplin, beat up punker Sid Vicious and performed with dozens of his generation's greatest rock stars.
Last night, Sohns sang alongside other legendary musicians at the Cornerstones of Rock concert before a sold-out crowd at the Arcada Theater in St. Charles. Now, he's looking ahead to his 70th birthday bash on Aug. 20 in Glendale Heights, when he'll bring back the old band of Jerry McGeorge, David "Hawk" Wolinski and Tom Schiffour to play together for the first time in nearly half a century.
"I'm surprised I'm still here. I never thought I'd live past 30," says Sohns as he sits at the kitchen table in the Roselle townhouse he shares with Kathy, his wife of 10 years.
Sohns' curly, long, golden locks shake as he laughingly admits, "I didn't go to the doctor for 39 years."
Born in Chicago, Sohns moved to Prospect Heights as a toddler when his family home was razed to make room for the new Kennedy Expressway. His father, who went by Rickie and sometimes Frank, worked for Curtiss Candy Co., which made Baby Ruth and Butterfinger candy bars. His mom, Doris, did product testing for United Manufacturing Co., a legendary Chicago pinball game-maker.
"She was truly a pinball wizard," Sohns says. "And she taught me to throw a curve ball. As a kid, I said I was going to be a rock 'n' roll singer or a baseball player."
Sohns did both well as a boy.
As a student at Prospect High School, Sohns played flute, clarinet, oboe and saxophone, sang with the chorus, acted in the theatrical production of "Brigadoon," and also played for his high school baseball team and the local American Legion squad.
"I was a pitcher," Sohns says, noting that he posted a winning 23-4 record during his high school career and got a chance to play alongside future Major League Baseball stars such as Dave Kingman, Greg Luzinski and Paul Splittorff.
At 16, he became part of a teen rock band called The Shadows, with Schiffour, Norm Gotsch, Warren Rogers and Wayne Pursell. Their first show was in December 1964 at the Mount Prospect Country Club. They played local VFW halls and clubs and were the house band at The Cellar, an iconic teen club in Arlington Heights.
"To us, we were never a local band. We were always rock stars," Sohns says.
After graduating in the PHS Class of 1964, Sohns and his band were in demand, opening for bands such as Paul Revere and The Raiders, Lovin' Spoonful, The Byrds and The Beach Boys.
Gotsch, who joined the Navy, and Pursell, who left for college, were replaced by McGeorge and Wolinski. The band made another change, too.
The Shadows name already was used by a popular British band, so Sohns' band needed something new.
"They wanted to call us The Tyme with a Y, which was really stupid," Sohns says. "I said, 'How about the Shadows of Knight, with a K? That sounds British.'"
People often think the name is a tribute of the Knights nickname of Prospect High School, but it was just an attempt to capitalize on the British invasion of rock bands, Sohns says.
The Shadows of Knight's recording of Van Morrison's minor song, "Gloria," rose up the charts, quickly passing a million in sales and earning the band a job opening for the Rolling Stones and touring with other bands.
"One night we'd be at a bar in Kalamazoo, and the next night I'd be watching Iggy Pop rolling around in broken glass at an arena," remembers Sohns, who named his townhouse cat Iggy Pop.
Sohns partied with porn stars, married a Playboy playmate, lived by the credo "my drug was women," and got moments with some of the greatest rockers in history.
"I spent a week in a hotel room with Janis Joplin. She was a little confused, but weren't we all?" Sohns says.
Far from one-hit wonders, Sohns and a revolving list of bandmates recorded other popular albums such as "Shake" and "Back Door Men," and hit singles such as "Oh Yeah," "Bad Little Woman" and "I'm Gonna Make You Mine." Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band crowned Shadows of Knight as the "best garage band of all time" in a listing in Rolling Stone magazine.
Despite being hailed by critics as a blues band, a punk band and the "American Rolling Stones," Shadows of Knight soon dropped from the charts.
"You're on top of the world, and then you're not," Sohns says, explaining how his glory years as a lead singer evolved into a still successful career as a sound engineer for bands including The Police, AC/DC and Cheap Trick. He managed an all-female band and other performers.
Working with Skafish, where he often was called onstage to perform "Gloria," Sohns was at Club Hurrah in New York City in 1978 when punk rocker Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols started a fight. Sohns punched Vicious, dragged him through the crowd and threw him down a flight of stairs.
In 1982, Sohns got busted on cocaine charges in Arlington Heights. He made the most of his 33 months in prison. His "Jimy Sohns and the Cons" band won honors at festivals. He made a profit selling "Rock the DOC" (Department of Corrections) T-shirts. He performed for other prisons. "I sang for Richard Speck, the I-57 killer and Gacy," Sohns says, saying the experience "probably saved my life."
He ran a deli, worked in construction and as an electrician, and managed a club. Now, as a grandfather (his daughter Raechel has teen sons Justin and Jimy, whose middle name is Sohns), Sohns is still rocking at shows around the nation. His Shadows of Knight band has featured dozens of performers, but Michael and Cindy Gotshall have been members for the past 33 years.
"He recorded 'Gloria' a half-century ago and he's always stayed true to what he believes," says Chicago personality Chet Coppock, who has talked with Sohns about writing a book.
"If you take the stage from Jimy, you might as well put him in a nursing home. 'Gloria' is without question the most important rock song ever to come out of Chicago. He'll be singing that song when he's 103."
That song, which Sohns says made him $145,000 originally, still moves him.
"It's fun for the audiences. For some reason or another, they find me entertaining," Sohns says, wiping tears from his eyes. "I cherish that."