Jack Sonni, best known for his time as Dire Straits rhythm guitarist on the Brothers In Arms album cycle, has passed away, aged 68.
Sonni was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania in 1954 and showed an early aptitude for music, playing piano and trumpet, before moving on to the guitar. He later relocated to New York in 1977 and studied under the tuition of sometime Steeley Dan man and session legend, Elliot Randall.
Despite being a highly capable guitarist and well-connected, Sonni spent much of the next decade in relative obscurity, playing sessions and club gigs and, eventually, finding a home selling instruments at legendary New York store Rudy’s Music.
It was there that he would first meet and befriend David and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, though it was sometime before he was recruited into the band. Indeed, as Sonni related in interviews, he came very close to quitting the industry entirely during that time.
“Nothing was happening for me,” Sonni once told the podcast Our American Stories. “All of my friends were getting gigs. David Bowie came and took my entire band, except for me. And I was the guy that turned most of them onto him…
“It just felt like lightning was striking all around me, and not me, and it broke my brain. I collapsed and was ill for like nine months… I had this massive migraine, I wasn’t happy, I was in despair with massive depression.”
Sonni later resolved to return to school and had the opportunity of a full scholarship ahead of him, when – finally – he got the call.
“I got a phone call from Mark [Knopfler],” recalled Sonni, in the same interview. “He said, ‘I had to let the other guitar player [Hal Lindes], go... What are you doing? What would you think about coming down and finishing the album and doing the tour?’
“It was like, ‘Are you kidding me… now!?’ It takes you about 30 seconds to go ‘college’ or ‘rock ‘n’ roll dream’.”
Sonni hit the studio with the band to complete the sessions on what would become Brothers in Arms. On its release in 1985, the album went to number one on the Billboard Top 200 and stayed there for nine weeks. It has since sold more than 30 million copies.
Sonni then served as rhythm guitarist on the band’s supporting world tour, playing some enormous shows in the process – among them 1985’s Live Aid fundraiser, in which he stood out in his distinctive red jacket.
Following a hiatus, Dire Straits reformed in 1988 to play a Nelson Mandela tribute show – an event Sonni was absent from due to the birth of his daughters – and it later became clear to Sonni that he would not be returning to the lineup.
After Dire Straits, Sonni moved back to the instrument world, working for Seymour Duncan and developing a role in marketing. He was also involved in the development and launch of the Line 6 POD – a product that set the template for modeling amps – supposedly coining the name and distinctive shape. Later in his career, he became VP of Marketing at Guitar Center.
Eventually he chose to leave the industry to focus on his writing, much of which examined the sense of identity tied up in ‘making it’ as a musician and the subsequent emotional fallout of it coming to an end.
The tag of ‘the other guitar player in Dire Straits’ was knowingly self-coined, so there’s a sense of poetry that it was his old foil, Mark Knopfler, who has led the music world’s defining tributes to Sonni.
“A sad farewell to our old friend Jack Sonni, whom I met when he was working at Rudy’s Music Stop on 48th St,” wrote Knopfler. “Jack was a genuine guitar enthusiast who loved to play, jam, and talk guitars and amps all day.
“He joined us on tour during the Brothers in Arms era and took to life on the road with the band like a fish to water. Jack made friends wherever he went and will be missed by his many pals worldwide. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.”