Music News

Sonny Long Is a Legend in His Own Mind

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Not that Long has no cred whatsoever — both R&B star CeCe Peniston and Long's producer, Hejus Trife, who's worked with Willy Northpole, among others, vouch for his talent and chance of success — but he makes a lot of claims, from the line of sunglasses to an athletic scholarship to even a job selling insurance, that sound good yet can't be backed up.

But does any of that really matter?

Maybe not, because Long managed to receive recognition in April 2008 from Mayor Gordon's office in the form of "Sonny Long Day" and a key to the city because of his supposed athletic scholarship.

Long's press kit contains the proclamation from Gordon. It reads, in part, "Whereas, the artist and entrepreneur brings together people from all ages, backgrounds, and races to form a united and strong community in Phoenix . . . Keeping the youth of Phoenix striving for their goals and pushing for excellence in education and business relations . . . helped spearhead a fund known as the Terrence Harraway Scholarship Fund . . ."

In the press kit, there's a photo of Long standing beside Gordon. Gordon's office vouches for the proclamation, but Scott Phelps, spokesman for the mayor, admits that they did not know about the scholarship until Long contacted them and that Gordon was not familiar with Long's music. But, Phelps says, Long "seemed like a very nice young man."

Sonny Long offers few details about his personal life. He says he's single and he has kids, but he won't reveal anything else about his children, including their age and gender.

At the outset, he refused to name his parents, saying only they were both "national recording artists." When asked why he wouldn't reveal their names, Long talked about how people need to protect their families, and cited the shooting of Tupac Shakur and the deaths of Jennifer Hudson's family as examples.

But it doesn't seem that anybody has a reason to want to hurt Long or his family. Aside from a couple of traffic tickets, the guy has no criminal record, and even the people who call him out, like Willy Northpole, acknowledge he's a nice guy and say they like him as a person.

After some persuasion, Long relents and reveals his parents' names. His mother, Delores Ramsey, was the daughter of a minister and did, in fact, release two out-of-print independent gospel albums (Amen! in 1995 and Give Thanks in 2005) before pursuing her current full-time career in nursing. Long's father, Gary Whitehead Sr., was a member of Phoenix soul act The Whitehead Brothers (not to be confused with the Philadelphia-based duo of the same name).

So it's not surprising that Long's love affair with music started at an early age. Ramsey says when he was about 6, he started singing around the house, just making up silly songs to be funny. "But he had a talent for it," she says. "I always thought he had a unique voice. Having been a singer myself, you recognize things like that."

When Long was 7, Ramsey put him in a fashion show and talent contest she'd organized at the VA hospital on Seventh Street and Indian School Road. "He modeled and he danced," she says. "He was absolutely wonderful."

Ramsey describes her son as a model child who always got straight A's in school. "He never got sick. He was at school every day. He had perfect attendance," she says. "He was always very disciplined. He's always been a great writer and a great speaker, even when he was young. He's always just had a lot of confidence."

Long says he started writing original songs in grade school. "Since I was 4, 5, 6 years old, I've been coming up with songs in my head," Long says. "My first song I had was a song called 'Smooth Brother.' It was, like, 'I'm a smooth brother / dressed undercover / never forget that I'm the ladies' lover.' That's back in like third grade."

He modeled himself after the biggest pop star of the '80s, Michael Jackson, and still has a red leather jacket like the one Jackson wore in the "Thriller" video. His first shot at recording his voice was when he was about 12. He says he'd take two boom boxes and line them up, side-by-side, and record himself singing the vocals on one tape while the instrumental version of a cassette single played on the other.

Asked when he recorded his first song in a bona fide recording studio, Long doesn't really answer but reiterates his boom-box story and says, "And then it developed from there."

It's been 17 years since Long, now 29, first recorded himself on a boom box, but "it developed" is as specific as he gets about what he's done between then and now.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea
Mike R. Meyer