Haywood “Little Sonny” Warner, a Falls Church native whose 1959 hit single, “There’s Something on Your Mind,” was a Gold Record winner, died at age 77 on April 12.
A resident with his surviving wife Catherine of the Winter Hill section of Falls Church at the time of his death, Warner grew up along Shreve Road. He and three other boys, all sons of two sisters, started singing together in their early teens as a group called “The Four Sons” at the Second Baptist Church on Costner Drive just off of S. Annandale Road.
In the early 1950s he was a member of the vocal group, the Rockets, which backed Atlantic Records session pianist Van Walls in the early 1950s on both of Walls’ single releases, “After Midnight” and “Open the Door.”
A few years later, he became a valet in blues legend Lloyd Price’s touring band, taking him to places like Los Angeles and New York. One night in 1957 at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, he was invited to fill in for Price, who had laryngitis, and was an immediate hit.
Then, at the Evans Grille in Forestville, Maryland, he jumped on stage while saxophonist Big Jay McNeely was performing. McNeely was so impressed that he invited Warner to join his show, and a few months later Warner flew out to the West Coast to do that.
In 1959, he was signed by Swingin’ Records and went to Chicago to team with McNeely to record the Gold-winning “There’s Something on Your Mind” hit, and they shared the honor when McNeely sawed the gold replica 45 RPM record in half and gave it to Warner. He recorded another hit on the Checker label, “Bell Bottom Blue Jeans.”
Warner toured for two more years with McNeely before returning to his Falls Church home, where he became one of the top acts in the local rhythm and blues circuit. He’s performed with Etta James, the Orioles and the Pastels at the Warner Theatre in D.C. (he joked that many of his friends assumed the theatre was named after him), as well as James Brown and B.B. King.
While recording a handful of additional singles on the Concertone, Swingin and Bee Bee labels, he became renowned for his performances at the D.C. Blues Festival and Lamont’s.
In 2003, Warner enjoyed a brief revival in Falls Church when, while living in retirement here, he was rediscovered by local community activist David Eckert. Eckert, a seminal influence in the effort to recover the civil rights legacy of the Falls Church area, had earlier helped the region appreciate the role of Piedmont Blues pioneer John Jackson.
In the wake of that effort, the career of Warner came to his attention. He encouraged the lifelong entertainer to dust off his act and, at age 72 in conjunction with a locally-formed backup team, the “Blues Crew,” he mesmerized audiences at local Falls Church venues for almost two years.
That was kicked off with an unforgettable show at a tiny “First Friday” storefront in Falls Church on Feb. 7, 2003.
He went on to similar captivating performances during the summer “Concerts in the Park” series at Falls Church’s Cherry Hill Park and at the annual Tinner Hill Festival.
One commentator wrote of him, “If there is ever a D.C. Blues Hall of Fame, Sonny Warner will be one of the charter members.”
There will be a viewing Friday at 9 a.m., followed by a funeral at 11 a.m. at the Second Baptist Church.