Sonny ‘The Mighty Burner’ Hopson, radio DJ, club owner, and one of Philly’s most distinctive voices, has died at 85 – The Philadelphia Inquirer

“My dad always had his ear on the street,” said Philly musician Harold “Dietz” Hopson III. “He liked all genres of music. And he knew everybody.”
Harold “Sonny” Hopson, 85, of Philadelphia, a radio disc jockey, nightclub owner, concert promoter, and record producer whose professional savvy and wealth of connections made him a fixture of the city’s Black music scene in the 1960s and beyond, died Saturday, Jan. 21, of complications from dementia at his Center City home.
Known on the air as “The Mighty Burner” and “Soul Sound Sonny,” Mr. Hopson understood the city and its music but knew broadcasting only as a listener when he got hired to spin records at WHAT-AM beginning in 1965.
Black-formatted AM radio was a musical, commercial, and political force in Philly at the time and was dominated by WDAS, the home of already legendary disc jockeys such as Georgie Woods. But Mr. Hopson quickly made a name for himself.
“My dad always had his ear on the street,” said Philly musician Harold “Dietz” Hopson III. “He liked all genres of music. And he knew everybody.”
Said Mr. Hopson’s daughter Ashley Benjamin, who lives in Philadelphia and also sings: “I learned from my dad and have adapted into my own life what he would always say: ‘Be a go-getter. You have to chase it. Go for it, and get it.’”
Mr. Hopson, who joined the Air Force at 17 after dropping out of Germantown High School, spent several years hustling as a “wreck chaser,” eavesdropping on the police radio and racing to car crashes in West and Northwest Philly to hook people up with body shops and lawyers.
Writing in his self-published memoir, The Untold Story, Hopson said he was 28 and in need of a steady paycheck when a friend who owned a popular bar on the 52nd Street strip introduced him to someone in the front office at WHAT.
Mr. Hopson learned on the job — he also credited Jerry “The Geator” Blavat and others with helping him master the craft — and quickly became a Philly celebrity. His was a streetwise voice that rapped before rap was a thing, as recordings posted on YouTube that include snippets of his on-air flow attest.
Yet in 1970, the station fired Mr. Hopson for not adhering to its format. By then active in the civil rights struggle in the city, Mr. Hopson had become known for criticizing President Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War on the air. He also departed from the station’s playlist to give exposure to local or lesser-known acts and even what are believed to have been the first Latin Boogaloo songs heard on the Philly airwaves.
“I met the Mighty Burner outside the station and I had some Latin Boogaloo singles in my hand,” said Ray Collazo, who later became a radio professional and hosted a salsa show on WDAS-AM for eight years in the 1980s. “I said, ‘All I want is for you to play these.’ And I sat in my car and listened to him play one every hour.”
By 1970 Mr. Hopson already was in the nightclub business with Sonny Hopson’s Celebrity Room on Germantown Avenue, one of two dozen nightspots he would be associated with in and around town. He also programmed a popular North Philly dance hall called the Arcadia Ballroom and amassed a track record of successful shows at the Uptown Theater as well as the Arena in West Philly, featuring rising stars like Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles and headliners such as Dionne Warwick.
“He was friends with Billy Eckstine and Teddy Pendergrass and James Brown. He marched for civil rights with Cecil B. Moore and he knew Muhammad Ali,” his son said. “He knew everybody.”
David Louis owns the Funkadelphia Records recording studio and got to know Mr. Hopson 20 years ago.
“A lot of people don’t realize that Sonny owned several record labels, put up his own money to record a lot of these local groups, and had his own music publishing company, Mighty Burner Music,” Louis said.
And while Mr. Hopson’s artists didn’t end up topping the pop charts, he helped nurture the talents of Philadelphia jazz organist Charles Earland, who built a successful career before his death. Earland was so appreciative of Mr. Hopson’s support that he wrote and recorded a tribute song, “The Mighty Burner,” in 1969.
“Sonny had a kind of magnetism that elicited devotion from people,” said Aaron Levinson, a Grammy Award-winning music producer and the owner of the Range Recording Studio in Ardmore.
“He was one of the guys who championed vernacular Black music,” Levinson said. “He supported the people who made the music and helped get the music out to the world.”
Said Max Ochester, who owns the used-record store Brewerytown Beats and is also a Philly music-history fan: “Sonny was a major player. He was a pioneering Black radio DJ, and while he never had a major hit, he had a hand in so many great recordings.”
These included records by funk keyboardist Edwin Birdsong as well as jazz guitarist George Freeman, whose 1972 LP, Frantic Diagnosis, was produced by Mr. Hopson and released on the producer’s own label, Bam Boo Records.
“Losing both Sonny and the Geator within 48 hours of each other, it was like a part of Philly died,” said Joseph Marrone, a lawyer who was good friends with both men. “They leave a void that’s not easily filled.”
Mr. Hopson’s children described their dad as a colorful character — “he was a go-go sort of guy,” said daughter Ashley — who owned a succession of fine automobiles and was very generous to colleagues, friends, and members of his extended family.
“He had charisma, and a can-do, will-do attitude,” said his stepson, Roman Stanley-Walker.
Said daughter Sandra Bryant, the oldest of his children: “My father and I were very happy to be reunited after many years, and for the last six years I helped with his care. I felt love from him, a father’s love.“
Funeral arrangements are pending under the direction of Escamillio D. Jones Funeral Home in Philadelphia.

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