In the early- to mid-1940s, Sonny Red took his first saxophone lessons from William Gardner on the C melody saxophone, an instrument originally given to his sister Marie. Eventually he would trade in the C melody for a Conn New Wonder alto saxophone. From the fall of 1947 to 1952, Red attended Detroit’s Northern High School, dropping out temporarily for the 1950-1951 school year. At Northern he formed close musical relationships with Curtis Fuller, Kiane Zawadi, Donald Byrd, Barry Harris, Paul Chambers and Tommy Flanagan. Some of these relationships were formed in the concert band led by Orville Lawrence. Lawrence exposed his students to many different types of music, and encouraged them to try other instruments. Red also met and played with other teenagers in Detroit during informal jam/practice sessions at the homes of Barry Harris and Joe Brazil.
It’s difficult to determine the source of Sylvester Kyner’s nickname, “Sonny Red,” but opinions point to “Sonny” being a common nickname for a boy growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, and “Red” referring to Sylvester’s natural red hair. For an industrial arts shop project in high school, he used a router to etch the name “Sonny Red” into a finished board. Professionally his name would be in flux. On his 1957 Savoy recording, he is identified as “Sonny Redd.” On a Paul Quinichette recording from the same year, he becomes “Red Kyner.” On a Curtis Fuller recording from the same year, liner note writer Robert Levin refers to him as “Sonny Red Kyner.” Ira Gitler’s liner notes referred to him as “Sylvester Kyner Junior.” For the Blue Note and Jazzland dates, he is once again “Sonny Red.” The Blue Note session charts submitted to the Library of Congress in his handwriting are signed “Sylvester Kyner.” His Social Security application uses the original family spelling, “Sylvester Kiner.” The charts in his sketchbook from the late 1970s are signed “Sonny Redd,” except for one entry with the single “d.” A 1976 letter from the National Endowment for the Arts, the 1978 Jazzcraft date with Howard McGhee, and the benefit concert flyer from December 1979 all use “Sonny Redd.”
After graduating from high school in 1952, Sonny Red performed in many of the best jazz clubs in Detroit. He frequently gigged and sat in at Klein’s Show Bar, The Crystal Show Bar, The Twenty Grand, The World Stage, The Rouge Lounge, The Blue Bird Inn and The Mirror Ballroom. Sonny also participated in frequent jam sessions at The West End Hotel, a popular after-hours spot for musicians. Besides working steadily with Barry Harris, Red had a few opportunities to sit in with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef and Sonny Stitt. Other early gigs included trombonist Frank Rosolino’s combo in April-May 1954 at Klein’s Show Bar, three days with Billie Holiday sometime during 1954, and Art Blakey’s group during the fall of 1954 in Philadelphia.
During the late 1950s through the 1970s, Sonny Red was at his finest as a recording artist and sideman. His work with Art Blakey, Jimmy Heath, Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, Barry Harris, Bobby Timmons, Howard McGhee, Yusef Lateef, Bill Hardman, Pony Poindexter, Philly Joe Jones, Curtis Fuller, Red Garland, Clifford Jordan, Tommy Flanagan, Roy Brooks, Grant Green, Elvin Jones and many others helped establish him as one of the best saxophonists in New York. By remaining firmly in the bebop idiom, and living in New York, life was financially difficult for Sonny Red. Ira Gitler summed up Red’s steadfast commitment to the music and the New York scene in his liner notes for Red’s Out of the Blue session: “He returned to New York in June  this time more determined than ever to stay. ‘Even if I have to eat the bricks’ was the way Red put it.” Even while enduring these hard times and paying his dues, Red still kept his humor and quick wit.
Sonny Red and Elena Knox were married in February 1960. Tommy Flanagan signed the marriage license. Two years later, on June 4, 1962, their daughter Nicole Kyner was born. Red’s publishing company, established in the 1960s, was named “Nadianicole” after his two daughters.
During the early 1970s Sonny Red was very involved with the Jazzmobile program and Henry Street Settlement in New York. His teaching methods at Jazzmobile were very similar to the way he approached composition and playing: emphasis on sound, playing with feeling, the blues, and the importance of scales and theory. In 1976 Red received a $4000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to complete the composition and orchestration of a three-part jazz suite, entitled Cien Fuegos. One completed part exists from the suite: Song Samba, written for 17 instruments.
Sonny’s declining health in the mid- to late 1970s brought him back to live with his mother at 233 Leicester in Detroit, though he frequently managed to return to New York for concerts. On December 9, 1979, a benefit concert was given for Red in Detroit, and the musicians and friends in attendance revealed how many people he had touched as a son, father, brother, musician and friend. Performers included Marcus Belgrave, Claude Black, Alan Barnes, Roy Brooks, Malvin McCray, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney, Sam Sanders, Donald Towns, Harold Vick, Lamonte Hamilton, and Yusef Lateef, with Paul Leonard as master of ceremonies.