Soul Serenade: Jean Knight, “Mr. Big Stuff”

Written by Ken Shane's Soul Serenade, Music

Jean Knight turned up the heat in ’71

Soul Serenade - Jean Knight

Another day, another snow storm here in Rhode Island. I usually like to leave my little island community on Wednesdays and head across the big bridge to write my column at the Newport Library. Today the snow is piled up outside the front door, so I’m homebound. A snow day now and then isn’t so bad, but we’ve had a lot of them this winter.

It seems like a good day to head down south, back to Memphis, where we find yet another Stax classic in the form or Ms. Jean Knight’s 1971 smash “Mr. Big Stuff”. Knight however was not a Memphis native. She hailed from New Orleans, where she was born in 1943 with the name Jean Caliste.

Knight began her singing career after she graduated from high school. Her powerful voice attracted a number of musicians who wanted to work with her. In 1965 she recorded a demo which came to the attention of producer Huey Meaux. He got her a deal with Jet Star/Tribe Records, and before long Jean Caliste became Jean Knight. She recorded four singles for Jet Star/Tribe. The releases brought her some local renown, but didn’t catch on in any meaningful way outside of the Crescent City. By the time the late ’60s rolled around, Knight had more or less given up and taken a baking job in the cafeteria at Loyola University. Her singing career wasn’t over yet though. Far from it.

In 1970 Knight found another admirer in songwriter Ralph Williams, and it was through Williams that Knight made the acquaintance of the legendary producer Wardell Quezergue. In May, 1970 Knight and Quezergue decamped to Malaco Studios in Jackson, MS, and the resulting sessions produced “Mr. Big Stuff.”

Jean Knight

The record was shopped all over the place, but no one was interested. Then, as sometimes happens, a lightning bolt came from the sky in the form of King Floyd’s 1971 hit “Groove Me,” which was also recorded at Malaco. The Malaco-recorded hit caused someone at Stax to remember the record that Knight had recorded at the same studio. Stax decided to release “Mr. Big Stuff,” hoping for another lightning strike. They got it, and then some.

The single wasted no time in becoming a smash. By the numbers it was a #1 hit on the R&B chart, and crossed over to #2 on the pop chart. “Mr. Big Stuff” went double platinum, selling over two million copies, and Knight got a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female (Aretha Franklin won that year for “Bridge Over Troubled Water”).

The future must have looked bright indeed to Knight, but the reality turned out to be different than her dreams. There were a couple more, lesser hits, but disagreements with the Stax hierarchy brought an end to Knight’s time there. She hooked on with a few smaller labels, but there were no hits, and soon Knight was relegated to the oldies circuit.

There was a brief revival in 1981 when Knight and producer Isaac Bolden collaborated on “You Got the Papers But I Got the Man,” which was an answer to Betty Wright’s “I’ve Got the Papers on the Man.” Knight’s record was released nationally by Atlantic Records and enabled her to get more touring work. In 1985 she was back again with a successful cover of Rockin’ Sidney’s “My Toot Toot.” Knight’s version made it all the way to #50 on the pop chart.

It would be 12 years before Knight recorded again, but she continued touring the world during those years. In 2003 she was featured singing “Mr. Big Stuff” on the PBS special Soul Comes Home. In 2007 Knight was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, and her song “Do Me” was heard in the film Superbad. She is still an active performer.