Jean Knight, the artist behind the catchy and confident song “Mr Big Stuff” that became a huge success in 1971, passed away at the age of 80. Her spokesperson confirmed that she died of natural causes, and her friend Bernie Cyrus, the executive director of the Louisiana Music Commission, also verified the news to Rolling Stone.
In 1943, Knight, also known as Jean Caliste, was born in New Orleans. She made her first demo recording in 1965, which was a rendition of Jackie Wilson’s song “Stop Doggin’ Me Around”. She released several singles, but her fame was limited to her community. In addition to her music career, she worked as a baker. However, in 1970, her luck changed when she collaborated with producer Wardell Quezergue and released “Mr Big Stuff”.
Knight was not impressed by a showy womanizer’s car and attire, and scolded him for his cruel treatment of other women. Despite initial rejection by multiple labels, Mr Big Stuff remains a standout in the soul and funk scene of the early 70s. It wasn’t until the success of Groove Me, recorded on the same day in the same studio as Mr Big Stuff by King Floyd, that Stax Records took notice of Knight. The song reached number one on the US R&B chart and also made its way onto the main pop chart, reaching number two (only behind How Can You Mend a Broken Heart by the Bee Gees). It was certified double platinum and received a nomination for best female R&B vocal performance at the 1972 Grammy Awards.
Quezergue and Stax had disagreements which resulted in her being dropped the next year. She was unable to replicate the success of “Mr Big Stuff.” However, she persevered and continued to produce music until 1999. In 1985, she had a small success with “My Toot Toot” reaching No 50 on the US charts.
The popularity of Mr Big Stuff endured thanks to various soundtrack and advertising syncs; it became a reggae standard with the title Sister Big Stuff, and was sampled by artists including John Legend and Eazy-E. In 2002 she said of the song’s royalties: “Mr Big Stuff is better to me now than 31 years ago. All I have to do is sit at home and wait for the mailman.” Her song Do Me has latterly become popular on streaming services, helped by an appearance in the soundtrack to Superbad.