“Mr. Big Stuff, who do you think you are?
Mr. Big Stuff, you’re never gonna get my love.”
One of the biggest hits ever recorded by a New Orleans artist, “Mr. Big Stuff” was almost never released. Jean Knight recorded the song in 1970; before that, she had cut a handful of singles in the mid-1960s, but none were more than neighborhood hits. By the late 1960s, performing had become little more than a pleasurable hobby as she had a full-time job baking bread at Loyola University. However her fortunes would eventually change.
“One day I was downtown paying a utility bill when a guy came up to me I’d never met before,” recalled Knight in 1996. “He said his name was Ralph Williams and he had written some songs for me that Wardell Quezergue wanted to record. I’d never met Wardell before, but when I did, he said he was interested in recording me. After that, Ralph brought me some songs to listen to. Right away I picked out ‘Mr. Big Stuff,’ but the demo was done as a ballad. I told Ralph and Joe Broussard (one of the co-writers) that I liked the song, but I wanted to put some sass into it. Joe said, ‘Jean, sing it the way you feel it.’ I knew that song was going to do something because when I’d rehearse it at home, all the kids in the neighborhood would be outside the window dancing.”
Quezergue arranged for Knight’s session at Malaco Studios in Jackson, Mississippi, and on a Sunday in May, Quezergue, Knight, Bonnie and Sheila, the Barons, Joe Wilson and King Floyd met there to record. “We had just four tracks to work with,” Knight says, “but we nailed ‘Mr. Big Stuff’ on the second take.”
There has been some speculation on why Quezergue would choose to record in Jackson rather than New Orleans. It might be because he had used Malaco before for a session with his son’s group, the Unemployed, but the decision to record in Jackson might have been made by Elijah Walker. Walker was a longshoreman by trade who fancied himself as heading up a stable of recording artists. It was Walker who financed the trip to Jackson. According to the late Earl King, Walker had an argument with one of Cosimo Matassa’s Jazz City engineers over a bill, so he chose to take his business out-of-town. Jazz City was the only studio in New Orleans at the time.
Even though Knight was sure she had a hit, others didn’t share that opinion at first. Malaco attempted to shop the Quezergue-produced session to Stax and Atlantic, the two most powerful Southern soul labels at the time. Neither was interested. Eventually, Malaco formed its own label and released King Floyd’s Quezergue-produced “Groove Me,” which he cut at the same session. It spread across the country like wildfire. Malaco resubmitted Knight’s sides to Stax, and while they still weren’t crazy about the material the success of “Groove Me” gave label execs a reason to take a chance on the record. Issued nearly a year after it was recorded, the jerk rhythm of “Mr. Big Stuff” proved irresistible to record buyers around the world.
“Right away it broke in New York and Washington,” says Knight. “Wardell called me and told me I better get on the road because his phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I was still working at Loyola and didn’t want to leave them without a baker, so I waited until school was out in June. My first job was a week at the Apollo in New York. I was real lucky. Maceo Parker and his band had just quit James Brown and they backed me. I got over like a fat rat. I started out as the fifth attraction, but in two days I was the co-headliner.”
Eventually, Knight was making $5,000 per appearance working with different pick-up bands. “I was so busy, I didn’t have time to spend the money I was making,” she says. “I didn’t even buy a new car for a long time because I was never home long enough to drive one.”
“Mr Big Stuff” sold more than three million singles, topped the R&B charts, and made it to number two in the pop charts. It garnered a gold and platinum record, and it won a Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Vocal Performance by a Female.
Initially, Knight couldn’t repeat the success of “Mr. Big Stuff,” but a decade later, she was back in the charts in 1981 with “You Got the Papers (But I Got the Man),” and four years later, her cover of “My Toot Toot” was also chartbound. Though she’s still be known for “Mr. Big Stuff,” she’s no one-hit wonder.