Stax Museum mourns the passing of its top-selling female artist Jean Knight, known for “Mr. Big Stuff”

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is saddened by the loss of its top-selling female artist, Jean Knight, who passed away on November 22, 2023 at the age of 80 in Tampa, Florida. She became Stax’s top selling female artist with her recording of the hit “Mr. Big Stuff,” which partially airs in the Stax Museum’s opening documentary.

Knight was born in New Orleans to Louis Joseph Caliste and Florence Edwards. After graduating from high school, she began singing at her cousin’s bar, “Laura’s Place,” and caught the attention of many different bands who were willing to accompany her.

In 1965, she recorded a demo of a cover version of Jackie Wilson’s song “Stop Doggin’ Me Around.” Her demo attracted record producer Huey Meaux, who signed her to a recording contract at the Jet Star/Tribe record labels. Shortly thereafter, she adopted the professional name of “Jean Knight,” because she felt that her surname Caliste was too hard to pronounce. Knight recorded four singles, making a name for herself locally, but was not able to attract any national attention. By the late 1960s, it was obvious that Knight’s career was not living up to her high expectations, so she went to work as a baker in the cafeteria of Dominican College in New Orleans.

In early 1970, Knight was discovered by songwriter Ralph Williams, who wanted her to record some songs. With Williams’ connections, Knight came in contact with record producer Wardell Quezergue. In May of that year, Knight went to Malaco Studios in Jackson, Mississippi, for a recording session during which she recorded “Mr. Big Stuff.” After the session was finished, the song was shopped to producers at several national labels, all of whom rejected it. But when King Floyd’s hit “Groove Me” (also recorded at Malaco Studios) became a #1 R&B hit in early 1971, a producer at Stax Records remembered Knight’s recording of “Mr. Big Stuff,” and released it.

The song also proved to be an instant smash in 1971, reaching No. 2 on the pop chart and becoming a No. 1 R&B hit and a feminist anthen. It went double-platinum and received a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female; it lost to Aretha Franklin’s version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It sold over two million copies and was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A., and was Stax Records’ top-selling single ever.

After leaving Stax, Knight recorded songs for various small labels, but was not able to gain any more recognition, and ended up performing and touring the local oldie circuit. Things changed in 1981, when Knight met local producer Isaac Bolden, who signed her to his Soulin’ label. Together, they came up with a song entitled “You Got the Papers but I Got the Man.”

Soon, Knight found herself touring consistently. In 1985, Knight gained more recognition when she covered Rockin’ Sidney’s zydeco novelty hit, “My Toot Toot,” and found herself in a chart battle with Denise LaSalle’s version. While LaSalle’s version reached the top ten in the United Kingdom, Knight’s version was the more successful in the U.S., reaching No. 50 on the pop chart

Although Knight waited twelve years to come out with another recording, she continued touring and performing engagements all over the world, particularly in the Southern states. In 2003, Knight performed her biggest hit, “Mr. Big Stuff”, on the PBS special Soul Comes Home  for the grand opening of the Stax Museum.

In 2007 for the 50th anniversary of Stax Records, Knight had been living in a FEMA trailer after Hurricane Katrina but had regained her elegant New Orleans home. A photo of her in front of her house was included in a special Stax Museum exhibit entitled “Where Are They Now.”