It’s Jean Knight. And “Mr Big Stuff”.
There are song on this list that deserve to be explained. There are song on this list that need some proper investigation. There are songs on this list that are serious and there are songs on this list which are silly. There are songs on this list which are personal and there are songs on this list which are political. There are songs you can dance to, and songs which require concentration.
But this is Jean Knight. And “Mr Big Stuff”. ‘Nuff said.
What Else Ha… Oh alright. There’s more to say. But really. Just listen to it. That riff. That voice. That production. It’s just amazing. It’s arguable whether Jean Knight had the best voice on Stax – there’s a vast amount of competition for that particular accolade – but she undoubtedly had the right voice for this song. The dismissive don’t-you-fuck-with-me delivery has to be absolutely spot on, and Knight nails it like nobody else could. If it tilts too far towards fuck-you the protagonist is going to lose sympathy, too far the other way and it will simply sound ineffective. Knight occupies exactly the centre ground and produces a performance that precisely matches what the song and lyric need. It’s one of the (many) keys to the success of the song, but Knight absolutely occupies the centre of this and never relinquishes one inch of it. This woman has agency and nobody is taking that away from her. The band, of course, are amazing. It’s just a bunch of session musicians, but it’s an indicator of just how strong the people working at Stax were that they were able to produce a song of this quality with just a bunch of session players slung together basically at random. They didn’t even receive formal credit on the song’s release, which seems extraordinary, though four musicians are listed on the album of the same name from which the single is taken. Everything they do is just instantly recognisable. The brass is impeccable but then again it’s tough to single out any one instrument or sound because it’s all impeccable. Great band, great singer, great song. It’s all just… well, great really.
Jean Knight herself never really benefitted that much from it, though. What ought really to have been the song that launched a decades-long career… didn’t. It took a fair amount of effort to even get “Mr Big Stuff” released, which just seems extraordinary – loads of labels turned it down before it finally came out. And when it did it was, naturally, fabulously successful and alongside being a Hot 100 Number 2 it went all the way to the top on the R&B charts. Knight received a Grammy nomination off the back of it too, only losing out to Aretha Franklyn, and the song was certified double-platinum. That’s some amount of sales of a song that struggled – somehow – to even get released and when you’re number two only to the Queen Of Soul, well, that’s not too shabby either. And, honestly, Knight deserved to take home the prize – Aretha’s win was her version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and while it’s good it’s no “Mr Big Stuff”. But then, what is? Despite that, though, it just never quite happened for Jean Knight. Even with all of that success she ended up leaving Stax – disagreements between her producer and the label meant she had to go her own way, and despite knocking round a few smaller labels she was never able to capitalise on her initial success. Which feels like a terrible shame, because she has exactly the right voice, attitude (and hair!) to really have made an impact. Her performance of “Mr Big Stuff” on Soul Train is the stuff legends are built from and it’s more than worth tracking down to see her (and again, that hair – it’s about half the height she is and it’s amazing). It’s on YouTube and highly recommended. The song itself has gone on to have a life of its own, covered, played live and sampled by everyone from Everclear (“AM Radio”) and the Beastie Boys to all-female heavy-metal band Precious Metal. But for Jean this was pretty much it. “Mr Big Stuff” remains her only significantly successful recording, she went twelve years without a record contract of any kind, and though she’s toured fairly consistently the closest she ever got to further success was a version of “My Toot Toot” (not as rude as it sounds) in the 80’s which scarcely seems worthy of her talents. Not everyone can make it, even when they have the goods, and Jean Knight is just one of those people – fantastic, but never destined to go all the way.
But hey, if your one song is “Mr Big Stuff”, that’s more than enough. Because you know. It’s Jean Knight. Singing “Mr Big Stuff”.
What Else Happened in 1971?
Led Zeppelin first – they release their fourth, untitled, album. “Stairway” will not, sadly, be denied. The Concert For Bangladesh, the template from which all charity rock concerts are derived, is put together by George Harrison with Ravi Shankar, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Eric Clapton and others putting in time on stage. There’s also the very first Glastonbury Festival, held in, um, Glastonbury. The Rolling Stones form their own record label, debut the now-inescapable lips-and-tongue logo, and release Sticky Fingers. Marc Bolan finally gets T-Rex sorted out and releases the mighty Electric Warrior, while friend and rival David Bowie gives us the first of his classics, the slightly overly well-regarded Hunky Dory. Rick Wakeman – you know, the guy who plays piano on Hunky Dory’s “Life On Mars” – joins Yes, so the Age Of Prog is truly upon us. Top of the sales charts sees two former Beatles wrestling for dominance but George Harrison has the biggest song of the year with “My Sweet Lord”, beating out Lennon’s “Imagine” – third-biggest is the ground-glass voiced Rod Stewart with “Maggie Mae”. The Monkees split up and Dr Feelgood are formed, as are Krautrock staples Neu! Jim Morrison dies in a Paris bathtub age 27, and Cher scores her first number-one with “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”. Simon and Garfunkel release their classic, the (rather boring) Bridge Over Troubled Water. Elton John has his first big hit – the inexpressibly terrible “Your Song” – and speaking of piano troubadours, Billy Joel also releases his first album, Cold Spring Harbour. It’s rubbish too. But to end on a positive note, Bill Withers gives us the timeless “Ain’t No Sunshine”, so that’s something!
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was top of the list this time out, though in truth it was never not going to be “Mr Big Stuff”. Although that doesn’t answer the “what was the other thing that was always going to be discussed apart from “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”” question. And even though it’s not necessarily a great song, “Ride A White Swan” by T.Rex is always fun. “Brown Sugar” peaked at Number 2 in the UK, but I feel I have probably written enough about the Stones to be going on with. “Knock Three Times” by Dawn spent a long time knocking about the charts on both sides of the Atlantic including pinballing in and out of the Number 2 slot, but it requires way too much mental energy to work out why this song actually exists. And John Denver got to Number 2 with “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Which is a wonderful, sweet song, and I don’t care what anyone says.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. The Kinks – “Lola”
3. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
4. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
5. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
6. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
7. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
8. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
9. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
10. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
11. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
12. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”