26 January 1943
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
22 November 2023 (aged 80)
Jean Knight (born Jean Caliste, January 26, 1943, New Orleans, Louisiana) is an African-American r&b/soul/funk singer, best known for her 1971 Stax Records hit single, "Mr. Big Stuff".
After graduating from high school, Caliste 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, Caliste adopted the professional name of "Jean Knight," because she felt that her surname was too hard to pronounce. She 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 her career was not living up to her high expectations, so she went to work as a baker in the cafeteria of Loyola University in New Orleans.
In early 1970, she was discovered by songwriter Ralph Williams, who wanted her to record some songs. With Williams' connections, she came in contact with record producer Wardell Quezergue. In May of that year, she 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 #2 on the pop chart and becoming a #1 R&B hit. 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. The next year, Knight was named the 'Most Promising Female Vocalist'. An album of the same name proved to be fairly successful. A couple more minor hits followed, but disagreements with her producer and her label terminated Knight's involvement with Stax.
After leaving Stax, Knight recorded songs for various small labels, but was not able to gain any more recognition. She ended up performing and touring the local oldie circuit. Things changed in 1981, when she 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," an answer song to Betty Wright's hit, "I've Got the Papers on the Man"; that song was leased to Atlantic Records for national release. Soon, Knight found herself touring consistently. In 1985, she gained more recognition when she covered Rockin' Sidney's zydeco novelty hit, "My Toot Toot." Her version proved to be most successful, reaching #50 on the pop chart. Knight was then given a chance to perform it on the TV variety show Solid Gold. The song also became her only hit in South Africa, reaching number 3.
Although she 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, she performed her biggest hit, "Mr. Big Stuff", on the PBS special Soul Comes Home. Knight has talent running in the family; her great nephews are Gerard Caliste (a visual artist) and Swedish hip hop artist Mattias Lindström Caliste who is part of the Scandinavian rap group Fjärde Världen. Knight continues to tour and make live performances, often with such artists as Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor.
In October 2007, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame honored Knight for her contributions to Louisiana music by inducting her.
Jean Knight's song "Do Me" appears on the 2007 Superbad soundtrack.
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