(November 30, 2023).  By most accounts, Stax Records, the label founded by two white siblings whose original focus was country and rockabilly music, already had its Queen. 

That was Carla Thomas, daughter of a local Black Memphis DJ named Rufus, who gave the siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton their label’s first national hit. The song “Cause I Love You,” a duet billed to Rufus and Carla, sold well enough locally to get Stax — then called Satellite Records — noticed by the soul music giant Atlantic Records.

Less than ten years later, Stax would experience some serious setbacks — the kind that would cause most small labels to fold. But a determination by its top executive — a Black man named Al Bell — and a slew of hits by its retained artists, including a newcomer named Jean Knight who, for a minute, would be its new queen, set the course for a brief comeback for the ages.

This article is dedicated to Knight who, sadly, passed away last week at the age of 80.

Jean Knight (1943-2023) is best known for her 1971 No. 1 soul hit on Stax Records, “Mr. Big Stuff.”

In 1960, Satellite Records entered into an informal distribution arrangement with Atlantic, and was later forced to change its name from Satellite to Stax Records in 1961 after another company claimed the rights to the former name.

Stax Records thrived during the 1960s under the arrangement with Atlantic (formalized contractually in 1965), with both Carla and Rufus, as well as new acts like Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MG’s, William Bell, the Bar-Kays, Isaac Hayes, and an upstart from Georgia named Otis Redding, scoring hits for the label.

Stax — under the ownership of the siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton whose last names formed the company’s portmanteaux namesake — focused exclusively on soul and R&B music. The thriving mid-‘60s southern soul music scene, specifically in and around Memphis, TN, provided the label with plenty of talented musicians (including house bands like the Mar-Keys and, later, Booker T. & the MG’s) and enough hits to begin competing with other soul music giants of the ’60s, specifically Motown and Atlantic Records. (Side note: the No. 1 song on the Billboard Soul chart on the day of this blogger’s birth in June 1966 was Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” on the label.)

The label’s then-leading lady, Carla Thomas, who’d scored earlier with the classic “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)” and had recorded formally under Atlantic’s imprints (including Atco) throughout her earlier years, began releasing her records directly under the Stax label in 1965 (after Atlantic and Stax had formalized their distribution agreement), and by early ’67 she’d recorded the smash duet with Otis Redding, “Tramp,” which would become both artists’ biggest hit to date, reaching No. 2 on the soul chart and top-20 pop.

Stax had created a sister label, Volt (under which Redding and others recorded) as a separate entity to ensure that radio stations didn’t avoid playing one label’s artists out of concern for payola or favoritism. Both labels were increasingly successful between 1965-67.

But two things happened in 1967 and ’68 that threatened to derail the Stax/Volt trajectory altogether.

First, Redding, the label’s fastest rising superstar (and future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer), was killed along with four members of the Bar-Kays in a plane crash in December 1967, just days after recording what would become his signature posthumous No. 1 smash, “(Sitting on) the Dock of the Bay.”

Secondly, Atlantic Records, which was bought out by Warner Bros. in ’68, included a clause in the distribution deal with Stax that gave Atlantic the rights to all the smaller label’s records distributed between 1960-67. Jim Stewart had signed this deal with Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler without having read the entire contract (Wexler claimed he never read it either). When Stax tried to get the top brass at Atlantic — and later Warner directly — to allow Stax to retain its earlier masters, both entities refused.

Worse, another legal loophole forced future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Sam & Dave, who’d scored two huge No. 1 soul songs for Stax (“Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Soul Man”) and was the label’s most lucrative act from 1965-68, to leave Stax for Atlantic.

After losing its biggest acts and all of its previous catalogue, Stax was forced to rebuild. Al Bell, the company’s A&R guy who was ultimately promoted as its highest-ranking Black official (Executive VP), eventually bought out Stewart’s sister Axton, making the company partially Black-owned.

It was under Bell’s leadership and the increased creative involvement of loyal Stax artists like Isaac Hayes — plus the transition of another label signee, the Staple Singers, from gospel to soul — that kept Stax Records relevant as the 1960s gave way to the ’70s. But, despite successful albums by Hayes (Hot Buttered Soul and others), the company experienced a drought at the top of the R&B charts in the post-Atlantic era that kept them out of the No. 1 spot on the singles list for the entirety of 1969 and 70, while Motown and Atlantic continued to thrive.

By 1971, Carla Thomas had stopped recording new material for Stax, leaving the company without its leading lady and further exacerbating its woes after having lost many of its earlier hitmakers. But a turn of fortunes that year led to the label experiencing one of the greatest rebounds the industry had seen.

First, Carla’s father Rufus returned to the top of the charts in February 1971 with the Al Bell-co-produced “(Do the) Push and Pull (Part 1),” then Johnnie Taylor replaced that at No. 1 with “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone.” They were Stax Records’ first No. 1 soul singles in nearly three years.

But the real winner came a few months later when a new singer out of New Orleans named Jean Knight released a song on Stax called “Mr. Big Stuff.”

Jean Knight performs “Mr. Big Stuff” on Soul Train in 1971

Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” had been recorded in Jackson, MS, in 1970, at the same session as King Floyd’s “Groove Me” (on Atlantic’s Chimneyville subsidiary). Except, it was “Groove Me” by newcomer Floyd that was green lit by his label as a single (it too was a No. 1 soul hit in 1971). “Mr. Big Stuff” was relegated to Stax’ scrap heap without much interest from any of that label’s top brass.

It was the success of Floyd’s “Groove Me” that led the folks at Stax to reconsider Knight’s “Big Stuff” due to the songs having the same arranger and their reported similarities (this writer sees the songs as being more different than alike, but apparently the folks at Stax saw it differently).

“Mr. Big Stuff,” a funky, uptempo number that lyrically had Knight’s protagonist rebuking a man who had expensive cars, fancy clothes, and the knack for breaking other girls’ hearts, was the complete opposite of an earlier Stax hit by the label’s former first lady, Carla Thomas.

Specifically, Thomas’ 1967 duet with Otis Redding — the No. 2 song “Tramp” — saw her putting down her male suitor for being “country” with no money to buy all the expensive things she wanted. When he offered that he had love, Thomas’ protagonist wanted no parts of that.

In contrast, Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” which famously asks in the refrain “who do you think you are?”, contains the bridge line: “I’d rather give my love to a poor guy that has a love that’s true, than to be fooled around and get hurt by you,” a lesson she later contends is one Mr. Big Stuff hadn’t yet learned.

It was a message, however, that resonated with soul and pop music fans everywhere that summer.

“Mr. Big Stuff” sped to No. 1 on the soul chart in July 1971 — giving Stax its third chart-topper in less than five months — and spent five weeks at the top. Further, the song crossed over to the pop chart and reached No. 2 (the label’s biggest crossover hit since “The Dock of the Bay” three years earlier). It eventually sold two million copies, making it one of Stax’ most successful singles ever.

Stax’ phenomenal comeback year continued after “Mr. Big Stuff,” with two more classics reaching No. 2 on the soul chart: Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft” (on the Stax subsidiary Enterprise Records) and the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” with Hayes’ hit doing even better pop (No. 1 for two weeks that November). Another Stax/Volt smash, The Dramatics’ “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” reached No. 3 soul that summer.

When Billboard tallied its year-end rankings of 1971’s biggest hits, it was Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” that came out on top, finishing as the year’s No. 1 soul song against some heavy competition by Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On” finished No. 2), Honey Cone (“Want Ads” was No. 3), Al Green (“Tired of Being Alone,” No. 4), Aretha Franklin (“Spanish Harlem,” No. 5) and the Temptations (“Just My Imagination,” No. 6). It was the first time a non-Motown hit had topped the year-end rankings since James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” in 1968, and the first time a female singer had recorded the year’s biggest soul hit since Aretha’s “Respect” in ’67.

“Mr. Big Stuff” beat out some hefty classics for year-end Billboard Soul Chart honors in 1971.

The song also earned Knight her first and only Grammy nomination, for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, which she lost to Queen Aretha Franklin (who was in the midst of dominating that category for its first eight years straight).

But Knight was unable to follow-up that success with subsequent releases. The similarly themed “You Think You’re Big Stuff” stalled at No. 19 soul and didn’t crack the top half of the Hot 100. Its B-side, called “Don’t Talk About Jody,” was an answer record to Johnnie Taylor’s earlier No. 1, “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone.” With an apparent lack of ideas to capitalize on Knight’s newfound success, Stax was unable to return her to the charts after 1972. She parted ways with the company that same year.

The label, however, was able to continue thriving in the years following “Mr. Big Stuff.” They charted between 1972-74 with more No. 1 hits by the Staple Singers (“I’ll Take You There” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)”), the Dramatics (“In The Rain”), Johnnie Taylor (“I Believe In You (You Believe In Me)), and Shirley Brown (“Woman to Woman”).

But after Bell, who by then was the full owner of Stax after having bought out Jim Stewart — making it a fully Black-owned label — inked a bad distribution deal with CBS Records (a story for a different day, but you can look it up), Stax folded following a bankruptcy filing in 1975.

Meanwhile, Jean Knight tried comebacks with other labels. Her most notable release was another answer record, this time to Richard “Dimples” Fields sob-story ballad, “She’s Got Papers on Me.” Knight’s version, “You Got the Papers (But I Got the Man),” was reminiscent of the Barbara Mason answer record to Shirley Brown’s “Woman to Woman,” called “From His Woman to You,” in which the singer took satisfaction in playing second-fiddle to a married man’s wife. Mason, famously, made a separate answer record to the Richard Dimples’ classic with similar other-woman perspectives.

Jean Knight reached No. 50 pop in 1985 with “My Toot Toot.”

But Knight’s only return to the charts came via a No. 50 pop (No. 59 Soul) song titled “My Toot Toot,” a tune that embodied her Cajun roots and incorporated the New Orleans-based Zydeco style, complete with a prominent accordion arrangement. The song did much better in South Africa, reaching No. 3 there.

Jean Knight, who was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007, died in Tampa, FL on November 22, 2023, at 80 years of age. She will forever be remembered for “Mr. Big Stuff,” the song that heralded Stax Records’ return to prominence in a big way in 1971, and one that made her a Queen… at least for a moment in soul music history.

R.I.P. Jean Knight (January 26, 1943 – November 22, 2023).


DJRob (he/him/his), music chart geek, is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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