Jean Knight, Who Struck Platinum With ‘Mr. Big Stuff,’ Dies at 80

Jean Knight, a soul singer whose memorable single “Mr. Big Stuff,” a brassy anthem of female strength, rose to No. 1 on Billboard’s rhythm and blues chart in 1971, died on Wednesday in Tampa, Fla. She was 80.

Her death, in a hospital, was confirmed by Mona Giamanco, a publicist for Ms. Knight’s family. She did not specify the cause.

The gutsy narrator of “Mr. Big Stuff,” which was released on the Memphis-based Stax label, tells a wealthy ladies’ man — with his “fancy clothes” and “a big fine car” — that she will never love him:

Mr. Big Stuff
Who do you think you are?
Mr. Big Stuff
You’re never gonna get my love.

When she sang “Mr. Big Stuff” on the television show “Soul Train,” Ms. Knight exhibited the narrator’s disdain for the wealthy man in her facial gestures and in the way she defiantly planted her hand on her right hip and wagged her right index finger. But her strong voice softened when she sang that she would rather have a “poor guy that has a love that’s true.”

Ms. Knight received a Grammy Award nomination for best female R&B vocal performance (Aretha Franklin won for “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), and “Mr. Big Stuff” was nominated for best R&B song (Bill Withers won for “Ain’t No Sunshine”).

“Mr. Big Stuff,” written by Carrol Washington, Ralph Williams and Joseph Broussard, topped Billboard’s R&B chart and rose to No. 2 on the magazine’s Hot 100. It was also certified double platinum for selling at least two million units.

The music historian John Broven, the author of “Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans” (1978), said in an email that “Mr. Big Stuff” “marked the end of the Golden Age of New Orleans R&B and helped to kick-start the city’s funky soul era.”

He added, “It was also remarkable for being recorded on the same day as an earlier No. 1 R&B hit, ‘Groove Me,’ by another New Orleans artist, King Floyd, by talented producer Wardell Quezergue” at a time when “New Orleans was suffering from a dearth of big hits.”

In 2002, before singing “Mr. Big Stuff” at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Ms. Knight told the audience that the royalties she received from it had helped sustain her financially.

“‘Mr. Big Stuff’ is better for me now than 31 years ago,” she said. “All I have to do is sit at home and wait for the mailman.”

It would be her only major hit, but it had a long afterlife. It can be heard on the soundtracks of numerous movies and TV shows. It has been sampled by Heavy D, Eazy-E and John Legend.

Ms. Knight at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2003. She was a regular at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and last appeared there in 2016.Credit…David Redfern/Getty Images

Ms. Knight was born Jean Audrey Caliste on Jan. 26, 1943, in New Orleans. Her father, Louis, was a storekeeper, and her mother, Florence (Edwards) Caliste, was a homemaker.

After graduating from high school, Ms. Knight sang at a cousin’s New Orleans bar. In 1965, she recorded a version of Jackie Wilson’s hit 1960 song “Doggin’ Around” as a demo. That led to a contract with the Jet Star/Tribe record label. Around that time, she changed her surname to Knight, because she believed that Caliste was difficult to pronounce.

She earned money in the 1960s as a baker’s assistant at two New Orleans universities.

After she recorded “Mr. Big Stuff,” according to a tribute to Ms. Knight on the Stax Museum website, the song was shopped to national labels, but each entreaty was rejected — until “Groove Me” became a hit and “a producer at Stax Records remembered Knight’s recording of ‘Mr. Big Stuff’ and released it.”

Ms. Knight had another hit single in 1971, “You Think You’re Hot Stuff,” which rose to No. 19 on the Billboard R&B chart and No. 57 on the Hot 100. Fourteen years later, her cover of the zydeco musician Rockin’ Sidney’s novelty song “My Toot Toot,” recorded for the Mirage label, peaked at No. 50 on the Hot 100 and No. 59 on the R&B chart.

Ms. Knight graduated from nursing school in the 1980s and was a licensed practical nurse for about 15 years. She also continued to perform around New Orleans, but she was displaced from her home by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and lived in a FEMA trailer for about six months.

She was a board member of the Louisiana Music Commission and was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

Ms. Knight was a regular at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, last appearing there in 2016. Its producer and director, Quint Davis, said she had been integral to the event.

“Jean Knight is a core artist in R&B, certainly in New Orleans and Gulf Coast R&B,” Mr. Davis said in a phone interview. “She wasn’t only a singer and artist; she was a performer who knew how to reach the crowd and work it.”

She is survived by her son, Emile Commedore; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Her marriages to Thomas Commedore and Earl Harris ended in divorce.

During her performance at the 2007 festival, Ms. Knight told the story behind “Mr. Big Stuff.” First she sang its melody as originally written; then she demonstrated how she had changed it.

“That ain’t got no bite to it,” she recalled telling one of the songwriters, in response to which he said, “Jean, everybody knows how sassy you are” and encouraged her to alter it.

“It worked — in one take, she insisted,” The New York Times quoted her as saying. And when the song is played, she added, “The checks come to me.”

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