The Real Story Behind “Mr. Big Stuff”
Well I must start out by saying it is truly a Blessing and a honor to have such a moment as this, to interview you, the legendary Jean Knight, known all across the land for your hit song “Mr. Big Stuff”. By no way or means am I saying that was your only hit. But I think it is safe to say it was your first BIG – MAJOR Hit. Before we get real deep about your hits and musical career….
Jazzii - I have just learned something that I didn’t know and it just may score some extra brownie points with my readers and subscribers of the Jefferson Blues Magazine and that is, you have Scandinavian ties. Word on the net (sniggle) has it that Gerard Caliste (a visual artist) & Swedish Hip Hop artist and Mattias Lendström Caliste who is part of the Scandinavian Rap Group Fjärde Världen, are your great nephews. I’m sure for some, who were not aware, that they are your great nephews, just might go out and pick up or download some of their music now that they are aware of their relationship to you.
I would like to talk a little bit about your past, because you are about to be honored for your past work. After reading a little history about you from your biography, your career was not an overnight success nor was it all glitter and glamour. Write ups has it that you were born in New Orleans, LA, January 26, 1943. And you began singing in your cousin’s bar “Laura’s Place” after high school and you had many different bands willing to travel with you. In 1965 you recorded a cover song of Jackie Wilson “Stop Doggin’ Me Around” as your first recording, is that true?
Jean – You can call me “Ms. Big Stuff”. Yes, that was my first recording, the cover tune of Jackie Wilson, “Stop Doggin’ Me Around”.
Jazzii - Huey Meaux signed you to a recording deal with Jet Star/Tribe Records. Was it Huey that discovered you or someone else?
Jean - No, Huey wasn’t the one to discover me. I was discovered by a man named Henry Hines. I was recording the song “Stop Doggin’ Me Around” when Henry Moore came in and he liked what he heard….then he and Henry Hines made some kind of a deal… and that made me sign with Henry Moore and that’s how Tribe Records came in.
Jazzii – You changed your name after signing with Jet Star/Tribe Records why and what was the name you were using prior to whom we know you as “Jean Knight”?
Jean - I was using Jean Caliste, that was my name, but everybody was pronouncing it all different kind of ways and calling me some of everything, because they could not say Caliste…that’s what made me change my name. So, I said I need another name and that’s when I came up with Jean Knight. When I chose my name I really was thinking about Marie Knight, the lady that had the song called “The Bells Keep On Ringing” and that’s when I said that’s it, I’m gonna call myself Jean Knight.
Jazzii –You went to work as a baker in the cafeteria at Layola University there in New Orleans, was that due to not making enough money to live the life style you had dreamed of or because of the way your musical career was being handled, you being fed up with the industry or did you feel like maybe you just didn’t have what it took to make it in this industry?
Jean - Well….the truth is I was working at Layola University as a baker, in fact I was working at Dominican All Girls College when I did “Mr. Big Stuff”.
Jazzii – In 1970 Ralph Williams found you and asked you to record some songs. Who is or was Ralph Williams?
Jean - Ralph Williams is one of the writers of “Mr. Big Stuff”. Yes Ralph Williams is one of them that wrote “Mr. Big Stuff”.
Jazzii – Ralph introduced you to Wardell Quezergue a music producer…who took you to Jackson, MS to Malaco Records and began recording you. During that session “Mr. Big Stuff” was recorded, shopped to several national labels but was rejected, what brought about the turnaround of that song for you?
Jean - Turn around came when King Floyd recorded “Grove Me” and it hit. Everybody wanted to hear all the other stuff the record companies had, nobody wanted to hear “Mr. Big Stuff”.
Jazzii – Information that I found out on the web just say a producer at Staxx remembered your song after King Floyd’s hit “Grove Me” went #1 on the R&B charts, by chance was that producer Al Bell?
Jean - No, it was not Al Bell. Al Bell was the Vice President of Stax Records; it was George Smith that remembered that I had recorded “Mr. Big Stuff” and said to us “let’s look at “Mr. Big Stuff” again”. And that’s when they picked out “Mr. Big Stuff”.
Jazzii – Now, you signed a deal with Stax Records…the vey song that others including major labels rejected went #1 on the R&B charts and #2 on the Pop charts for 16 weeks……..selling over two millions in sales ~ that’s double platinum, wow! What happen?
Jean - That’s right….my life changed…..my dream had come true. I did a lot of traveling around the country and all around. I went to Rome, Italy and all other parts of Italy, I went all over England, Germany, Trinidad, Barbados, Puerto Rico before it became a state. I mean I’ve just been everywhere.
Jazzii – OMG, I know that all of those other companies that turned you down had to have been sick after that, to know that they had that song in their hands but yet turned/gave it away.
Jean – Yes, I know they were. I think they fired one man at one company; the one that was in charge of listening to the stuff/music ~ they fired him. (Sniggling)
Jazzii – So what happen afterwards with you, post Staxx?
Jean - I was with Wardell, well Wardell and Staxx had some kind of disagreement and that ended it for me as well. You see my deal was with Wardell. Wardell had some kind of deal with Staxx not me directly, because I never signed anything with Staxx. The deal making was done with Wardell and Staxx. So when Wardell left, I had to go too.
Jazzii – I know, you probably hear this a lot, and probably knew that I was going to ask you something about this. You had another smash hit “Don’t Mess with My Toot Toot”; I thought that this was a Denise LaSalle original song. I was totally surprised to learn that Denise LaSalle was actually the second one to re-record this song. This song landed you a live performance on Live at the Apollo and on Solid Gold. The song have done very well for both you and Denise LaSalle and neither one of you are the originator of the song, so who is the originator and what kind of success did he or she have with the song prior to you and Denise?
Jean - No, Denise LaSalle was not the originator of the song. The original song was in a Zydeco version, written and recorded by Rockin’ Sidney. Now, the song has done very well for both Denise and I but it’s has done VERY well for Rockin’ Sidney since he was the one who wrote the song. I think he had a lot of success with the song (sniggling) when you cover someone else’s song; you have to pay them to cover their song. With all that it has done for both me and Denise, Rockin’ Sidney is truly the one with all of the success. Even thou my song was call “My Toot Toot” it is still a derivative of his song “Don’t Mess with My Toot Toot”. So he’s the one that’s getting all of the royalties off of it. (Laugh) You know?
Jazzii – In the 1990’s “Mr. Big Stuff” rebirth life again and became a big hit a second time….The song have appeared on over 40 compilation albums, numerous TV commercials and movie soundtracks, (i.e. “Two Can Play That Game”) is there a more recent movie that this song has appeared on its soundtrack?
Jean - I don’t know if there is any other recent movies that is using the song in it at this time, but my lawyer is on it and I’m waiting on a phone call and a check from him next week. He is all on it and has been keeping up with what is going on, I don’t have to do that you know that’s what I got him for.
Jazzii – How many additional copies have the song sold today?
Jean – I would say at least, at least 8 Million.
Jazzii – You were also signed with “Ichiban Records” with “Theodis Ealey”, “Willie Clayton”, and the late “Tyrone Davis”, what happen there at Ichiban?
Jean - That was only a one (1) record deal. I was only signed to cover Peggy Scott record “Bill”, and that did very well for me too. That put me back out there too
Jazzii – Let’s talk a little about your son Emile, he produced five (5) songs for you on Ichiban, did any of them become hits or make any noise like “Mr. Big Stuff” or “My Toot Toot” if so which one(s)?
Jean - Like I said with “Ichiban”, I was only signed to a one (1) record deal. They really just signed me to cover Peggy Scott’s record “Bill”.
Jazzii – Tell us about “Fomaldehyde Records” and the album you released with your song entitled “Queen”.
Jean - My son Emile produced this CD “Queen” for me and it had some good songs on it too. One in particular was called “I Knew My Man” but “Fomaldehyde Records” didn’t promote the album properly, so that was the end of that.
Jazzii – Comstar? That’s your label, do you have any other artists on your label and are you looking for any artists for roster consideration?
Jean - Comstar is me and my son’s label, and we don’t have any other artists on the label at this time, because I haven’t seen any this far, But! If some come up I will surely use them.
Jazzii – How would someone interested in submitting material to “Comstar” for roster consideration or material for you to consider recording?
Jazzii – Now, for one of the real reason for this interview…You are one of the 2012 Honorees for the 2012 Jus’ Blues Music Awards. How does it feel to be honored after so many years have gone by for your work and hits you did in the past? And please feel free to talk about the inductee.
Jean - I’m thrilled and I feel like I’m truly blessed to be honored for this. It is an honor a great honor and I am truly blessed I mean truly blessed. And I really wanna thank you to Jazzii for taking the time to interview me and the other man Harold.
Jazzii – I’m the one that is honored to be able to do this interview with you, because I grew up with your music, starting with “Mr. Big Stuff”. Both of my parents had that song and played it around the house and I can’t tell you how many little house/birthday parties we had and went to and that was a song that everyone had to have in their collection. You weren’t up with all of the latest hits if you didn’t have “Mr. Big Stuff” in your collection. And that song is still a big song even today on the Chittlin Circuit and in all of the real Juke Joints.
Jean - Yeah, I know you told me that. On April 30 in New Orleans, I’m having my name put down at Tipitina’s “Walk of Fame”, that’s at 501 Napoleon Avenue, New Orleans, LA. They will be putting my name down in the ground and it will be open to the public, so come on down and help us celebrate this glorious occasion my name being put in cement.
Jazzii – I never like to end an interview without giving the interviewee an opportunity to add or say anything that they would like or that we may not have covered in the interview. So here’s your chance.
Jean - I would just like to thank everybody that did an interview, everybody that went out and bought my record “Mr. Big Stuff”, “My Toot Toot” and everything else that I’ve done. I just want to thank them, because without them I can’t be anything. You know the people make me, I don’t make the people.
Jazzii – Now will there be something new coming from Jean Knight?
Jean – You know I’m thinking about something, but I don’t want to elaborate on it now, I just want to wait, wait on it at this time. You know because if I say something it’s like something that doesn’t happen. I learned long time ago just don’t say nothing. And then everything just seems to work out.
Jazzii – Jean, I would like to thank you for this golden opportunity and I look forward to seeing you at the 2012 Jus’ Blues Music Awards events.
Jean – Ok, thank you Jazzii.
Text: Jazzie Anderson. Photo: Ronnie Booze with Booze Free Lance Photography with LA Anderson