Born Jean Caliste in New Orleans, Louisiana, Jean Knight began her singing career in her cousin’s Crescent City bar “Laura’s Place” and soon thereafter recorded several singles and changed her last name to Knight because she felt Caliste was too hard to pronounce. After making a name for herself locally but not attracting any national attention, she was working as a baker in the cafeteria at Loyola University by the late 1960s. But in 1970, while routinely walking down the street in New Orleans to pay a light bill, a friend stopped her and told her that New Orleans producer Wardell Quezerque had some new material and was looking for her. He subsequently took her to Jackson, Mississippi’s Malaco Studio and cut a single titled “Mr. Big Stuff.”
No one in the industry seemed to know what to do with the novelty song and it remained in the can until later that year when it came to the attention of Stax Records. When Stax released the song later in 1970, it was a smash hit, climbing to number 1 on the R&B charts, number 2 on the pop charts, and garnering Knight a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female. But just as she rose to great heights almost overnight at Stax, her subsequent recordings on the label never achieved great success and she left the company after her brief stint.
Knight went on to record LPs and singles on other labels – including a successful cover of the zydeco classic “My Toot Toot” – and continued touring with such artists as Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor, as well as on her own in the New Orleans region festival circuit. A regular at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Knight also performed at the 2003 Soul Comes Home concert during the grand opening of the Stax Museum at the Orpheum Theater. In 2005, she lost almost her entire New Orleans home and its contents during Hurricane Katrina and lived temporarily in a FEMA trailer and in Florida. She is now back in her renovated home and touring again, performing in New Orleans, New York City, and at festivals throughout the United States.