Stax Songwriter Series
Frederick Knight

Stax Songwriter Series
Frederick Knight

Frederick Knight

Widely regarded as a “one-hit wonder” for his only crossover hit as a performer, Frederick Knight’s career as a songwriter arguably dwarfs his contributions to Stax’s waning days atop the soul charts. In the last days of the company, Knight entered the fold to prove himself as his own man, opting to keep his compositions to himself rather than craft a hit for another performer on the label. The result was 1972’s “I’ve Been Lonely for So Long,” a sweet, delicate soul song with heavy folk leanings. And, while the song was his lone true hit, it succeeded in positioning himself as an anomaly as a soul performer and songwriter.

Knight was born in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1944 and took to music at a young age. He’d gain an early shot as a performer and songwriter on a small, independent imprint called Maxine Recording Company. In 1969, they’d release an upbeat number with driving, funky percussion called “Steppin’ Down,” backed with “Heart Complication.” Knight, who sang lead vocals on both recordings, also co-wrote both sides with Sidney Austin. 

In 1970, Knight began a relationship with frequent collaborator C.L. Blast. Blast, a Birmingham-bred soul journeyman, recorded “Two Time One Is Two,” the sole single sent to market on the Crestown label, co-written by Knight and accomplished soul saxophonist Aaron Varnell. That same year, Knight placed a solo composition on The Artistics, a Chicago-based quartet discovered by Major Lance. The group released the Knight-penned tune “Sugar Cane” on their LP, I Want You To (Make My Life Over), on Brunswick Records.

Knight stepped back into the role of lead vocalist for “Have a Little Mercy (On Me)” backed with “Sauerkraut,” under the direction of Neal Hemphill who took over songwriting duties for the single release. Capitol Records’ 123 subsidiary issued the single for release. As a leading entrepreneur in the Birmingham music scene, Hemphill founded the homebrew basement operations of Sounds of Birmingham studio. In the musician’s formative years, the workshop became Knight’s de facto home base as he attempted to scale his songwriting enterprise. However, intending to gain footing in a more established music town, Knight set his eyes on Nashville. There, he forged a short-lived partnership with a local radio host known as John R. Through the jockey, Knight would find a new mentor in Buddy Killen, a veteran bassist, songwriter, and producer with a diverse catalog spanning country, folk, pop, and rock. Killen coached Knight, who would in turn offer “Throw the Switch” and “I Know Where I’ve Been,” which would remain in obscurity until appearing on compilations associated with Killen’s Dial Records label, an imprint made famous by its star, Joe Tex.

Unable to make a splash in Nashville, Knight turned his sights on Memphis. After making the acquaintance of Tim Whitsett, the head of Stax-affiliated publishing company East Music, Knight spent much of the early 1970s sending his demos to Whitsett for feedback. The consistent response from Whitsett would be that Knight needed something more special to stick out, particularly if he’d be releasing the songs himself, being that he was relatively unknown as a performer. Knight finally gained Whitsett’s approval with “I’ve Been Lonely for So Long,” a soft tune adorned generously by Knight’s own fluttering falsetto and a signature twang unlike anything else on R&B radio. To that end, the record, which Whitsett convinced Stax founder Jim Stewart to release along with its flipside “Lean on Me” in 1972, succeeded on both the U.S. R&B and pop charts, peaking at #8 and #27, respectively. The song also put up an impressive showing on British singles charts.

Frederick Knight – I’ve Been Lonely For So Long

Following an uncommonly delayed period between the release of the single and an accompanying full-length album, Knight released a debut album, also titled I’ve Been Lonely for So Long, on Stax Records near the end of 1973. Along with “Lonely,” which was symbolically credited to Knight’s wife Posie, Frederick wrote or co-wrote six other selections on the album. Soul legend Sam Dees and previous collaborator Aaron Varnell combine talents with Knight on “Your Love’s All Over Me” and “Take Me on Home Witcha.” An additional single “Trouble,” backed with “Friend,” both featuring writing from Knight, failed to move the needle. In the years leading up to Stax Records’ end, Knight made a move from the label’s main roster onto the Truth Records imprint. There, he’d enjoy minor success with his composition, “I Betcha Didn’t Know That,” while his other singles would fall flat.

Away from Stax, Knight would pen singles for New Orleans singer Sammy Ridgley and get a taste of the evolving sound of Atlanta soul while working with Loleatta Holloway and John Edwards on the Aware Records label. Notably, C.L. Blast performed a fiery and salacious song written by Knight, titled “Husband In-Law,” in 1973. Blues legend Bo Diddley followed up with a cover version of the song, shortly after its release.

When Shirley Brown released Woman to Woman, an LP named for her ubiquitous 1974 single, Knight’s songwriting accounted for nearly a third of the album. “I Can’t Give You Up,” “Between You and Me,” and “It Ain’t No Fun,” appeared on the album, with the latter serving as a single. However, the record would be among the last to reach the public before Stax would close its doors. In response, Knight founded his own label, Juana Records, where his marquee act Controllers was able to benefit from his songwriting and production. 

Miraculously, Knight’s fortunes as a songwriter changed for the better, as his profile within soul circles rose. During the 1970s, he worked tirelessly as a freelance songwriter, penning tunes for a revolving door of artists, with notable selections performed by Leon Haywood, Ben E. King, Major Lance, Lloyd Price, and even Aretha Franklin, while regularly contributing to lesser-known talent. His 1975 composition “Uphill Peace of Mind,” recorded by funk group The Gospel Truth, would be covered by experimental rock band Kid Dynamite in 1976. Their version of the song lives on as one of hip-hop’s most sampled tunes, finding its way into Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” and Rick Ross and Kanye West’s “Live Fast, Die Young.” 

Though Knight recorded sparingly during this period, his output in the mid-late 1970s was punctuated by solo LPs Knight Kap in 1977 and Let the Sunshine In in 1978. Led naturally by his own songwriting efforts, both albums embrace the dance music of the time, leaning heavily into disco, even while exploring themes of spirituality and devout Christianity.

Distributed by disco powerhouse, T.K. Records, Knight’s own Juana imprint shifted its base of operations from Birmingham’s Midfield suburb to Jackson, Mississippi. Its lack of proximity to the T.K. Record’s neighboring city, Miami, proved a non-factor. In association with T.K., Knight would score arguably his most successful songwriting credit and production on an unknown school teacher who had just previously graduated from the rural campus of North Mississippi’s Rust College. Ward signed to Knight at the recommendation of her manager and college choir director. The song, “Ring My Bell,” and its singer, Anita Ward, skyrocketed to the top of the pop charts in the summer of 1979, marking one of the last hits before the demise of disco in the U.S. pop market. The song’s popularity shines bright in Knight’s catalog as an outlier for its frequent covers and usage in pop culture, from television, film, and commercials. However, with Knight’s robust catalog, it’s far from the only song regularly licensed across various media. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, CBS Sunday Morning looked to Knight’s staple song as a performer, “I’ve Been Lonely for So Long” for a full-circle look at the lives of quarantined residents in Memphis, the city that kickstarted the storied career of its author.

by Jared Boyd