Song 77: Jean Knight, “Mr. Big Stuff” (1971)

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Here’s another one that we’ve all heard so many times, in all kinds of places—on the radio, in commercials, in movie trailers, at the grocery store—and it’s hard to hear it for what it is. But something, I don’t remember what, made me hear it a few years ago, and I realized: I love this song.

I know, this seems like is a strange song to love. Tolerate, sure. Like, even. But love? Listen again, though. Those chunky guitars ticking away, that thumping bassline bounding around underneath like a friend corroborating Jean Knight’s assessment. It’s excellent.

This song has an instance of one of my favorite musical concepts: the “four” chord with the “five” note in the bass. In this case, you hear the guitar playing an A-flat chord while the bass plays a B-flat after she sings “bit by bit” (and in similar spots in later verses). You can compare this combination to what the guitar and bass do in the intro and the chorus, which is that they play the same note. I’m not sure why the A-flat/B-flat combination is so interesting to me, or what it adds to this song. Maybe the slight difference between the two notes, that single whole step, just sounds striking to the ear when played in such a funky lockstep. (King used the combination many times; she has said that many people refer to that combination as a “Carole King chord.”)

Anyway, enough theory. This song is fun, sure, but it’s also an example of the tightness and concision of Stax’s best tracks, and it’s masterfully performed by everyone involved (especially by Knight, who provides equal parts musicianship and attitude). So excellent.

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