October 3, 2011


Big and Bigger

One of the remarkable things about Kelly Clarkson's "Mr. Know It All" is that it sounds like part of a conversation—maybe with a person, maybe with another song. Its most obvious point of reference is Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are"; they've got very similar chord structures, tunes and delivery. (The inevitable mashup has already happened.) A rewarding, if probably apocryphal, way to hear Clarkson's song, in fact, is as an answer song to Mars'. His character believes that he understands her character better than she does, and that he sees things in her that she doesn't. She responds by rebuking him for denying her agency.

The form of "Mr. Know It All," though—a commentary on a conceited, deluded person--had a brief flurry of activity in pop almost exactly forty years ago, with songs like Stevie Wonder's "He's Misstra Know-It-All" and Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." The best of the bunch was another midtempo number addressed to a gentleman who represents a broader type of objectionable dude, and it spawned a musical conversation of its own.

Jean Knight's 1971 single "Mr. Big Stuff" was an enormous hit on both the R&B and pop charts. (If you'd like to see what she looked like performing it, there's a brief clip of a mimed TV performance floating around. Dig the Afro!) Knight's performance is smoldering, funny and cutting, but it also leaves room for her backup band to shine. The groove helped to bring the Deep South R&B sound into the '70s—Knight and producer Wardell Quezerque were from New Orleans, and you can hear a hint of the Meters' rhythms in the song's arrangement. And "Mr. Big Stuff"'s lyrics were confrontational in a way that demanded responses. "I believe the song tells off a lot of guys the ladies want told off," Knight said in an interview at the time.

It wasn't long before those responses—some from guys, some from ladies—started appearing in record stores.

The first seems to have been Jimmy Hicks' "I'm Mr. Big Stuff," an even more Meters-inspired piece, which appears to have been knocked out in a hurry, judging by its out-of-tune guitar and backing vocals. "Mr. Big Stuff"'s backbeat adapted nicely to reggae, too. Curiously, when the song came to Jamaican music, it turned into "Sister Big Stuff," versions of which were recorded by John Holt, by Tomorrow's Children, and by Prince Buster. Knight also tried to capitalize on her own record's success with "You Think You're Hot Stuff," although her sequel didn't catch on.

The five-week reign of "Mr. Big Stuff" on the R&B charts ended when James Brown's "Hot Pants" took over from it. A handful of artists apparently figured they could piggyback on both records' success at once. Knight's labelmate Freddy Robinson answered her with the come-on of "Sister Hot Pants," recorded shortly after her hit but not issued until the late '90s. And Brown's longtime backup singer Vicki Anderson recorded a terrific companion piece to Knight's song, "I'm Too Tough for Mr. Big Stuff (Hot Pants)," whose lyrics don't actually mention hot pants anywhere. Anderson takes pains to mention Brown, as well as her husband Bobby Byrd, who'd had a minor hit of his own with the barely-more-than-a-single-entendre "Hot Pants (I'm Coming, Coming, I'm Coming)"; finally, she namechecks herself, just to make sure everyone knows whose records to look for.

The "Mr. Big Stuff" groove made a comeback in the early years of hip-hop, when it was sampled dozens of times. Heavy D and the Boyz' first hit, released in 1986, was their own "Mr. Big Stuff," built around echoing snippets of Knight's; Queen Latifah recorded her own "Mr. Big Stuff" a decade later. The song's most unexpected incursion into pop might be Everclear's 2000 song "AM Radio," whose spine is a loop of the first four bars of Knight's recording, filtered through either a cheap speaker or an expensive computer program that sounds like one.

It's hard to imagine the music to "Mr. Know It All" having the same kind of afterlife—its arrangement is too much about providing a velvet pillow on which Clarkson's voice can be displayed. (There's nothing in the track behind her that's as vivid as, say, the wonderfully imperfect tambourine that shakes through "Mr. Big Stuff.") Still, it'd be entertaining if Clarkson's song inspired a new generation of answer songs, or if, at least, someone picked up where Bruno Mars' accidental prequel leaves off. Who's going to be brave or foolhardy enough to announce that he's the Mr. Know-It-All that Clarkson means—to position himself on the receiving end of her righteous indignation, and to tell America's idol that as a matter of fact he does know a thing or two about her?