Soul diva Amii Stewart is celebrating 40 years in the music industry this year. The legendary singer won her first record deal in 1978, bursting on to the disco scene one year later with Knock On Wood. The single rocketed her to superstardom overnight when it made the number one spot in the American pop chart.
The Washington-born singer was only 23 when her first hit led to her becoming one of the most popular and enduring soul and disco artists in the world.
Stewart had always seemed destined for a career in entertainment. Born in January 1956, she was the ninth of 11 siblings. Her father, Joseph, spotted her talents and signed her up for singing and dancing lessons at the age of four.
She changed her name from Amy to Amii because there was already an Amy Stewart registered with the Actors’ Equity organisation. She attended Howard University, in Washington, but dropped out to study modern dance and ballet with the DC Repertory Dance Company instead.
In 1975, she went on tour with a production of the musical, Bubbling Brown Sugar, starting out in Miami and taking in Broadway and the West End. While in London, she met Hansa Records’ producer, Barry Leng, who gave Stewart her first record deal and co-wrote her first single, You Really Touched My Heart, released in 1978.
Knock on Wood
The single had minor commercial success, but one year later, in 1979, Stewart’s position as an iconic singer was assured when she released a cover version of Knock On Wood.
As well as soaring to the number one spot in the US pop chart, it was also a top ten hit in the US R&B, US Club Play and UK singles charts and entered the German top 20 as well. It earned Stewart a platinum record and a nomination for a Grammy Award.
The song had been written in 1966 by Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper and was originally released as a soul single by Floyd on Stax Records, reaching number one in the US R&B chart and also entering the US Billboard Hot 100 and the UK singles charts.
The song had been written for Otis Redding, but Stax president Jim Stewart decided Floyd’s own version should be released instead – an astute choice, considering its chart success. The single launched Floyd’s solo career and he became one of Stax’s most consistent and versatile recording artists.
Knock on Wood is a love song, with the narrator describing their all-consuming love for someone – described as “better than any love I know”. The line, “You better knock on wood, baby,” refers to the superstition of touching wood, so that something won’t be jinxed.
The singer says, “I’m not superstitious … but I can’t take no chance,” and “knocks on wood” to ward off the risk of the relationship going sour.
Speaking of their relationship, the singer proclaims, “It’s like thunder, lightning! The way you love me is frightening,” to describe the depth of emotions. The lyrics were famously written during a thunderstorm, according to Floyd.
He described how he and Cropper had been staying in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis during a massive thunderstorm, when they began writing Knock on Wood. Writing late at night, they were talking about the storm, when Floyd told Cropper how he and his brother used to be terrified as kids during the violent storms in Alabama.
Floyd reportedly said, “In Alabama, man, there’s like thunder and lightning – we’d hide under the bed, because we’d be frightened.”
Cropper liked the phrase and wrote the famous line in Knock on Wood: “It’s like thunder, lightning! The way you love me is frightening!”
Since the song was written in 1966, it has become one of the most covered singles in history. There have been cover versions by Otis Redding in 1967, David Bowie in 1974, Eric Clapton in 1985 and Michael Bolton in 1992, among others.
Amii Stewart today
Disco diva Stewart’s hit in 1979 was arguably the best-known version of Knock on Wood and launched her 40-year career in the music industry. She has released 34 singles and 23 albums.
Her biggest hit singles included a cover version of The Doors’ Light My Fire, which peaked at number five in the UK in 1979, Friends, a number one hit in Italy and number 12 in the UK in 1984 and a remix of Knock on Wood/Light My Fire, a number seven UK hit in 1985.
In the mid-1980s, Stewart relocated to her current home in Italy, where she has enjoyed chart success over the decades. Starring as Mary Magdalene in the touring rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar in 2000, she also played blues singer Billie Holliday in the 2003 film, Lady Day.
In her personal life, she is a goodwill ambassador for the charity Unicef and has been involved in many major projects to help the world’s sick and needy children.
In the words of the song, thunder and lightning is indeed frightening, with the threat of damage to buildings and injury to inhabitants a very real risk.
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