In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The relationship between soul music and disco is a fascinating one. Disco came out of soul. In the early days of disco, DJs in New York’s gay clubs would play fast, rhythmic soul songs, thus giving career boosts to people like ex-Temptation Eddie Kendricks. But disco evolved into its own thing, especially as the synthetic Giorgio Moroder/Pete Bellotte Euro-disco sound came in. It caught on with white audiences in a way that soul — or non-Motown soul, anyway — only rarely did. And by the time it reached its precarious popularity peak, disco was completely removed from soul — so far removed, in fact, that a disco version of an old soul song could almost sound like a joke.
That’s the case, anyway, with Amii Stewart’s version of “Knock On Wood,” probably one of the least-remembered big hits of the entire disco era. Eddie Floyd’s original version of “Knock On Wood” was only 13 years old when Stewart’s take on the song hit. In its original form, “Knock On Wood” had been a beautifully distilled piece of nasty Southern R&B. It was only a moderate hit, but it stuck around. Then Amii Stewart came out with a stiff disco take on it that eclipsed the original in popularity completely. But you never hear the Stewart version anymore, and the Floyd one still pops up on soundtracks from time to time. So the disco cover of the soul song was the bigger hit, but it’s also the one that has mostly disappeared from history. Pretty weird!
Eddie Floyd, the man behind the original “Knock On Wood,” was an Alabama native who’d grown up partly in Detroit and who sang, early on, in the Falcons, a group that also included Wilson Pickett. (Early in their career, the Ohio Players had been a backing band for the Falcons.) In the mid-’60s, after the Falcons broke up, Floyd went to work for Stax Records in Memphis, where he wrote songs for people like Pickett and Otis Redding.
One night at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Floyd got together with Steve Cropper, the Stax house guitarist who co-wrote “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” with Otis Redding, to work on some music. Inspired by a story about Floyd hiding under the bed with his brothers during thunderstorms in Alabama as a kid, they came up with “Knock On Wood,” a song about being really into your relationship and worrying that you can lose it anytime. It’s a simple enough song, but it’s got a great hook: “It’s like thunder! Lightning! The way you love me is frightening!” Floyd recorded it himself, giving it a raw and sweaty vocal performance.
When “Knock On Wood” came out in 1966, it was a #1 R&B single, but it only did moderately well on the pop charts, peaking at #30. (Indeed, Eddie Floyd never had a top-10 hit. His highest-charting single, 1968’s “Bring It On Home To Me,” peaked at #17.) But “Knock On Wood” stayed in the collective unconscious. A 1967 cover from Otis Redding and Carla Thomas peaked at #30. Buddy Guy, the American Breed, and Cher all recorded versions of the song. David Bowie had a top-10 UK hit with a live cover of “Knock On Wood” in 1974. The former heavyweight boxing champ Joe Frazier released a version of the song in 1976, the idea presumably being that Frazier had knocked on a lot of things.
Amii Stewart had never released a single before she did her cover of “Knock On Wood.” Stewart came from Washington, DC, and she started studying dance as a young girl. (She changed her name from Amy Stewart, her birth name, when she learned the the Actor’s Equity union already had an Amy Stewart.) After dropping out of Howard University, Stewart joined the DC Repertory Dance Company. For a few years, she was part of the cast of Bubbling Brown Sugar, a stage musical about the Harlem Renaissance. It was a touring show when Stewart joined the cast, but she stayed with the play when it came to Broadway, and then to London.
In London, Stewart auditioned for the record producer Barry Leng, and he recorded her singing “Knock On Wood.” Their version of the song is a weird and slightly awkward one. It’s disco, and it’s clearly inspired by the productions that Moroder and Bellote were doing for Donna Summer, another stage actress who started her recording career in Europe. But the beat isn’t really disco. It’s more of a big, clomping shuffle, a version of the beat so often used on the early-’70s glam singles that had been so huge in the UK.
The Amii Stewart “Knock On Wood” is full of weird noises. There’s an oscillating sound that could be synth or guitar; it’s hard to tell. There are laser-gun pew-pews and explosive thuds. There are drum sounds that anticipate the gated booms that Phil Collins would pioneer a few years later. Really, the song sounds a lot like the mainstream, big-budget synth-rock of the ’80s. It’s disco because of when it came out and because of the role it played culturally, rather than because of how it sounds.
Amii Stewart’s vocals on the song are impressive in a generic disco-diva sort of way. But she’s more memorable for how she looked than how she sang. On the record covers and in the music video, Stewart wore a wild sci-fi headdress thing and a whole lot of tribal-futuristic jewelry. She moved with the grace of the dancer that she was, and she carried herself like a superhero, or like Grace Jones. She looked cool as hell.
But though Stewart’s version of “Knock On Wood” is full of slick aesthetic signifiers, it does nothing for the song itself. “Knock On Wood” demands a certain urgent, ferocious rawness. That’s there in the Eddie Floyd original and in most of the covers that came in the years afterwards. But it’s nowhere to be found in the Stewart version. Instead, the disco cover feels like a purely theoretical genre exercise. The bursts of horn, so crucial to the original, become buzzing irritants on the cover. The Amii Stewart cover might’ve been big enough to hit #1 in the US for a week, but there’s some cosmic justice in the way that the original has maintained its place in our shared memory.
Amii Stewart followed up “Knock On Wood” with a medley single, one that combined her cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” with her own “137 Disco Heaven.” It went top-10 in the UK, but it only reached #69 stateside. In America, Stewart has never come close to the top 10 again. But many of her singles have done well in Europe, especially in Italy, where she’s been living since the mid-’80s. These days, she acts, dances, and records in Italy, and she sometimes works with Ennio Morricone, which means she’s cooler than you or me or anyone we know.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene in the 1998 movie 54 where an actress playing Amii Stewart sings “Knock On Wood” and impresses Ryan Phillipe: