When Frankie Knuckles moved to Chicago in the 1970s and began mixing little-heard disco B-sides with obscure R&B singles and heavy basslines for a club audience, he couldn’t have known that someday he would be known as the godfather of house music. His dance cuts became the stuff of legend, and even today, his mixes for Whitney Houston, Depeche Mode and Chaka Khan are still played worldwide.
“Frankie made his way into the ranks of those artists and innovators who came to this city not just to contribute to a musical genre, but to create one themselves,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “In doing so, he also made his way into the hearts of those who knew him and the many more who followed his work.”
The DJ and master remixer born Francis Nicholls died Monday afternoon in his West Loop home at 59. The Grammy Award winner had just returned from spinning at the Ministry of Sound in London on Saturday night and on Sunday tweeted about his upcoming appearance at the Southport Weekender festival in the United Kingdom.
“The people who were the closest to him were Frederick Dunson and ‘Judge’ Maurice Clayton. They were the guys with him when he passed,” says close friend and fellow DJ Charles Matlock, also executive director of Columbia College’s Modern Dance Research and Archiving Foundation. “He went to go take a nap and didn’t wake up. They were in the next room.”
Matlock choked back tears as he recounted falling in love with Mr. Knuckles’ music in 1980s Chicago. Mr. Knuckles moved to Chicago in 1977 at the behest of Warehouse club owner Robert Williams.
He spun music no one had heard in quite that way. Not only did he play rarely heard disco recordings, he layered them with similarly obscure Euro-synth and R&B music Rolling Stone described as “soul curiosities.” He looped the music, extending it so the dancing could go on and on and on. That melting pot became house, named both for Knuckles’ style and the “house” where he spun.
“His work at the Warehouse was the blueprint and, yes, as a producer with Jamie Principle, he created some of the first house music and definitely the best,” said Matlock, who remembered his first time partying with gays and how Knuckles created an environment where swaying to the music — not orientation — was paramount. “He was the architect.”
Then — and now — dancers would shout: “Frankie’s playing that house.” It became a mantra. It also became a beacon. Mr. Knuckles played “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Intention and slid into “Hit And Run” by Loleatta Holloway. Eclectic. Yet stimulating. Black, white and Asian gathered in the same club — in segregated Chicago — to dance. Mr. Knuckles deliberately melded music that brought everyone together.
“To come to Chicago and it be segregated, I didn’t know what that was,” Mr. Knuckles said two years ago at a retrospective on 1980s house music, reported by WBEZ’s Natalie Moore for Ebony magazine. “I had actually never experienced it, but the thing was, [at the Warehouse] I was trying to create something really, really special.”
After leaving the Warehouse, Mr. Knuckles opened and spun at the Power Plant, which closed in 1988. He went to England for a four-month residency at the UK’s Delirium, eventually returning to New York City to create Def Mix Productions with fellow DJ David Morales. With Def Mix, Mr. Knuckles remixed songs by Diana Ross and Chaka Khan, but he never let the fame get to his head.
“He was really monumental in my career because I used to take edits of my disco to him and he’d play them at the Power Plant,” remembers Steve “Silk” Hurley, known for the house song “Jack Your Body.” “He’d actually play them on the spot and play them twice to make sure the crowd got to know the record. As big as he was, I was just an up-and-coming guy in the ’80s, and he still helped me when I really needed it.”
DJ Wayne Williams, a co-creator of the Chosen Few Picnic (aka the Chicago House picnic), also met Knuckles in the early ’80s. “I had already heard about Frankie from his deejaying in New York, so I was really excited to meet him,” says Williams, 54. “I didn’t get the courage to get up and talk to him until my fifth trip to the Warehouse. When I did, it was amazing how warm and friendly he was. From that point on, we bonded. We’ve had just an amazing friendship.”
Knuckles attended the picnic but never performed there until 2011. His friends say he preferred to stay in the background and let other deejays get the shine. But when he rocked out on the mainstage on Chicago’s South Side, everybody danced. “People love him,” said Williams. “Frankie was an amazing talent, from mixing to producing to deejaying. He had an amazing ear which helped shape my ear as well. The only thing you’re gonna hear from people about Frankie is how great a person he was because he was forgiving, he was kind. He never left a conversation that we had without saying ‘I love you.’ ”
Knuckles produced several songs with Jamie Principle, laying down the groundwork for what would become electronic dance music.Their music was released by local label Trax Records.
Then Versace, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson and the Pet Shop Boys came calling. He took a gig with groundbreaking black radio station WBMX until it changed to a new format in 1988. Still, his life was not without its prickly drama. Onlookers tried to create a tiff between him and fellow house DJ Farley Jackmaster Funk. The two men laughed it off and partied together to prove it.
“We did a party called Two Tribes Build a War that was the most famous one we did together,” says Farley, whose Facebook wall on Tuesday became a Knuckles memorial. The two often played the same international gigs. “That was in 1984 or ’85. We got together without the hype. People used to think that we didn’t like each other, but we loved each other.”
Billboard reported Mr. Knuckles charted 14 songs, all top 20 hits, including 12 top 10s, from 1989 through 2007 on the Dance Clubs Songs chart. In 1997, he won a Grammy Award for mixer of the year. Most recently, friends say he was working anew with longtime collaborator Principle. Knuckles also excitedly tweeted about a Croatia performance this summer.
Musically, he enjoyed everything from disco to gangsta rap. But, as he famously told Vocalo in 2012, singers such as Rihanna and Chris Brown, though talented, didn’t impress him much. “Stylistically, what they do doesn’t work for me,” Knuckles said. He was educated by the school of listening to and reading liner notes from the classic albums of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who created the Philadelphia sound from roughly 1966 to 1976.
After traveling the world, Knuckles moved back to Chicago in 1999 and decided to stay. He was proud of how far the city had come, racially and sexually.
“The color lines have blurred a bit, the things that separated us as people in 1977 for the most part have blurred quite a bit,” Knuckles told Vocalo. “The gay people don’t stick out like a sore thumb. Black people [are] partying with white people. There’s a lot more blending going on. The city had grown up a lot.”