Frankie Knuckles made house music. The sound he created, named after the Chicago club, The Warehouse, where he played during the late '70s and early '80s, was copied by literally thousands of DJs and producers over the next 40 years. And yet, an ear trained to the nuances of club music can detect a Frankie Knuckles mix and distinguish it from so many of his contemporaries and followers because first and foremost it's musical — there are harmonies and melodies and countermelodies in it that you just can't create without working with musicians schooled in music theory and classical composition. His sound is earthy yet ethereal, without gravity. To listen to his "The Bomb Mix" of Chanté Moore's 1995 R&B song "This Time" is to be suspended in air for 10 minutes.
It's like Debussy or Satie for the dance floor. Whereas most club mixes accentuate hardness to drive dancers to the floor, Knuckles did the truly daring, inspired thing and made this one actually softer. The original may have been a ballad, but Moore sings Knuckles' rendition more tenderly (she recut the vocal in his studio, following his directions to sing it at a club-friendly tempo), more like she's having a secret talk with God, as if she's praying that this time, heaven allowed, things are going to work out. She's singing as if she's asking to be blessed.
Not everything he made was this eloquent, but Knuckles, who died on Monday at his home in Chicago at the age of 59, made dance music at a spiritual level for nearly four decades. Born Francis Nicholls on January 18, 1955, in the Bronx, he started out as a DJ in Manhattan at the Gallery, one of the earliest gay discos, and the Continental Baths, the same gay bathhouse where Bette Midler and her accompanist Barry Manilow launched their careers. Another musician who started at both of those places was his pal Larry Levan, the DJ often cited as the greatest-ever, who soon moved on to the Paradise Garage, the late '70s/'80s downtown club routinely tagged the greatest-ever. [I sometimes danced there. Both were more phenomenal than there's space to get into here.]
"When Larry started the Garage, Frankie didn't know what he was gonna do with himself," says Knuckles' manager, Judy Weinstein, of Def Mix Productions, who at the time also ran one of the first record pools, For the Record. "Then somebody in Chicago said, 'We have a club for you.' That was the Warehouse."
Like the Garage, the Warehouse was patronized by a private membership of mostly gay black (and to a lesser degree gay Latino) men. And like the Garage, the Warehouse was so popular that the so-called death of disco — one most historians pinpoint as starting in Chicago's own Comiskey Park during rock radio DJ's Steve Dahl's notorious "Disco Demolition Night" promotion on July 12, 1979 that turned a normal baseball double-header into a full-blown riot — didn't diminish its following. In fact, both the Warehouse and the Garage got more popular after disco supposedly went kaput. At the Warehouse, the crowd got whiter and straighter to the point that its owner gave up the membership system that protected its gay clientele, and Knuckles abandoned ship to start his own club, the Power Plant.
Like the Garage, the Warehouse was known for a particularly soulful strain of disco, one that maintained its connection to R&B via Philly soul's lush strings and pulsating rhythms. And just like Levan, Knuckles modified the records to suit his crowd, and mixed the soul with synthesizer-based productions from Europe and edgier cuts from the New Wave scene. In New York, that combination was called "Garage music." In Chicago, that exact same combo was called "house music."
And while there were songs that came out of the New York scene that were specifically designed for the Garage, some of those were so musically savvy that they became national R&B radio and club hits, like Taana Garner's "Heartbeat," which Levan himself remixed. What came out of Chicago, however, was significantly cruder and even more leftfield than most Garage-bound tracks. There was no way that early house tracks like Jack Master Dick's "Jack the Dick," for example, was going to be confused with any other genre, and so the house tag stuck in a way that Garage didn't. Even more than Garage, House at this stage was black gay ghetto music and although it got played on Chicago's dance music station WBMX, it wasn't going anywhere.
Or so it seemed. England adores music precisely like this. In the '70s, Northern England fell in love with Motown-sound flops of the '60s and resold them as "Northern Soul." This time, London got in on the action faster and sent its music critics to Chicago in the mid-'80s to write about the underground house scene just as it would send writers to Seattle just a few years later to write about grunge. But Chicago didn't have a Kurt Cobain to sell papers. Instead, it had a bunch of mostly black, mostly gay DJs.
What Chicago had were loads and loads of records that were recorded, pressed, and licensed for export quite cheaply. The first one to go pop in the U.K., Farley "Jackmaster" Funk's "Love Can't Turn Around" featuring Darryl Pandy, is a literally screaming 1986 remake of Isaac Hayes' "I Can't Turn Around." No American major label would touch a record like it. The second major hit, Steve "Silk" Hurley's "Jack Your Body," topped the U.K. charts for two weeks in early 1987. For the next several years, English labels went on a house spree, licensing Chicago tracks so obscure that some of them hadn't even been pressed back home, so American DJs had to buy the imports in order to get the music that was originally designed for them.
One of the better singles to get released in Chicago in 1987 was issued under the mysterious name "Frankie Knuckles Presents." One side held the song "Baby Wants to Ride" and the other had "Your Love" — Jamie Principle was the unnamed singer on both. Both were also among the sexiest things that ever happened to a sex-centric genre. In 1991, a British DJ mixed the instrumental intro to "Your Love" with an a cappella version "You Got the Love," an obscure record by soul/gospel singer Candi Staton, and the result went to No. 4 on the U.K. pop chart. Six years later, yet another remix went to No. 3. In 2004, that remix perfectly soundtracked the final two minutes of HBO's Sex and the City.
When Knuckles eventually scored his own pop success, it was once again in the U.K. Buoyed by a string of remixes in the late '80s and early '90s for Electribe 101, Inner City, Adeva, Lalah Hathaway, Will Downing and Lisa Stansfield, Knuckles was signed in America and abroad to Virgin Records (which of course was founded by a Brit, Richard Branson). This was at a time when acts like C+C Music Factory suggested that house was going to crossover big time in America as it did in England. That didn't happen. Knuckles' "The Whistle Song," was an instrumental in 1991 when instrumentals weren't played beyond smooth jazz stations. In England, it went to No. 17 and even appeared in a Nestea commercial. Here, that song still gets played in the early morning to ease folks down off their high. Like a lot of deep house, it's simultaneously sad and joyous, as if it's so full of emotion that it seeps out every which way.
"He loved work more than he loved himself," says his manager, Judy Weinstein. "Not that he didn't love himself, but that was really how it went." The morning after Knuckles died, Weinstein shared that Knuckles had played his last gig the previous Saturday night at London's Ministry of Sound, a club so modeled after the Garage it sought to duplicate elements of its sound system. His tour manager helped him get to his plane Sunday morning and Knuckles made it back to his home in Chicago that night, but didn't call when he landed like he was supposed to, and didn't return calls on Monday. At 5:00 p.m., his longtime business partner Frederick Dunson went to his home to find that his best friend had died.
"He went to the Winter Music Conference in Miami," Weinstein recalls of Knuckles' activities the previous week. "Maybe it was written in the stars somewhere, but we were all together as a family. [DJs] David [Morales] and Frankie and Hector Romero and Quentin Harris, we were all there together for what now could be called the final lunch. He played at the party we had at Vagabond on the 23rd. Monday he went to a big pool party at the National Hotel, The Three Kings of House, with David, Louie [Vega] and Tony Humphries. Everybody was yappin' with him. He was in good spirits, and Wednesday he got on a plane to go to Ministry of Sound. I saw something in his face that wasn't right, but he said he was fine. He cut his set a little short because he wasn't feeling 100%. His tour manager put him on the plane Sunday morning. He got home. And I guess when he sat on the edge of his bed when he got home, it all caught up to him."
He went out on the road, as Weinstein recalls, with one prosthetic leg and another one that was starting to have problems. He was getting into DJ booths in crutches, and needed help getting up and down stairs because he couldn't put weight on his still-functioning leg. He DJed while seated on a stool, and had been in the hospital for much of January with a flu that turned into an infection.
"He knew that he had to slow down," Weinstein recalls, "not so much the DJ-ing, but the traveling, and be in the studio rather than an airplane."
Knuckles had been working on new material with Eric Kupper, the keyboardist who wrote "The Whistle Song," under the name Director's Cut. He was also compiling a House Masters collection of his mixes and productions for Defected Records, the same U.K. dance label that in 2007 released Def Mix, a three-disc collection of mixes by Knuckles and his peers, David Morales, Hector Romero and Satoshi Tomiie, that remains the best place to take in Knuckles' smooth but substantial approach to house, one that's a million stylistic miles from today's aggressive EDM.
Of course, Knuckles' music was created through largely electronic means, and, as Weinstein points out, the same schism once existed between fans of orchestral disco and generally far leaner house music. That distinction largely vanished under Knuckles' light touch. In 1998, Knuckles finally won official recognition for that precision by winning the first Grammy for Remixer of the Year. Chicago itself went further when the street where the Warehouse stood was changed to Frankie Knuckles Way on August 25, 2004, Frankie Knuckles Day, in a ceremony overseen by then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama.
"Deep house" is a phrase that was thrown around in the late '80s and early '90s to distinguish soulful house music from more aggressive or commercial permutations, and it's a phrase that's made a comeback to distinguish Knuckles' lineage from much of today's EDM. What he did was most often deep. If I had to sum up Knuckles' tender, supple sound with one song, it would the 1991 mix he and his pupil Morales did for Alison Limerick's "Where Love Lives." It starts with the kind of piano that makes real club people dance, and continues for several bars without a single drum beat. Then the rhythm machines enter, ensuring that every DJ capable of matching beats could smoothly mix in from the next record if they didn't dare to start with the bare piano. As the track progresses, the sound ebbs and flows as if it had been orchestrated with real instruments, as if disco hadn't died at all. "I'll take you down, deep down where love lives," Limerick growls in a way that doesn't leave any place for doubt. That's where Knuckles' spirit resides, in that place where love lives, a place designed to live on as long as hips feel that impulse to sway.