Frankie Knuckles

Bronx born Frankie Knuckles (real name Francis Nicholls), the honorary Chicagoan bestowed with the title ‘Godfather Of House’, died last Sunday of diabetes-related complications. He was 59.

Since the news of his death broke there’s been a genuine outpouring of love for this iconic DJ from all corners of the global dance community. It’s been one of those events that has, certainly as far as the UK is concerned, stopped a generation in its tracks, illustrating how time has moved on and reminding us that we’re all getting older – the rise of House music in the mid-late ’80s plunging, in a moment, into ever-distant history, its founder DJ no longer with us.

As far as club culture is concerned, there’s no precedent to the passing of Frankie Knuckles. We’ve lost other immortals, including Larry Levan, Ron Hardy and Francis Grasso, but these were essentially underground figures in their lifetimes – it’s with hindsight that they’ve acquired wider recognition, and only then by people obsessed enough with dance music, and the cultural shifts it’s inspired, to dig deeper and learn who the innovators were. The difference here is that, with the explosion of House into mainstream consciousness back in the day, the name Frankie Knuckles became much more widely known than those mentioned above, and even people with but a passing interest in dance music were likely to have heard of him. In short, for the past quarter of a century Knuckles has been regarded as a bone-fide living legend – a DJ maestro representative of an entire culture, his death deemed front-page news by the British newspaper The Independent.

Having started out playing Soul, Funk and Disco in the mid-’70s filling in for Larry Levan, his childhood friend, at the Continental Baths, New York’s famously decadent gay bathhouse / nightspot, in 1977 he moved to Chicago to take up residency at a new club, The Warehouse, and it was here that he’d build his legend. He’d taken up the position by default, Levan having been offered the job first. However, Levan was about to embark on his own journey to DJ eminence as the guiding force behind NYC’s gamechanging Paradise Garage.

By the early ’80s the music Knuckles played at The Warehouse had gained its own category in the Chicago record shop Imports Etc, where it was racked under the shortened heading ‘House’. The seeds had been unwittingly planted for the birth of a dance music movement that continues to fill floors throughout the world to this very day – the irony being that House music (as we now define it) was never played at The Warehouse (Knuckles left in 1982, moving on to The Power Plant, whilst The Warehouse, now renamed The Music Box, hired DJ Ron Hardy, setting in motion a whole new phase for Chicago, which would serve to ensure Knuckles’ legend).

Two decades on, the city of Chicago would honour him, naming the street where The Warehouse once stood Frankie Knuckles Way, a decision backed by the then Illinois state senator, Barak Obama. Despite this, the overall appreciation for his work has been much greater in the UK, Europe and other parts of the world, than in his own country, where House music has remained largely underground.

Just a few weeks ago, Mixmag uploaded a short 7 minute film they’d put together called ‘The Origins Of House’, which features Frankie Knuckles, alongside some of his fellow Chicago legends, talking about the evolution of the music and the movement:

Famously describing House as ‘Disco’s Revenge’ in 1990, he belatedly hit back at all those who had declared Disco ‘dead’ in 1979, following on from Chicago’s infamous Comiskey Park baseball stadium record burning frenzy, a racist and homophobic outpouring of anti-Disco sentiment that had been whipped up by shock jock Steve Dahl under the banner of ‘Disco Demolition Night’.

Apart from his DJ work, Knuckles was also known for his recordings, production and remixes, charting 5 singles in the UK top 50, his most successful, ‘The Whistle Song’ in 1991, peaking at #17. The track he’ll be best remembered for wasn’t one of his own records, but Jamie Principle’s ‘Your Love’, having championed the original demo recording at The Power Plant. Knuckles not only received a production credit on the version released by the essential Chicago label Trax, but also took the artist credit by way of Frankie Knuckles Presents, Principle’s name not appearing at all. ‘Your Love’ would then take on a whole new lease of life when a spin-off mash-up that married the track with a Candi Staton acappella called ‘You Got The Love’ went huge in the underground clubs, and, via an official release in 1991 from The Source & Candi Staton, would eventually climb all the way up to #4 on the UK chart.

‘Your Love’ wasn’t a track I got to play myself until more recent times, as I’d stopped deejaying well before House exploded in Britain. I’d also missed out, first time around, on his superb downtempo remixes of Rufus & Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’ (1989) and Loose Ends’ ‘Hanging On A String’ (1992), both of which would feature in my Essential Mix in 2009.

For me, Frankie Knuckles’ last great remix was for Hercules & Love Affair in 2008, on the track ‘Blind’, which features a vocal of ethereal beauty from Antony Hegarty (of Antony & The Johnson’s). Only recently I mentioned it as the inspiration behind the mix of Joan As Police Woman’s ‘Holy City’ that I’ve just done with Derek Kaye. It’s certainly one of my favourite dance tracks of the past decade, and I link it here in personal tribute to its remixer, the lyrics of the song all the more poignant in the context of his passing:

The final Frankie Knuckles gig, just 2 days before he died, was fittingly in the UK at the Ministry Of Sound, the London superclub inspired by the Paradise Garage, home of his old friend (having succumbed to his heroin addiction in the late ’80s, it was at the Ministry Of Sound that Larry Levan embarked on a successful DJ renaissance during the year prior to his death in 1992).

Whilst his physical presence will be greatly missed by family, friends and fans, Frankie Knuckles’ spiritual presence shines on, not only in the music he made and the music he played, but through the music of countless others who continue to draw their inspiration from the worldwide movement he originated, all those years ago, at 206 South Jefferson Street, Chicago.

Frankie Knuckles Wikipedia:

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13 Responses to Frankie Knuckles

  1. Steve Brook April 4, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    With you all the way about Hercules & Love Affair remix Greg – I stumbled upon it whilst watching Frankie’s Red Bull Lecture on line and was immediately transfixed by the music & lyrics – There’s a joyful sadness about the track that hits home even more after hearing the news of Frankie’s passing

  2. Tim Aldiss (@timaldiss) April 4, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

    Fantastic tribute Greg, and as usual I always learn so much from your writing

  3. Jason Hunter April 4, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    Hi Greg,
    Thanks for another fine tribute to a great man. I think he produced some great work as Directors Cut recently with Eric Kupper. My personal fave being’ Get over you’ Thanks for the music Frankie.

  4. dommandrell April 4, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

    Hi Greg – as ever, erudite and on-point. Frankie literally changed the industry. I wrote him a little tribute which I posted originally on our Inner Rhythm London page on FB on the day of his passing. I’ll post again here as it encapsulates, for me at least why he was so important.

    ‘There are many people that make great records but not many that can say those records changed the direction of an industry and helped spawn a whole new genre of music. Yesterday we lost one such person. Frankie Knuckles was a key foundation stone in the ‘house that jack built’. Without his contribution to music my life would have been considerably less rich and I know I am not alone. House music today is a genre that reverberates around the world, entertaining, enriching and uplifting hundreds of thousands of souls every weekend and has done for nearly 30 years. The thing that makes Frankie so special in the canon is although his production, sound and beats were undeniably modern he allied it to a timeless vocal sound. Hear someone singing on a Frankie Knuckles record and you get strains of gospel, soul and blues and deep, deep emotions. Your never far from the pain and the love and the glory in his music. To that end he followed in a grand tradition of american soul balladeers and innovators that stretches from the first stirrings of dustbowl blues right up to modern day jazz, soul and glittering house. His signature, deeply emotional sound is often imitated but rarely bettered. To define it from the rest of house music it has even spawned a sub genre – deep house – Your feet maybe moving, but there are butterflies in your heart, or tears in your eyes, sometimes both at the same time. Yesterday we lost a grand master. RIP Frankie’

  5. Dan Stretch April 4, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    Nice tribute G! After I’d heard that he had passed, which was a real shock! I then thought to myself.. I bet Greg is writing a blog post about this sad news. I then remembered how upon arriving at your house a few years back we immediately went into your studio “Have you heard this Dan?” You then played ‘Blind’ .. at full blast! and I was blown away! Sadly I never heard Frankie DJ, but this was a ‘moment’!

  6. Jason Clark April 4, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    As always well said mate. Hope to see you soon!

  7. Claire H April 4, 2014 at 7:44 pm #

    Thank you Greg. Will and I are having our own Friday night disco in memory of.. Big love. See you soon. X

  8. DJ Travis Mac April 4, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

    Thank you for this tribute Greg!

  9. pete0161 April 4, 2014 at 11:01 pm #

    Thank you Greg for the insight and tribute – see you soon

  10. Mike Soflondon April 4, 2014 at 11:56 pm #


  11. Chris April 6, 2014 at 12:16 pm #

    The tribute last night was something else Greg, thanks for giving us Brummies a great gig 🙂

  12. Silky April 22, 2014 at 5:14 pm #

    Great tribute Greg. Although you got his name wrong. His real name is Frankie Warren Knuckles Jnr.

  13. MEP May 4, 2014 at 2:22 am #

    Nowadays DJs only get around two or three hours to play so they can’t really afford twenty minutes to play a record that you really, really love.

    Twenty years on I still remember the Knuckles playing tracks that you truly loved for around twenty minutes. It was a real moment in time, dubs, into vocals, and back into dubs, a craft that Frankie Knuckles could play a record in a way – to extend it himself.

    First time I saw Frankie play was in 1992. I was sixteen years old and to go to the Ministry of sound in them days was like you was going to MECCA (the dance music version at least) I was luckily enough to knock around with elder peers who shared the same taste in music and love of partying/raving so the good times proper rolled.

    Some people love the ministry some people hate the ministry. I LOVE IT. I don’t frequent it as much now like I once used to BUT the box in that club is one of the best places to dance in the whole wide world. The sound system and the lights are phenomenal. Justin Berkmann who is a personal friend certainly knew what he was doing when he teamed up with James Palumbo as it was the english equivalent to the ‘Paradise Garage’ in it’s hey day. Justin lived in New York in 1986, and started to DJ. After visiting the Paradise Garage and having many a good night in there. After the closing of the club in 1987, Justin moved back to London and the rest is history……but that’s another story.

    Justin used to book the Knuckles and all the other US House heavyweights and they would play mammoth sessions. I remember one night at ‘Rulin’ Frankie came on at 2am in the morning and did not leave the decks till midday on Sunday. He ROCKED IT! He took us to church, he took us back in time, we travelled on the soul train, he took us on a 10 hour spiritual journey and the most amazing thing was when everyone was walking out into the daylight into the Elephant and Castle. Everyone was still up for it so it was on to a pub nearby where there was some decks and some DJs who were more then willing to carry on the party because Frankie Knuckles had done the business and we were all still in that bubble of Frankie Knuckles joy and remembering the tuneage he’d laid down. Fuck work Monday we were all one we’d just had the most amazing hours of our life so it made perfect sense to crack on.

    Because that’s what Frankie Knuckles did. He told a story, he took you on a journey and you didn’t want to leave the floor even if you were dying of thirst because he knew what to play and how to keep you there. I call it a love story when I first saw him play as I became obsessed and because I knew certain people I got to meet him on numerous occasions and I’ll never forget what he said to me once when I got a chance to speak to him as he always used to laugh at me as I always to dance with my eyes closed and sing my ass off (still do now) and he said to me I love watching the JuJu cast a spell over you and everyone so I laughed and said “Ha ha the JuJu….what voodoo magic on the dance floor” and he said the following.

    “One of the greatest things about being a DJ is not just turning people on to something but that moment in the evening when the JuJu comes into the room and that JuJu is magic when the whole room comes together until it becomes one. At that particular point your better off stepping to the back of the booth because the records are playing themselves. It’s all magic and at that particular point you can do stuff like mixing one track for twenty minutes and you can go in and out of the records and the dance floor goes crazy each time it comes back. At the end of the night when everyone leaves the dance floor that’s the one song that everyone will remember, it’s the song that they’re singing, and then they’re beating themselves to a record shop to buy it and that’s what’s missing nowadays.”

    And you can’t deny he’s right. That is what used to happen. And that is why he was my favourite DJ and he’s also the DJs DJ. He was and is a LEGEND. The word legend gets banged about far, far too often these days BUT this gentleman with one of the greatest smiles in dance music and one of the most loveliest and humble personalities was and is truly a legend.

    I still can’t believe he’s passed and that is why it’s taken me awhile to put my thoughts and feelings down about his sudden death. However, RIP – Francis Warren Nicholls Junior aka Frankie Knuckles affectionately known as ‘The Knuckles’ commonly known as The GODFATHER of House. You blessed and enriched my life and many, many others and you’ve left a legacy that will live on for many, many years to come so all I have to say is……………



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