RIP: Frankie Knuckles

Posted April 1, 2014 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Famed remixer and Chicago house deejay reportedly dead at the age of 59

Known to the masses as the “Godfather of House Music” and a giant in the world of dance music culture, Frankie Knuckles died March 31 at the age 59, according to various media sources and outlets. It was reported on Consequence of Sound, Complex and ultimately shared on Rolling Stone, silencing the rumor of a April’s Fool prank and giving the story its validity.

Knuckles was born Francis Nicholls in the Bronx and began working on the side as a deejay at the famed Continental Baths alongside Larry Levan. When Levan went to pioneer the sets at the discotheque Paradise Garage in the late-’70’s, Knuckles made his move to Chicago to shepherd music activities at the Warehouse Club. Knuckles made a name for himself as one of the great mixers at the famed gay black club. Rather than playing the Top 40 of disco, Knuckles relied on deep cuts and often-overlooked tracks like Cheryl Lynn’s “You Saved My Day” and Positive Choice’s “We Got the Funk” to establish himself as an artisan in the disco world. Eventually the popularity of the Warehouse would draw more straight, white audiences, attracting music labels like Salsoul to work his magic on their lesser-known hits. His first great task was turning Salsoul’s “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice into a special remix in 1983 as the label pursued the idea of giving the popular club track another lease on life. The end result, along with Shep Pettibone’s mix, elevated Knuckles’ profile and gave him the opportunity to showcase his honed style of “house.” The term, named after the famed Warehouse club, would ultimately evolve into a large variety of showcases but was usually dominant with the use of loud handclaps, drum machines and tribal percussion showcases, while remaining committed to authentic disco’s four-on-the floor rhythms. The style dominated Knuckles’ sets, influencing many DJs in the area to copy his style.

One night in 1981, Knuckles was driving around Chicago’s South Side with a friend when he saw a sign in a bar window stating, “We play house music.” “What’s house music?” Knuckles asked. “It’s that shit you be playing down at the Warehouse,” his friend replied. The moniker “Godfather of House Music” came with the territory. Eventually he left the Warehouse in late 1982 to open up his own venue, The Power Plant. He would remain there until 1988.

Important to the Knuckles’ bio is his leap into album productions and his yearning to establish himself as an artist. He forged a musical partnership with Prince-obsessed singer Jamie Principle. The pair’s music (“Your Love,” “Baby Wants to Ride”) was released to regional markets and discotheques on the indie local label Trax Records without their permission, but gave them their shot at fame.  Chicago’s Chip E. helped produce Knuckles first recording, “You Can’t Hide,” which featured the vocals of pre-gospel singer/choir director Ricky Dillard. Eventually as house music mushroomed, so did Knuckles work. He landed residencies at clubs in London’s Delirium and New York’s Roxy and Sound Factory. His resume thickened with credits on 12-inch mixes for Michael Jackson (“Rock With You,” “Scream”), Luther Vandross (“Power of Love/Love Power”), Lisa Stansfield (“Change”) Sounds of Blackness (“The Pressure”) and Eternal (“Good Thing”). At the height of house music, Knuckles got a chance to sign with Virgin Records in 1991, releasing his biggest hit to date, “The Whistle Song.” He also managed to work up a strong partnership with manager Judy Weinstein and DJ David Morales, ultimately forming Def Mix Productions. Their work outlined much of Knuckles’ latter work.

In 1997, Knuckles won a Grammy Award for Remixer of the Year, Non-Classical.

Years afterwards while attempting to go snowboarding in Switzerland, he wound up suffering an injury on his right foot. The injury, developing the bone disease osteomyelitis. along with Type II diabetes caused doctors to ultimately amputate his foot. The amputation didn’t slow up his work. 2008’s “Blind” by Hercules & Love Affair dropped, re-establishing his name on the club circuit and music festival scene. At first, DFA co-executive Jonathan Galkin thought that the veteran would be too risky of a move for their record. “Is he gonna get it? He’s a main room remixer a lot of times,” says Galkin. “So going to that guy for our indie leftfield disco record? He knocked it out of the park.”

Knuckles recently teamed up with his longtime keyboardist Eric Kupper for a soulful re-creation of Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” for her 2013 best-selling Love to Love You Donna mix album. Before succumbing, Knuckles tweeted that he was on his way to London to play at the Ministry of Sound club, and then he posted this:

Immediately when the news of his unfortunate passing flashed across social media, music artists touched by his legacy and art all shared their stories.

David Morales, DJ:
“I am devastated to write that my dear friend Frankie Knuckles has passed away today. Can’t write anymore than this at the moment. I’m sorry.”

Candi Staton, disco/R&B singer (“Young Hearts Run Free”):
“I heard that Frankie Knuckles passed away. I really hope it is a hoax. What a great DJ. He’s partly responsible for ‘You Got the Love’ and last year he remixed ‘Hallelujah Anyway.'”

Escort, 21st century disco band:
“RIP Frankie Knuckles. No words.”

Rochelle Fleming, former lead singer of First Choice (“Let No Man Put Asunder,” “Doctor Love”): “I am at a complete loss of words on the passing of my dear friend Frankie Knuckles. He was one of the first DJ’s to bring First Choice’s music to Chicago. He did wonderful remixes and always treated me like House Music Royalty. He is one of the reasons why I love the people of Chicago so much. I will miss him dearly!”

Ann Nesby, former singer of Sounds of Blackness:
“I have a heavy heart at the loss of ‪#‎FrankieKnuckles‬ who contributed to my success in the Dance genre – ‪#‎ThePressure‬ — My prayers go up to his family, friends, and all who found joy in his gift. – Ms. Ann.”

Exposé, ’80’s pop/dance freestyle group (“Point of No Return,” “Come Go With Me”):
“Our condolences go out to the friends and family of Frankie Knuckles…We’ll miss you Frankie.. And remember you with every beat of our hearts.”

Chaka Khan, r&b/funk legend (“Ain’t Nobody,” “I Feel for You”):
Blown away by the passing of the Godfather of House Music @FKAlways. He’s remixing Heaven now. Love Always.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


Be the first to comment!

Leave a Response


Please support HIFI Magazine
By clicking any of these buttons you help our site to get better