Frankie Knuckles: DJ and producer whose work at the Warehouse club in Chicago made his name as 'the Godfather of House'
Wednesday 02 April 2014
The blend of hypnotic beats, yearning vocals and infectious melodies Frankie Knuckles pioneered in the mid-eighties might have been called "House Music" after the Warehouse club in Chicago where he played, but the New York-born DJ, producer and remixer relished calling it "disco's revenge".
In July 1979, he had witnessed the "Disco Demolition Night" stunt organised by the radio DJ Steve Dahl in which hundreds of disco albums and 12in singles were blown up at Comiskey Park, the home of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. "It didn't mean anything to me or my crowd," Knuckles later reflected. "But it scared the record companies, so they stopped signing disco artists and making disco records. So we created our own thing in Chicago to fill the gap."
Drawing on his earlier experience playing the lushly-arranged records from the Philadelphia International and Salsoul labels in New York establishments like the Continental Baths and the Paradise Garage alongside his friend Larry Levan, Knuckles began creating extended, exclusive mixes of his favourite R&B and dance tracks on reel-to-reel tape to replay during his marathon sets at the Warehouse. These proved so popular that other Chicago clubs and bars began replicating his efforts and advertising the fact that they too played "House Music".
In 1983 Knuckles introduced other components into the mix, including electronic keyboards and a drum machine he had bought from Derrick May, the originator of the Detroit techno scene, and continued experimenting inside the DJ booth at the Power Plant, the new Chicago club where he was now resident. The falsetto singer Jamie Principle brought him "Your Love", a track they developed into a fully-fledged, groundbreaking anthem, partly based on an Italian disco record, "Feels Good (Carrots And Beets)" by Electra. "I wanted it to sound as big and beautiful and timeless as Philly. We did it on a four-track but it sounded big," said Knuckles of "Your Love''.
The track circulated on acetates and proved so popular in the Chicago area that in 1987 it was issued without permission by Trax Records, the local label which had released Marshall Jefferson's "Move Your Body'' the previous year. "Your Love'' would eventually make the British charts in 1989, the year it formed the basic of another dance anthem, "You Got The Love'', credited to The Source featuring Candi Staton, and subsequently revived by Florence and the Machine in 2008.
Knuckles would remix The Source and get better at handling his affairs with the help of his business manager, Frederick Dunson, but when he visited Britain for the first time in June 1987, he didn't even think he needed to secure a work permit. Still, he DJ-ed at the Delirium nights at Heaven, the club under London's Charing Cross station, every Thursday for four months, and laid the groundwork for much of what followed as the UK latched on to House Music after the success of "Love Can't Turn Around'' by Farley "Jackmaster" Funk featuring Darryl Pandy, the first house record to make the Top 10.
Forging an agreement in 1989 with FFRR, the dance imprint run by the influential English DJ Pete Tong, enabled him to licence the haunting "Tears'', credited to Frankie Knuckles presents Satoshi Tomiee – a classically-trained pianist and programmer – and Robert Owens, a soulful Chicago vocalist, another landmark release in the convoluted history of house music.
In the summer of 1991 Knuckles reached the British Top 20 with his dreamy, insanely catchy, Erik Satie-like signature tune, "The Whistle Song''. "All the programmers I worked with were classically trained musicians," he said. "I was teaching them a different side of what they do, infusing certain ideas like Debussy-esque piano over a very thick house track or bass line. That blew their minds. It blew mine, too. We didn't know if it would work or not, but it did."
Knuckles scored a rich run of summery club hits under his own name, including "Rain Falls'' featuring Lisa Michaelis in 1992, "Too Many Fish'', and "Whadda U Want (From Me)'' featuring Adeva, in 1995, the year he remixed "Power Of Love/Love Power'' for Luther Vandross as well as Janet Jackson's "Because Of Love'' and Michael Jackson's "Scream'' in partnership with his friend David Morales, with whom he had formed Def Mix Productions. Indeed, Knuckles was a nonpareil remixer, reinventing Depeche Mode's "Wrong'' and Whitney Houston's "Million Dollar Bill'' for the dancefloor and creating the definitive version of "Blind'', Hercules and Love Affair's introductory hit in 2008.
Born Francis Nicholls in 1955, he began DJing while studying textile design at New York's Fashion Institute Of Technology. He took pride in featuring a wide cross-section of music, which endeared him not only to the mainly gay clientele of the Warehouse, but to the much bigger crowds he would entertain around the world as DJ culture took hold in the nineties. The hype and the ludicrous fees and star treatment he could command left him unmoved.
"As DJs, we're the conduits, we're the go-between for where the music comes from and getting it to the people who enjoy it the most," he insisted. "The minute you think you're greater than the music, you're finished."
In August 2004, the city of Chicago, encouraged by Barack Obama, then Illinois state senator, renamed a stretch of street, including the former location of the Warehouse, the Frankie Knuckles Way. In 2000 Knuckles broke his right foot while snowboarding in Switzerland but didn't follow his doctor's advice to take a year off from DJing to recover as he couldn't afford to.
Exacerbated by late-breaking diabetes, he developed a bone disease that led to the amputation of the foot in 2008. But he kept up a busy schedule and had played London's Ministry of Sound at the weekend before returning home to Chicago where he died from complications related to his diabetes.
Francis Nicholls (Frankie Knuckles), DJ, producer and remixer: born New York 18 January 1955; died Chicago 31 March 2014.
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