An American music pioneer died yesterday. Chances are you never heard of him. His name was Frankie Knuckles and he was the Godfather of House Music.
Knuckles was at the forefront of what drove dance music from the mid 80's on. He spinned at the legendary Warehouse in Chicago in the late '70s and and the Power Plant in the '80s as dance music was picking up the pieces after the death of Disco. Over the years he produced such influential tracks as “Tears,” “Your Love,” “The Whistle Song” and “Rain Falls.” His remixes ranged from the club classic “Closer than Close” by Rosie Gaines to the amazing “Where Love Lives” by Alison Limerick to Lisa Stansfield's “Change” (she included two of his remixes on her Greatest Hits) to Toni Braxton's “Unbreak My Heart” to giving Whitney Houston one last dance number with “Million Dollar Bill” in 2009. The artists he remixed are the royalty of R&B: Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson and Diana Ross, among others. Knuckles also collaborated with longtime friend David Morales on numerous mixes throughout the '90s under the Def Classic/Def Mix name (too many to mention). He was a living legend and it was fitting that Knuckles was won the first ever Grammy Award for Remixer of the Year, Non-Classical in 1998.
According to reports, Knuckles passed away Monday at the age of 59. More details on what caused his death are expected later today.
Coming of age during the '90s when dance and house music exploded I had a special reverence for Knuckles. I finished my undergrad in Florida where the trance and dance club scene was shocking good (a story for another day) before moving to Los Angeles for graduate school. Whenever I returned to New York I would always hit Twilo, Tunnel, Sound Factory The Limelight and a slew of others I can barely remember. As much as I grew to love LA the dance scene was, for the most part, well, horrible. But New York in the '90s? Dear god, that was amazing. And while I was able to hear Junior (Vasquez), Morales and Danny Tenaglia all I wanted to do was be there for Frankie Knuckles. My friends didn't get it. He wasn't “gay” enough for them (even though Knuckles was actually gay), but it didn't matter. I'd always miss him. He wouldn't be in NY when I was or I'd miss a rare stopover in L.A. Who knew I'd have to travel halfway around the world to finally hear him live.
It was 1998 and I was participating in the Gay Games in Amsterdam. My basketball team, one I'd put together, was something of a disaster. Both our starting and backup point guards went down with injuries in the first game (seriously, it was a nightmare). Amazingly, we still went 7-3, but didn't make the medal bracket. That meant a lot of time to enjoy the nightlife and, frankly, Amsterdam in '98 wasn't a bad place to be. Shockingly, I discovered that none other than Frankie Knuckles was DJ'ing at a big club in the middle of the week. None of my other teammates would go (most didn't have a clue who he was), but I didn't care. I went alone, but I was hardly alone. The club was packed. The crowd was mostly locals who came to hear the legendary DJ spin (he was arguably more famous in Europe than the U.S. by that time). I couldn't tell you what tracks Knuckles played or how long his set was. But, I didn't have to get wasted and I didn't have to get high to enjoy the night. Knuckles was one of the few DJ's who could lift your spirits with the music itself. When done right house music has the power to be euphoric. Knuckles was a master of it.
In the years since I know I heard Knuckles live at least two more times. And you knew it was Knuckles. Even when he was mixing other artists or remixes his style was all his own.
Knuckles was still touring. He actually had dates booked for April. This was not expected and these are the times you wish you'd made the time to hear that artist you loved once more before they passed.
Frankie Knuckles. There is no other.
Here are some wonders from Frankie's historic career.