Dance music fans poured onto social media late Monday night, hoping that reports of the death of house music legend Frankie Knuckles, 59, were an impossibly cruel April Fool’s hoax. Sadly, his passing has been confirmed by the Chicago Tribune, which thus far reports only that Knuckles “died unexpectedly at home.”
Knuckles was known to all as the Godfather Of House, a title bestowed because of the music style he popularized as a young DJ at Chicago’s Warehouse, a club mostly patronized by black and Latino gay men. That style would soon come to dominate dance floors, radio waves, and pop charts all over the world.
More on Knuckles’ early days from Complex Music:
Knuckles was born in the Bronx in 1955, and became a disco DJ in the early 1970s, spinning with childhood friend and garage pioneer Larry Levan at the Continental Baths. In 1977, the Warehouse nightclub opened in Chicago, and Knuckles moved to the city to become its premier DJ. As legend has it, the music Knuckles would spin at “The Warehouse” became extremely popular among his regular clubgoers, who would then go to record stores to request “house” music—music spun at “The Warehouse.” What Knuckles would spin evolved into its own genre, as producers used drum machines to produce less expensive version of popular dance styles. Knuckles would also begin to do his own edits, lengthening disco tracks to make them work better for a dance floor. The Warehouse became the crucible of a genre that would conquer the world and can still be heard on radio stations to this day.
Beginning in the early 90s, in addition to his own popular releases, Frankie Knuckles lent his golden touch to dozens of club remixes, many of which became classics separate from the original pop singles. In gay and straight clubs around the world, it was a rare night that did not feature at least one (and sometimes several) Frankie Knuckles remixes. Pet Shop Boys, Sounds Of Blackness, Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson, Alison Limerick, Toni Braxton, Lisa Stansfeld – all of them and many more earned dance floor hits via those remixes with his trademark piano runs. At the height of his fame during those years, Frankie Knuckles was even name-checked on Absolutely Fabulous.
In 2004 Chicago named a street for Knuckles near the former location of the Warehouse.
A PERSONAL REMEMBRANCE: Shortly after I moved to NYC in the spring of 2001, I found myself alone as the packed Roxy wound towards the conclusion of its Saturday night. As I leaned on a railing above the dance floor to again ponder my decision to move across the country to a town where I only knew a handful of people, the DJ dropped the needle on the Frankie Knuckles classic The Whistle Song – a track that always did and always will evoke in me a contradictory sense of joy and melancholy – and probably the last song I needed to hear during that moment of self-pitying loneliness in a crowded nightclub. I stood up straight, eyes closed, and clutched the rail tighter, overwhelmed with images of the lost men with whom I’d twirled to that song across the dance floors of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach. An older man nearby read my face and leaned over to cup a hand to my ear. Motioning to the dance floor, he half-shouted, “With such gorgeous music in the world, how can ANYBODY be unhappy?” Then he bounded alone onto the floor and began to twirl. As I walked out of the Roxy a few minutes later, still smiling, I vowed that one day I would tell that story to Frankie Knuckles, if I were to ever meet him. About one year later, I got that chance.
VIDEO: The below promotional clip scarcely does justice to the full 12″ version, but hey, Frankie is in it.
MORE RECENTLY: I took this photo at Furball in April 2012. Frankie was chatting in between tracks with my pal and the event’s promoter Joe Fiore. I wanted a shot for the blog so I teased Frankie to “do something DJ-y.” He dramatically extended one hand to pinch a knob on his console and we all cracked up.