By Randy Crumpton, Entertainment Attorney
There’s usually a point in the evening when the room snaps. Everybody falls into step and the whole room moves to just one particular rhythm. You can just walk in off the street and see the whole room moving to a rhythm, and believe me, you can stand right by the edge of the dance floor and the rhythm of the room will move you right to the other side, or you can just stand in the middle and feel the energy, and I look at that and I say, this is good, and when it happens like that, it is good, because then the rest of the evening happens on its own, I’m just a conduit.
Frankie Knuckles was far more than a conduit. In the late 1970’s, at a small clandestine members-only Black gay nightclub on the near westside of Chicago, “The Warehouse”, Knuckles pioneered a new sound that would become known as house music, the stem cell of all electronic dance music. The Warehouse was only open one night a week, from midnight Saturday till noon Sunday. Today, Knuckles’ musical influence can be heard all around the world.
He was born Frankie Warren Knuckles, Jr., on January 18, 1955 in the Bronx, New York City. He studied commercial art and costume design. During his teens he met Larry Levan, another legendary DJ, who he started playing records with at various clubs in New York City. In 1977 Robert Williams, a former New Yorker who moved to Chicago and became a party promoter, visited Larry in New York with the intention of convincing him to become the resident DJ of the Warehouse. As luck would have it, Larry was committed to New York’s Paradise Garage and suggested his buddy, Frankie Knuckles. Frankie was the resident DJ at The Warehouse from 1977 to 1983.
By necessity, Frankie creatively blended sounds that would influence other DJs and promoters to imitate what was causing the spiritual revolution at The Warehouse. Record labels stopped making disco music and he needed something to keep his crowd on the dance floor. But in Chicago it became larger than the music. Pretty soon people were making tracks in their homes and bringing them down to the club for Frankie to play to the crowd.
Soon there were significantly more DJs, promoters, producers, artists and parties across the nation; even radio stations wanted in on the action. WBMX had “the Hot Mix 5″. All the high schools were having parties with house music DJs. There was fashion too. House music aficionados, known as “House Heads”, had their own particular sense of style; most wearing Polo, Izod, Armani and oversized Girbaud pants. House became a culture — an experience many people could not resist.
Everybody was jacking (gyrating their body). Back in the day, it was truly all about the music; no one cared how you looked or who you were dancing with or if you were dancing by yourself. People danced with the wall or the speakers. The Warehouse and other clubs and parties invited people on the dance floor and allowed you forget about what was going on outside. Frankie took you to other places so you did not have to think about your problems. He had you suspended in air for those hours you were on the dance floor. The music was freeing and uplifting. It was colorless. At the same time it was empowering. House music and the culture it created contributed to the political atmosphere in Chicago in 1983 that elected Mayor Harold Washington.
In 1983, Frankie opened the Powerplant and was the resident DJ. He began to focus more on producing and was asked by singer Jamie Principle to produce his music. One of the results of the collaboration was the 1987 classic, “Your Love”, which Mixmag declared, “the greatest house record ever made.”
In September 1987, Frankie traveled to London for what was suppose to be a 2 week DJ gig, but he ended up staying for 4 months. It was there, he decided, it was time to leave Chicago. Some “House Heads” in Chicago refused to let go of that experience they had in the their younger years. Still today, a lot of the DJs are still playing the records from the 70’s and 80’s. Frankie moved on and started producing, remixing and playing new music. London was just the beginning. As house music’s popularity grew, he started traveling all around the world. When he came back to Chicago, playing what he was playing everywhere else around the world the house music purists accused him of going commercial. Sometimes they would chant, “take us back Frankie.” Frankie refused. He wanted them to grow with him. They refused. He felt that the new music coming out was just as rich and soulful as the old music.
A few years ago he told me, “I love those old songs, I really do. I broke in a lot of those records some 30 years ago. Over time I have lost a lot of people. Many to AIDS and sometimes when I play some of those songs I immediately think about whose favorite tune that was and I get sad.”
He moved back to New York. He subsequently teamed up with GRAMMY-winning DJ David Morales and Judy Weinstein which led to the formation of Def Mix Productions. He flourished, perfecting his production and remixing skills. Frankie worked with many of the greats in the music industry such as Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Luther Vandross and the Pet Shop Boys. He released his first album in 1991, Beyond The Mix, which peaked at No. 54 on Billboard’s R&B Albums chart and featured the hit dance single, “The Whistle Song”
In 1997, Frankie won a GRAMMY for Remixer Of The Year, Non-Classical for his club mixes of songs by artists including Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, and others. “His electrifying remixes and high-energy performances on the turntables packed clubs for decades, and he inspired a generation of DJs, bringing house music to the mainstream,” said Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow.
In 2001, Frankie moved back to Chicago. He always said, “I was born and raised in New York, but I grew up in Chicago. It is Chicago where I became the person I am.” And Chicago loved Frankie Knuckles.
In 2004, I suggested to my good friend, Illinois State Representative Ken Dunkin (5th Dist.), that the street where the original Warehouse nightclub stands be named in honor of Frankie Knuckles. He agreed and immediately called former Alderman Madeline Haithcock’s (2nd Ward) office. She was on another call, but he relayed the message to her receptionist. After a few seconds, we heard “what do you know about the Godfather of House Music?” She was more than happy to play a role in honoring the man who has given the world his music, his love.
Representative Dunkin and former Illinois State Senator Barack Obama (13th Dist) sponsored resolutions honoring Frankie in the Illinois House of Representatives and the Illinois Senate, respectively. And with the help of Alderman Walter Burnett (27th Ward), a resolution was passed in the Chicago City Counsel honoring Frankie’s contributions to Chicago and the music industry and naming the stretch of Jefferson Street, between Monroe and Van Buren, “Frankie Knuckles Way”. Former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley also declared August 25, 2004, “Frankie Knuckles Day” in Chicago.
While he was a great producer and remixer, his first love was the turntables. He loved making the room snap and seeing the entire crowd move to the rhythm of just one beat. Frankie was a perfectionist: he refused to allow anything to interrupt the rhythm of his dance floor. It did not matter if he was spinning at a small bar on Chicago’s north side or a stadium overseas.
I remember after Rep. Dunkin and Senator Obama passed their resolutions, Rep. Dunkin and I drove up north to a club where he had a weekly residency to present them to him and he had his business partner and best friend, Frederick Dunson to tell us to come back next week, before he started DJing, because he did not want to stop his dance floor.
I do remember him stopping his dance floor at the House of Blues in July 2005 after the passing of his friend, Luther Vandross. Everybody was partying and without notice all the lights went out and the music stopped for several seconds, then he played his remix of Luther’s “Power of Love”. Classic Frankie. Always a class act.
I was extremely hurt by the news of Frankie’s death. I remember getting that call from Frederick on March 31, 2014, “Randy, Frankie is dead!” I rushed to his house as swiftly as I could. I was able to see the Godfather one last time — to hold his hand and kiss the top of his head, and to say, “I love you”, before they took him away.
Whether it’s house music, techno, acid house, etc., all roads lead to 206 S. Frankie Knuckles Way (Jefferson Street). After his untimely death on March 31, 2014, Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a statement saying, “Today, Chicago says goodbye to one of its most treasured cultural pioneers, Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House Music”. And the world says goodbye to a Godfather. Thank you, Godfather, for your love.