Thunder Picks #037 – In Memory Of Frankie Knuckles


As you all undoubtedly know by now, Frankie Knuckles passed away earlier this week and since then, there has been remarkable, global outpouring of love and respect, the likes of which I don’t believe we have ever seen before for someone involved in House Music.

Frankie was the Godfather of House Music. He helped create some of the most pivotal records of our time, he touched the souls of people who had never met, and made an indelible mark on the lives of those that he did meet, if only briefly.

Larger than life in every way, Frankie was a one off who made history and created legend.

The Godfather of House is an accurate description of Frankie. But a popular misconception is that he was the father of House. However he didn’t create the first House records. In fact it was the club at which he was resident at, The Warehouse, that gave its name to the genre, had long shut by the time the first House records were pressed to vinyl.

But what he did do was create the environment and the conditions that allowed House Music to be born. He sowed the seeds and without his contribution it may never have happened and it certainly would not have taken shape in the way it did.

Growing up as regular club kid in New York and hanging out with his friend Larry Philpott (who many know better as Larry Levan) at places such as Tee Scott’s ‘Better Days’, David Mancuso’s ‘Loft’ parties, and Nicky Siano’s ‘Gallery’, where Frankie also worked, he was spending more time in nightclubs than he was in school.

Eventually he made the transition from dancefloor to booth when Tee Scott asked him to fill in at Better Days allowing Tee to take a night off. Frankie protested he could not DJ and did not even have the records, so Tee lent him his and almost by accident, Frankie became a DJ.

By this time, Larry Levan had also become an established DJ. He held down successful residencies at the Continental Baths and Reade Street, before being offered the slot at the new Super Disco, the Paradise Garage.

When he left the Continental Baths, Frankie took his place.

Things weren’t easy though, he told me “When I got there I worked… probably five days a week and there was nobody on the dancefloor in front of me. But the club didn’t give up on me, the guy that owned the place didn’t give up on me” and this proved to a formative experience for the young DJ, shaping his DJing style and honing his skills in a difficult environment, “I’m playing for a bunch of guys that are roaming around cruising in towels, but hey, one thing I knew for sure — they were listening!”

In the late 1970s, one of Frankie’s friends, Robert Williams moved to Chicago. Williams was a club goer in New York and first met Frankie and Larry when he became their juvenile officer after a late night donut-purloining incident saw them in trouble with the police. But because of their shared love of nightlife, a friendship grew.

Williams became involved in the club scene in Chicago and having found nowhere suitable to dance during his early days in the city, set up a club of his own. He had a venue, a Richard Long sound system and the foundations for what should have been a great party. But Williams was missing a DJ and to fill that void he looked east, to his hometown of New York.

He initially approached Larry. But Levan was happy with his lot at the Paradise Garage and unwilling to come Chicago. So Williams then turned to Frankie, who had no regular DJ slot as the Continental Baths had gone bankrupt that summer.

Frankie travelled to Chicago for The Warehouse’s opening party in March 1977, before agreeing to take up the residency. After an initially lukewarm reception and poor attendance, Frankie slowly started to establish a reputation for himself in the Chicago disco scene. The dancers began to come and the parties at The Warehouse really took off.

The New York disco sound underpinned Frankie’s set: songs, orchestration, and big studio production. But something happened during his time at The Warehouse. As he became integrated into the Chicago scene, his slick New York musical style began to meld with the more electronic synth pop and post-punk new wave styles championed by the likes of Herb Kent on his ‘Punk Out’ radio show and by the ‘Hot Mix 5 on their hugely influential WBMX show.

This style of music was also favoured by many of the younger, often straight, kids that were beginning to attend The Warehouse parties, as well as their own regular haunts like The Playground. At this venue, a young DJ by the name of Jesse Saunders played alongside Hot Mix 5 DJ, Farley Keith Williams, or Farley Jackmaster Funk, as he was later to become better known.

Frankie was increasingly mixing this more modern music by the likes of Skatt Brothers, Yello, and Gino Soccio, with what was becoming one of his trademarks: the re-edit.

Frankie had been schooled in the discos of New York, where pioneering DJs such as Walter Gibbons had started using two copies of the same record to extend rhythmic break sections to work their dancefloors into a frenzy. This in turn saw the development of remixes by Gibbons, friend Larry Levan, and mentor Tee Scott, that took short album tracks and transformed them into longer, percussion driven tracks designed for the dance-floor.

Frankie’s edits were essentially a lower cost, more rudimentary, extension of this idea; a halfway house between live mixes and remixes, using spliced sections of tape to extend drum breaks and loop particular lyrical refrains. With the help of his friend and sound engineering student, Erasmo Rivera, Frankie rebuilt popular records, stretching out the percussive elements, making them more in keeping with the modern electronic music, which he now played alongside. This allowed him to tease his dancers with looped snippets of tracks the dancers felt they knew, building the anticipation and tension, before satisfying their need by hitting them with the song they knew and wanted.

One could argue that these re-edits were actually the first House records, and soon the original versions of many of these tracks, along with the new electronic music Frankie was playing, started to appear on the wall of his favoured record shop, Imports Etc, with the label ’As Heard At The Warehouse’. Shop staff, like Brett Wilcotts and Chip E, began to shorten that description to ‘Warehouse Music’ and then further still to ‘House Music’.

Thus, the name was born – not to describe a specific genre of music, but more a DJing style: Frankie’s DJing style.

In 1983, Frankie left The Warehouse to set up his own club, The Powerplant and  Williams brought in another DJ to fill void Frankie left and renamed the club. That DJ was Ron Hardy and the club’s new name was the Music Box. And the hotchpotch of different records that sound-tracked those heady nights and hazy mornings at The Warehouse had already made their mark on many kids that had danced to them – kids who went on to dance to Ron, the kids who were just about to become the first wave of true House Music producers and create the music to fit the name.

Frankie eventually left Chicago in 1987, for of all places, London, where he turned up with a “steamer trunk, a foot locker full o’vinyl!”. After initially being refused entry by immigration officials he finally made it through and having only been supposed to stay for two weeks, had so much fun he stayed for four months!

He played at the Watson brother’s seminal and ground-breaking early House night Delirium at Heaven, every Thursday night, and guested at the same venue on Saturday along with spots at places like The Wag. Frankie contemplated moving to London permanently but returned to America and New York, where he was introduced to David Morales by Judy Weinstein and set up Def Mix, the hugely influential production house that shaped some of the biggest records in house music.

Frankie continued to DJ, taking up residency at the Sound Factory on a Friday with Junior Vasquez playing on a Saturday. I first heard Frankie play in the fading grandeur of the The Roxy, the infamous spot where downtown met uptown on the dancefloor in the explosion of post-disco and post-punk creatively that pushed New York to fore of the international music scene in the early ‘80s. Blondie and Andy Warhol were distant memories but Frankie was whipping it up in the booth, working the reel-to-reel and larking about with a young male friend, clearly having lot of fun!

On a personal level I didn’t meet Frankie until many years later. Well, when I say meet, I mean we Skyped each other and spoke on the phone. I was asked to interview him for Faith Fanzine and it was a mixed day. In the run-up to the interview I received numerous messages wishing me luck, which I found to be slightly unnerving. I was just interviewing a DJ, right? What could go wrong?

As it happens lots could go wrong. British Summer Time Daylight Saving played havoc with the allotted time that we were meant to speak, Skype kept cutting out but after many phone calls, text messages, emails and slightly surreal discussion about moving house with the Godfather of House while I was in my local pub, the interview was finally on.

It didn’t start well.

Frankie was a man who had given a million interviews, every gig he did, every country he visited he told, retold and retold again the story of his life, the history of house music. He no longer suffered suffer fools gladly and what’s more, he was tired. He’s been packing up his house to move all day and he wanted to go to bed.

I started with scene setting questions about the early days and his influences, and he became visibly irritated by the lack of imagination in my questioning. David Morales said this week that Frankie never raised his voice, he didn’t need to, he had a death stare! We didn’t persevere for long. Two or three questions in Frankie stopped me, “Now let me tell you something Miles…” he started before delivering a withering assessment of my questions. I thought I had blown it. But that wasn’t where Frankie was going, he implored me to talk to him as friend, as we would in a bar, and asked me to put my questions to one side. We had a 30 minute slot, we were already 10 down, but I put the questions down and we started to talk about The Roxy, New York, that trip to London. Rigid structure had gone and had been replaced by conversation.

We spoke for well over an hour after that and I had a recording of the best interview I had ever done. Probably the best interview I will ever do.

Not because of my questions but because of what Frankie had to say and where he took the conversation and when we reached the end, listening to his new track, Frankie told me we were going to become good friends.

I signed off convinced we were too. Terry Farley remarked this week how Frankie managed to make the conversation feel like it was about you and not about him. This is a skill possessed by people that know what makes people tick. It isn’t pretence.  It’s warmth. He was a person who reached out, he did it in that interview, he did it the first time he met Terry and he undoubtedly did it many others.

In one of the outtakes of that interview I asked him if people like Tee and Larry influenced what he had become musically. He answered, “Isn’t it obvious?” I guess so. And this week it’s obvious how his music has influenced so many around world the world, which might be why it’s not been an outpouring of grief so much as an outpouring of love.

That’s a pretty special thing.

Jago – I’m Going To Go (Frankye Knuckles Remix)

You wanna talk about the birth of house? You wanna talk about the influence of Italo disco? You wanna talk about the kids in Chicago took that sound and made it their own? You wanna talk outrageous Italian spelling mistakes? Well look no further than Frankye’s remix of Jago. This was one of the Frankie’s very early forays into production, this was edited at Seagrape Studios (home of every Gherkin record ever made) and was actually the work of him, Erasmo and Brett Wilcotts, who went on to set up Gherkin but also worked on other seminal proto house classics, like Alias 'Civil Defence'. If there's a record is pretty much the encapsulates the transition between disco and 'House records, and House Music. Brett old me there's a bit story about behind this record but he disappeared back into the internet ether before I got it out of him.

Unfinished Business – Out Of My Hands (Club Mix)

On the subject of records that capture the early spirit of house music, here’s another one. Essentially just a housed up cover of a minor Chicago disco hit by Omni, it has longer intro, that 4/4 kick and that’s about it. But then I suppose that’s what house was originally, an extension of disco.

My Mine – Hypnotic Tango ('87 Powerhouse Mix)

The is another Italo rework, again by Frankie, Erasmo and Brett, again at Seagrape. Not huge amount to say other than this Italo with jet plane noises remade for the dancefloors on which house music was born. This came out on Danica, the same label as the Nightwriters, and it's like listening to history.

Dancer – Boom-Boom

This relatively obscure release on Trax from 1987 showed Frankie didn’t just do songs and strings, he could jack acid with the best of them. The other side of this record (Am A Dog) is absolutely insane too.

Zeke Manyika – Love You Feel (Deep House Mix)

Zeke Manyika was the Zimbabwean drummer from Orange Juice, drumming on ‘Rip It Up’ and going onto play for The Style Council and The The amongst other. At somepoint in the late 80s a record company executive somewhere decided to launch Zeke’s solo career. And what do record companies do when they decide to do something like that? Get in a blue chip remixer. A remixer like Frankie Knuckles. Once again, Frankie turns it out, delivering slice of pure warehouse (not Warehouse), strobe light, smoke machine, string led, bass heavy genius. This record costs about 1p too.

Loose Ends – Hanging on a String (Classic reprise Mix)

Probably the best song British soul outfit Loose Ends ever recorded (with the possible exception of ‘Slow Down’) gets a comprehensive Frankie working over here – but bizarrely, this never got released so was only available on a bootleg with a straight up Club Mix on the flip. If you like Frankie’s Hallucinogenic Version of ‘Ain’t Nobody’ (and if you don’t, we’re never going to be friends, sorry), then you’ll get a good idea about the mood of this mix, downtempo, spacey, melodic music for sweat soaked slow dances with strangers. Joyous.

Saffron – Circles (Frankie Knuckles Supreme Instrumental)

Saffron was the lead ‘singer’ from N-Joi. I actually met her once, at The Dome in Tufnell park and she tried to get me wear an N-Joi sticker… Anyway, this was another major label “Let’s get Frankie in to do the sow’s ear/silk purse thing” and once again he produced the goods. The Dub Mix is good too and apparently a big record in New York, although I’ve plumped for this version because it reminds me late nights in bedroom, sifting through b-side I hadn’t listened too and being gobsmacked by this. How deep is this production? I don’t mean deep house deep, but depth of quality and finesse. Truly beautiful.

Sounds of Blackness – The Pressure, part 2 (Unreleased Mix)

Now we’re getting down to the really serious stuff. This version was never released but was THE 6am Sound Factory mirror ball version. There isn’t much more to say than it is complete and utter perfection.

Double Exposure – My Love Is Free (Knuckledusted Remix)

When Beechwood licensed the Salsoul catalogue for their Mastercuts series in the early 1990s they also commissioned a remix project with all the US house stars of the time providing their take on a Salsoul classic. Frankie plumped for one of the most wonderful disco records of all time and you know what? He nailed it. Stick with it, the last few minutes soar.

Gallifre – Don’t Walk Out On Love (Club Remix)

Frankie and Brett Wilcotts again on my favourite label. This is just wonderful timeless music. Frankie’s Dream Mix is even better but not on youtube. Takes me away…

Swing Out Sister – Not Gonna Change (Mix of Drama)

I remember there being quite fuss about this record when it came out but hadn’t heard it for years until I pulled it on Tuesday morning. I think this is one of those records where Frankie’s disco grounding shines through, the soaring strings, the arrangement, the drama. Like the lady sings though, nothing lasts forever…

Thank you Frankie and I hope you’re having fun skipping school with Larry and hanging out with Ron watching Tee “shake that big butt” in the bathhouse in the sky.

Miles Simpson