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The unexpected sudden loss of Frankie Knuckles on March 31 – two days after he’d played a last  stellar set at his favourite Ministry Of Sound – hit the dance music community hard and inspired the kind of torrential grief which greets music’s biggest names. Frankie was house music’s James Brown or Phil Spector; a gamechanger who, along with Chicago’s other pioneering DJ Ron Hardy (its Hendrix), laid down the templates and defined the positive spirit which he carried until the end.

It’s a testament to Frankie’s principles that he would rather retire from making records rather than bow down to the trance monster which seemed to be consuming his baby for the sake of big bucks in the late 90s. And in the 21st century he certainly wasn’t about to get sucked into the EDM atrocities being perpetuated in the name of the music he named with his nights at Chicago’s Warehouse in the early 80s. Frankie never went to Vegas and if he did he wouldn’t have budged an inch for jugglers or a poncey light fountain. Terry Farley’s beautiful tribute in The Guardian describes him working his usual magic on the Ministry Of Sound just two days before he left the planet – the same place I’d seen him do the same for around ten hours straight back in 1990. Sitting down with a big bucket of Kentucky Fried chicken next to him, slowly building through Salsoul classics, Chicago anthems and the latest spiritually-inclined house music then coming out of New York, where he had recently started that immortal run of Def Mixes. The following year he made the UK top ten with ‘The Whistle Song’ and we spoke on the phone then met up when he next came to London. He was immensely friendly with the best smile, willingly signing my original DJ International copy of the four-track Frankie Knuckles’ Ultimate Production EP, which had really announced his arrival in 1987 (after he’d been playing them on reel-to-reel for a couple of years). Recorded with immensely underrated singer Jamie Principle, the songs on it were the panting Prince-like ‘Baby Wants To Ride’, mischievous ‘Bad Boys’, exquisitely lamenting ‘Cold World’ and soaring ‘Your Love’.

Frankie could have retired then as these luminescent anthems soundtracked the UK acid house explosion, along with the following year’s production of the Nightwriters’ ‘Let The Music Use You’, which became a summer of love call to arms. He had this rare talent for imbuing the cold machines of house music with spiritual warmth and heart-bursting euphoria, always thinking of the effect the music would have on the congregation smiling (or sometimes even crying) before him the dancefloor. A sense of the church was never far from his work, whether DJing or the way he used vocals on his recordings – impassioned, positive and often capable of bringing the masses together as one screaming, unifying entity. Crucially, this unbridled emotion was often tempered with underlying melancholy. Life was hard, whether on the street or in the heart, but on the dancefloor none of this mattered. Rather than churning out a wallet-stuffing soundtrack draped in empty props, Frankie reached back to the soulful, celebratory qualities he had cut his teeth on in his formative years when he was helping out at David Mancuso’s seminal Loft parties in early 70s New York with his friend Larry Philpott.

Born in the Bronx on January 18, 1955, young Francis Nicholls was studying textile design in New York before he started Frankie spinning soul, disco and R&B amidst the cubicle-centred hedonism of the Continental Baths, alongside Larry, who would soon change his surname to Levan. While Larry stayed in New York to start the Paradise Garage, Frankie relocated to Chicago, opening at the Warehouse in 1977. After 1979’s ceremonial burning of disco records by meatheads in a Chicago football stadium killed the genre in the business, Frankie started developing the new strain which evolved into house music as he defiantly played his Salsoul anthems. His nights became so successful a local record shop started a Warehouse section, which was soon abbreviated to House.

Frankie continued at the Warehouse until 1982 when he started the Power Plant (as homaged by producer Chip E on 1986’s ‘Jack Me Frankie’). While Ron Hardy pushed nascent acid house to the outer limits of sonic experimentation at the Music Box, Frankie explored expanding on the disco anthem in a more traditional fashion, soothing the savage soul with gospel vocals and religious keyboards. But although the two DJs are often painted as diametrically opposed, they were both aiming to create the same spiritual unity and catharsis on the dancefloor rather than push themselves as the preening rock stars so prevalent today.

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It was a logical move for Frankie to make his own records. Chip E took Frankie into the studio that same year to record his first release ‘You Can’t Hide From Yourself’ for DJ International. After buying his first drum machine from Detroit techno innovator Derrick May, he started using it in his DJ sets to extend songs while recording the afore-mentioned tracks with Jamie Principle.  He sold the same songs to rival label Trax, which released them as two 12-inch singles. The fallout sent Frankie back to New York and most high-profile stage of his career, while 1987 also saw him respond to the UK’s demand for house by spinning at London’s Delirium club.

Frankie’s New York peak started in 1989 with all-time classic anthem ‘Tears’, recorded with Robert Owens (to my mind, the greatest soul singer of all time) and Satoshie Tomie, boasting a depth of emotion rarely found in dance music. A the time I was working at the Tommy Boy offices in New York putting together a monthly magazine called Dance Music Report. The guy working on accounts at the next desk was called Eric Kupper, who was always knackered as he’d been in the studio all night supplying the lustrous keyboards for Frankie and David Morales on the immortal Def Mixes they were working into the most desired item on any record company’s remixer shopping list, transforming the most meager fluff into elegant, soulful club statements. But some great records came out of this time, including Electribe 101’s ‘Talking With Myself’ and Alison Limerick’s ‘Where Love Lives’. Frankie’s high profile (and very lucrative) remixing conveyor belt continued through the 90s for the likes of Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Diana Ross, Lisa Stansfield, Petshop Boys, Depeche Mode and Whitney Houston. In 1991 he released his debut album Beyond The Mix, which included ‘The Whistle Song’ and the timeless beauty of ‘Rainfalls’, which I’ve still got as a sumptuous double-pack promo (Those were the days – it was solid as a rock and surrounded one of his greatest songs with gorgeous counterparts). Frankie released his second album Welcome To The Real World in 1995 and was honoured with a Grammy in 1997.

Thanks to Illinois State senator Barack Obama, his adopted city of Chicago renamed the stretch of Jefferson Street where the Warehouse had stood Frankie Knuckles Way on August 25 2004 (now Frankie Knuckles Day). He was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2005. Frankie spent his last years traversing the world’s DJ circuit after retiring in the face of trance and other facile dncefloor trends (only releasing 2004’s A New Reality album). He never stopped believing that the dancefloor should be a haven for the gay and mixed race crowds he started off playing to along with anybody looking for something a bit deeper than false, canned whoopee. It took the relentless pestering of New York’s Hercules & Love Affair in 2008 to bring Frankie back into the studio to apply the Def Mix magic to their ‘Blind’ single.

Frankie developed diabetes in the mid-2000s having already contracted a bone disease after breaking several metatarsals in his right foot while snowboarding in Switzerland in 2003. He continued DJing against doctors’ orders and had his foot amputated in July 2008. After getting back from the Ministry date, he died at home in Chicago, it’s said from complications relating to diabetes.

Predictably, tributes flowed about his immeasurable contribution to music, the most heartfelt coming from those who knew him. Chicago house legend K’Alexi Shelby, who befriended Frankie as a teenager and went on to carve his own  unique place in the house pantheon as master of the steamy sex-groove, thought the initial announcements of Facebook were an April Fool’s. A phone call from his friend Joe Smooth told him it wasn’t. K’Alexi was still welling up when I talked to him the following Thursday, remarking, “My friend just died. It’s just so unreal to know that he’s just gone like that, taken away with no warning. He was my mentor. It’s a really sad thing. I love him and I miss him. I wasn’t ready for him to go and the world wasn’t ready for him to go. It’s just unbelievable.”

Having revelled in Frankie’s records since 1987, watched him work his unique magic on crowds and had the pleasure of meeting him just a few times it’s only now starting to sink in that he’s gone and how much he gave dance music. A world without the Godfather of House seems unthinkable, even if his baby had long ago been shafted enough by the greedy and clueless to drive him back to DJing. In the current climate stoked by projects such as Terry Farley’s marvellous boxset, the time would certainly have been right for Frankie to have returned brandishing his elegantly Classic sound, although he himself seemed happy with the way things turned out, as he said in the Liquid Vinyl film a couple of years back.

“It’s not that I can’t do anything else, why would I want to do anything else? Because there might be a day when it’ll all stop, and I’m sure that day’s gonna come sooner or later and when it does I’m not gonna have any regrets about it. I’ve given.”

Words: Kris Needs

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