Remembrances
4:01 pm
Tue April 1, 2014

Dance Music Legend Frankie Knuckles Dies At 59

Originally published on Wed April 2, 2014 10:45 am

Frankie Knuckles, a legend in the world of dance music and one of the inventors of house music, a steady, beat-driven style played in nightclubs all over the world, died unexpectedly at his Chicago home on Monday. He was 59.

By the mid-1990s, house music was so mainstream that a song by Frankie Knuckles was played in a commercial for Lipton Iced Tea. But it wasn't always that way. Knuckles, born Francis Nicholls in the Bronx, started in the dance music underground. When he was just 18, he got a job as a DJ at a major destination for gay men — the Continental Baths in Manhattan. That's also where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow got their starts. In an interview with the BBC two years ago, Knuckles described it as a world unto itself.

"It was more than just a bath house," he said. "There was a boutique. There was an Olympic-sized swimming pool. There was a theater room. There was a salon."

And a dance floor where Knuckles worked eight-hour shifts.

"A lot of people would check in on Friday night and they wouldn't check out until Monday morning," Knuckles said. "They were on their way to work."

Knuckles' signature sets were not about explosive non-stop energy. He structured them, he once said, like stories with internal logic and a certain moody momentum.

Though he got his start in New York, Knuckles became one of the faces of dance music in another city: Chicago. He moved there in his 20s and quickly began working at a new club.

"He was the main DJ — he was the only DJ — at a club called The Warehouse," says Charles Matlock, another Chicago DJ, who spoke to NPR last year about the origins of Chicago house. "That club ended up lending its name to this genre of music."

That fact is disputed by some, but what's not disputed is that Knuckles packed the place. At first, the clubgoers at The Warehouse were mostly gay and black. Within a few years, everyone who lived to dance went there. When disco fell out of fashion, Knuckles had to create new sounds by sampling music he liked — Philadelphia soul, Motown, rare European imports. He added drum effects and used a reel-to-reel tape machine in the DJ booth to edit songs so a section looped over and over, giving dancers more time on the floor.

"I did it out of necessity," he said, "because there were no more disco records being made. Nothing with any kind of real energy."

So he created songs — songs that sometimes went on for 10 minutes or more — that remain classics. "The song 'Your Love' was probably about the year zero in the history of house music," Matlock says of Knuckles' 1987 edit of a song by Jamie Principle. "It was really one of the major shots heard 'round the world."

House spread from Chicago and Detroit to Ibiza and Berlin, and helped sweep in the drug-fueled rave culture in the U.K. in the '90s. But Knuckles was never interested in hedonism. He saw the dance floor as a sacred space. The beat united everybody there. For Frankie Knuckles, the beat was a creed.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

House music began in Chicago, and DJ Frankie Knuckles was its godfather. He was a legend in this world of electronic dance music now played in nightclubs all over the world. Knuckles died unexpectedly yesterday in Chicago. He had diabetes and he lost a foot a few years ago after a skiing accident. He was 59 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: House music is so mainstream that by the mid-1990s, this Frankie Knuckles hit single was used in a Lipton tea commercial.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHISTLE SONG")

ULABY: It wasn't always that way. Frankie Knuckles started in the underground. When he was only 18, he got a job as a DJ at a major destination for gay men: the Continental Baths in New York. That's where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow got their starts. In an interview with the BBC two years ago, Knuckles described it as a world unto itself.

FRANKIE KNUCKLES: It was more than just a bathhouse. You know, there was a boutique. There's an Olympic-size swimming pool. There was a theater room. There was a salon.

ULABY: And a dance floor. That's where Knuckles worked eight-hour shifts.

KNUCKLES: A lot of people would check in on Friday night, and they wouldn't check out until Monday morning and they were on their way to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Frankie Knuckles' sets were not about explosive, nonstop energy. He structured them, he once said, like stories with internal logic and a certain moody momentum. Knuckles was born Francis Nicholls in the Bronx. And in his 20s, before he became known as the godfather of house, Knuckles moved halfway across the country to Chicago.

CHARLES MATLOCK: Frankie had - he was the main DJ - was the only DJ at a club called The Warehouse.

ULABY: Charles Matlock is another Chicago DJ. He appeared on NPR last year to discuss the origins of Chicago house.

MATLOCK: That club ended up lending its name to this genre of music.

ULABY: That's disputed by some. But what's not is that Knuckles packed the place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR LOVE")

ADRIENNE JETT: (Singing) Don't make me wait too long. Oh, I need your touch.

ULABY: When he arrived in the 1970s, The Warehouse was mostly gay and black. Within a few years, everyone who loved to dance went there. But when disco fell out of fashion, Knuckles had to create new sounds by sampling music he liked: Philadelphia soul, Motown, rare European imports. He added drum effects and used a reel-to-reel tape machine in the DJ booth to edit sections of songs over and over, giving dancers more time on the floor.

KNUCKLES: I did it out of necessity, you know what I mean, because there were no more disco records being made, nothing with any kind of real energy.

ULABY: So he created songs, songs that sometimes went on for 10 minutes or more, that remain classics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR LOVE")

JETT: (Singing) I can't let go.

ULABY: Charles Matlock.

MATLOCK: The song "Your Love," quite honestly, was probably about the year zero in the history of house music. So it really was one of the major shots heard 'round the world.

ULABY: Knuckles' style of music spread from Detroit to Ibiza to Berlin, and it helped sweep in rave culture in the U.K. in the 1990s. But Knuckles was never interested in hedonism. He saw the dance floor as a spiritual, even sacred, space. The beat united everybody there. For Frankie Knuckles, the beat was a creed. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR LOVE")

JETT: (Singing) I can't let go. I can't let go. I can't let go.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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