Dance Music Heavyweights Remember Frankie Knuckles
Frankie Knuckles, the Godfather of House, passed away in Chicago this past March 31 from diabetes-related complications. He was 59.What follows is a collection of remembrances from DJs and industry people whose lives he touched through his influential music and deep personal connections. For those who loved Frankie’s music, we hope it inspires to you dig through the crates or dive down the YouTube rabbit hole. For those who never experienced Frankie’s magic, there’s a whole world for you to explore. Enjoy.
Not counting my on-and-off NYC club-promotion days in the late-’80s, I’ve been in this business for 20 years and Alison Limerick’s “Where Love Lives” remains my No. 1 all-time favorite tune in house music. Not surprisingly, it was Frankie Knuckles’ remix that made me fall in love with it and the genre, experiencing genuine house music in ways I’d never felt before.
It was the early-’90s after all, house had been already taking shape, and Frankie in particular was at the helm, taking the post-disco that he’d been playing since the late-’70s and turning it into a whole new four-on-the-floor-vibe. For many of his fans, colleagues, co-producers and industry folk who were so deeply affected by the live sets at Chicago’s Warehouse, NYC’s Sound Factory and Red Zone or through his many productions (“Whistle Song” with Eric Kupper), collabs (“Tears” with Satoshi Tomeii), and remixes (Inner City’s “Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’” with David Morales) and tons more, he and this thing called house would in some way shape who we were and what we’d become. Indeed, it was all life-altering for many. But that’s just what this master craftsman’s music did for us all—it literally changed lives.
Having been one of the pillars of the legendary Def Mix family for nearly 30 years, Frankie brought out the emotion of pure love for his listeners experience (without getting all hippie), with grace, quality and class. A loving soul, noble spirit, pure heart, and phenomenal talent. A man who could work a room and take people for a magical spin year after year, club after club, city after city, for decades, never losing sight of their enjoyment and what he did to bring them that joy.
Who’s here to replace Frankie Knuckles? Who will make such an impact on music and define a genre in the way he did?
He was the first person in house music to have both an honorary day and a street (in Chicago) named after him. He was the first to win a Grammy for “Remixer of the Year” in the Dance category. Upon Frankie’s passing, Elton John established the Frankie Knuckles Fund to support HIV information, testing and treatment in Africa, America and the U.K. Also, at a very moving memorial service in New York City, a condolence letter from The First Family was read.
His email address was FKALWAYS@…, and so it will remain. The Godfather of House—there will never be anyone like him.
– joeB Berinato (Kaleidosphere Recordings/Pitch Control Marketing/King Street Sounds
Eric Kupper, Director’s Cut, NYC: He was a pioneer and a leader in this community. He also championed talent when he recognized it. He did not let his ego get in the way, as many often do. In the studio, he had an amazing sense of melody and orchestration—I learned a great deal from him in that regard.
Fave Recording: It would have to be “The Whistle Song,” which was a turning point for both of our careers. Thoroughly inspired by hearing him play at the Red Zone, I wrote the rough draft and gave it to him on a cassette. He loved it and went into studio with John Poppo, and did it properly.
John Digweed, Bedrock, Hastings, U.K.: I first saw Frankie Knuckles when he played at Heaven in London for the very first time in the late ’80s—I have been a fan from the start. His mixes and productions are timeless and, when people talk about house music and where it came from, his name comes up first. His dedication to DJing spans decades and his legacy will live on forever. I had met Frankie many times and also had the pleasure to play alongside him, which was a real honor. He was always very down-to-earth and a great person to hang out with. House music has lost its founder, but the music and memories he created will always be with us.
Kerri Chandler, Madhouse Records, New Jersey: Frankie is the reason house is called house in the first place—it’s from the Warehouse in Chicago. He and David Morales are the standard for me in soulful music to reach for. He had so many ways to merge soul and electronic music and could make you sing to it. He did it with class and with style. He always did it big! Frankie would make huge and lush productions and make them seem simple. Anytime you would hear any of them, you would notice that something extra that you hadn’t noticed before. He also had amazing arrangements. Frankie always had such a rich knowledge of music and left you wanting to hear more.
Fave Recording: “Tears,” for so many reasons. The first time I heard it, I was at a Frankie gig and when he played it, I had no idea what it was and had to know. I ran into the booth and asked him. As the record was coming to an end, he mixed out of it, put the record in the sleeve and said, “Here, you can have it. It’s one of my songs—I’m glad you like it.” I gave him the biggest hug and watched him make magic in that room.
Tony McGuinness, Above & Beyond, London: He gave us all a job description. His Warehouse club gave the music a name and a church. House music is the bastard son of disco and Frankie was one of the people that enabled that birth, extending 12-inch disco mixes and gluing them together with drum-machine beats in his DJ sets and in the studio.
Fave Recording: His mix of Rosie Gaines “Closer Than Close,” a 10-minute epic with atmospheric pads and real Rhodes playing.
Tedd Patterson, Cielo, NYC: Frankie’s commitment to dance music made one of the biggest impacts in the world of music. If you even call yourself a DJ, you owe it to yourself to read the man’s life story to understand what was made possible for us through his actions. His commitment to his craft, his commitment to dance music, and to his audience will be his legacy and his strongest contribution to modern-day dance music.
Fave Recordings: Allison Limerick’s “Where Love Lives” is still amazing. Lil Louis’ “Fables” is incredible. Sounds Of Blackness’ “The Pressure” is dramatic and uplifting. To this day, I feel it the way I felt it the first time I heard him play it at Sound Factory years ago. Genius!
Barbara Tucker, BSTAR Music Group, NYC: Without even knowing it, he demonstrated integrity—as a man, as a professional and as a DJ. When the DJing stopped, the teaching began: No ego, stay humble, be a mentor and an example. He was a giver, not a taker. He honored his word. And it didn’t take his passing for even the city of Chicago to honor his name with a street sign.
Fave Recording: I love the (Director’s Cut) remix of “Get Over U” by B. Slade—I lose my mind to that.
Joey Negro, Z Records, London: Along with Larry Levan, Frankie was definitely there right as the start of DJ culture. By that, I mean the early days of an audience going to a specific club because they liked the DJ’s music selection, not because of cheap drinks or hooking up with people. It’s something we take for granted now that people go out to see a DJ. And the fact that the music he was playing at the Warehouse became known as house music—a term we still use now and for the foreseeable future—is a legacy like no other.
Fave Recording: “Tears” has a unique atmosphere and will always be my favorite. Picking a less-known piece, it would be his mix of Melanie Williams’ “Everyday Thing.”
Terry Hunter, T’s Box Productions, Chicago: Frankie set the standard and the blueprint for us to follow as how you should carry yourself as a professional, working DJ—at least for me he did. He was very important to DJing because he was one of the first to be recognized in a global way for starting a genre of music that is now respected around the world. That’s truly amazing in my eyes. His musical strength was how he spoke to his crowd. You could tell what kind of mood Frankie was in when he was DJing. When I was about 11, my cousin took me to the party on the north side of Chicago and I saw Frankie DJing. I couldn’t believe how he was seamlessly mixing songs. I sat there amazed and the crowd was going crazy, shouting Frankie’s name! I told my cousin right there, “I want to do what he’s doing.” For my next birthday, I got a mixer and that was my start.
Fave Recording: Sounds Of Blackness’ “The Pressure”—just an uplifting, heartfelt song with a powerful message that hits home.
Teddy Douglas, Basement Boys, Baltimore: Frankie was important because his DJing style and song choices, which he brought from New York to Chicago, influenced the young kids like Farley Jackmaster Funk, Hot Mix 5, Steve Hurley, Chip E, Marshall Jefferson and Larry Heard, etc. Those records in the early ’80s influenced other kids, like myself, to eventually make what the world now calls EDM. Frankie’s main contribution was influencing a generation of kids to use whatever resources available to express themselves musically. By using drum machines and synthesizers, they created a new sound. His biggest musical strength was his arrangements—I loved his arrangements.
Fave Recording: It has to be “The Whistle Song” because this was his return-to-New York theme song.
Jon Cutler, Distant Music, NYC: Frankie was a pioneer. He truly was the Godfather of House, someone who started and built a movement from introducing a sound that a lot of people weren’t familiar with. You could only respect Frankie—there was no other way. He was extremely friendly. Watching him play or seeing him hanging out at a club just made you feel good. He meant a lot to all the DJs from that era and he always supported the scene. His presence was huge.
Fave Recording: “Tears,” because I was a young teenager when I bought it and I remember the day I got it. It was a very special record with a lot of emotion. Even to this day, it moves the room.
Ultra Naté, Blufire Records, Baltimore: Frankie clearly defined a movement that was bubbling as underground dance culture in New York and Chicago. His appreciation for music of all kinds and how it translates to the dancefloor gave birth to a spiritual awakening and collective consciousness expressed through the clubs. As a DJ, producer and remixer, Frankie taught us “the art of the song,” how to build it, give it life, give it breadth and allow it to convey emotion. He taught us through his work that this is how you make music timeless. He shaped me as an artist and songwriter long before we ever met, as his music influenced so many.
Fave Recordings: I really loved the work Frankie did with Adeva back in the day, plus “It’s a Cold World,” “The Whistle Song” and his remix for Lisa Stansfield’s “Change”—all amazing timeless works for me.
Louie Vega, Masters At Work, NYC: Frankie was the highest of importance for us. He was our leader, our musical hero, an inspiration to many. He was the one we leaned on for guidance. He was a key creator of this genre of dance we call house music. As a DJ, he knew how to take you on a trip through his musical library and played songs he loved and felt you would love, which in turn we would sing on the dancefloor. He was our role model. He was the true roots of electronic dance music. He opened up so many doors to us all. He was one of the first DJs to travel the world and the first to win a Grammy. He was there at the beginning of club culture. And he knew how to make a club system sound right—just the perfect balance of bass, mids and highs and the atmosphere he created with his choice of lighting moods.
Fave Recordings: When he remixed of Lil’ Louis’ “Fable” he gave it another life. I’m still playing it as if it were brand new. Of course, I love “The Whistle Song,” “Waiting on My Angel,” “Your Love,” “Baby Wants to Ride,” “Forever Came Today” (Jackson 5 remix), “Tears,” “This Time” (Chantay Moore), “Hot Stuff (Donna Summer), “The Pressure” (Sounds of Blackness) and “Let’s Stay Home.” Even the songs he just played pulled you in, like “Where Were You” by Black Science Orchestra—that track will forever remind me of Frankie Knuckles.
DJ Memê, Def Mix, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Apart of his undeniable musical legacy, as an artist he was solid as a rock. He was not only the Godfather of House music, but also the first DJ/remixer to win a Grammy. How many DJs have a solid career for more than 40 years without ever disappearing? He broke so many barriers and opened so countless doors. He made us believe that everything is possible, that DJs are true artists.
Fave Recording: I’m a huge fan of “The Whistle Song,” but on his remix of “Sunshine” for Gabrielle, you can hear Frankie all over the place. That is the song I play whenever I want to feel him close to me.
Steve Goodgold, Windish Agency, NYC: Frankie is one of the main reasons I am even in this business. I was a DJ as a young kid, and Frankie was like a modern day rock star to me. Listening to his mixes every weekend on WBLS radio in NY was like Heaven. With reference to this business, it’s the one era in my life that I look back on with the fondest memories.
DJ Dan, InStereo Recordings, LA: Frankie made house music, but they were also “songs” that were so inspirational and motivating that everybody could relate to them. His remix of Allison Limerick “Where Love Lives” and co-production of “Tears” are perfect examples of this. In the early ’90s, I was playing techno and his tracks would make me sway my sets deeper so that I could end with “The Whistle Song.” I think it’s beautiful that Frankie’s story is being told. Since the explosion of EDM I have become concerned that this country had forgotten about the legends and tastemakers of house music and this is wonderful to see.
Fave Recording: My favorite production of Frankie’s was “Baby Wants to Ride.” It was the first house track I would hear at clubs across the board – gay, straight, commercial. It didn’t matter—that was the jam!
Danny Krivit, 718 Sessions, NYC: Frankie always seemed associated with things of quantity and great class, his productions, the music he championed and his DJ sets were very consistent. The music he played, new or old, felt classic, uplifting, and his mixing was just the right balance—powerful, yet simple. It supported the music and took you on a journey. He maintained high standards and always seem to play on sound systems with great sound. You felt like you were hearing the music under the best possible circumstances.
Fave Recording: “The Pressure” by Sounds Of Blackness. He had many others with maybe equal production value, even the heavenly vocals, but this is the one that really took you to church.
DJ Spinna, Brooklyn Bandits, NYC: Frankie’s biggest musical strength in my opinion was his ability to take songs and transform them into epic masterpieces. I loved his signature piano riffs, basslines and string arrangements. He had an appreciation for vocalists and great songs. If I had to sum up his body of work in one word it would be sophistication.
Fave Recording: “Tears” had the biggest impact on my life. It’s one of those songs that has to be played at the right moment because it’s so special. I still play it out from time to time and the dance floor always explodes. It’s quite an anthem without the typical, obvious catch-phrase chorus.
Dimitri from Paris, Yellow Productions, France: He was a very musical person. It was clear that beyond the mandatory raw beat, he was pushing music that was very rich harmonically with a strong emotional content, unlike any others. He was able to take people on long journeys through a chain of emotions rather than just enslaving their bodies to a continuous stream of relentless drum beats. From the early minimalistic days of “Your Love,” he evolved into productions that were the richest sounding and most romantic house music we ever had. He created a unique sound, suave, gentle yet powerful, that no other producer matched as of now. He had a rare ability to take you through a rollercoaster of emotions.
Fave Recording: His remix of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.” I first played it in big studio monitors and, from the first piano notes, I was taken, almost in tears. Those older disco classics are extremely tricky to remix. He managed to make it much more deeply emotional than it ever was.
Bruce Tantum, DJ, NYC: One of Frankie’s biggest (and largely unsung) roles was in helping spread the house gospel to the NYC masses via his late stint at East Village club The World in the late ’80s. House had certainly existed in New York prior to that time, but until he and co-resident David Morales began rocking the 4/4 rhythms for The World’s fabulously diverse crowd, the scene was, perhaps, a bit insular; Frankie brought the sound into the open and turned it into the city’s dance music of choice.
Fave Recording: “Only the Strong Survive.” A sort-of-version of Jerry Butler’s gospel-flavored 1968 classic, the soul-drenched cut, featuring roof-raising vocals from Ricky Dillard, captures the essence of what Frankie was all about: A jacking rhythm, gorgeous instrumentation and an ecstatic feeling.
Todd Terry, In House Records, NYC: Frankie was one of the few DJs that was more like a producer than a DJ. He knew he had to make the tracks more like songs so that house music would become relevant. He was a visionary, he saw how the music could reach beyond the clubs.
Fave Recording: The remix of “The Pressure” by Sounds of Blackness.
Terry Farley, Boys Own, London: Frankie was our generation’s link to the early golden era of disco and house music. Larry Levan, Ron Hardy, Tee Scott, etc., had all passed before our generation had a chance to hear them play.
Fave Recording: An unreleased remix of Sounds of Blackness’ “The Pressure.” That was pure Sound Factory—5 a.m., lights off with 2,000 queens stamping and hollering.
Tony Humphries, Yellorange, E. Orange, N.J.: His gracious persona made all his accomplishments secondary. He included you in his extended family where you never felt beneath, but beside him. He formulated relationships that made everyone honored to be involved with him on every level. Frankie Knuckles will live and sparkle from within all who share his life and works.
Matt Black, Coldcut/Ninja Tune, London: So far as anyone can be said to have invented anything, he has a good claim to have invented house music. Hip-hop and house are the two most important styles to have defined dance in the last 35 years—so his influence is immense. In this age of posturing, commercialism and lack of creative ambition, we need more real DJ innovators like Frankie to do new things and still get the people dancing. He showed it’s possible to do that.
Fave Recording: “Only the Strong Survive.”
Flux Pavilion, Circus, Hatfield, U.K.: He created a world and a sound for himself, not because he followed the trend, but because he followed his own passions—which is pretty damn awesome.
Fave Recording: “Your Love.” I’m a huge fan of a well-placed arp—and oh boy, does this record have one.
Vanessa Daou, Synth Records, NYC: Frankie was more than a legendary DJ, it’s what he represented that earned him his iconic status: Hope, beauty, belief, freedom in and through the music. Frankie stood as a beacon, a light in a forest of darkness. Even in his deepest and most soulful works, he never let go of that light.
Fave Recording: “Tears.” The music and the song sum up his entire philosophy: “One word can wash them away.”
Cazzette, Universal Music, Stockholm, Sweden: He basically was the man who created house music. Without him, there wouldn’t be DJs playing like we do right now.
Fave Recording: We love the arps he used in “Your Love.”
Carl Kennedy, Wasted Youth Music, NYC: A real innovator, Frankie Knuckles was a pure legend. For his humbleness and passion for the music, I was in awe of the man—I even named my son after him.
Fave Recording: “Your Love,” a classic. I could play it for an hour.
Jesse Rose, Play It Down, LA: He was a DJ you couldn’t help but be excited to see. He couldn’t have done more to contribute to dance music than invent the sound that would become known as house music across the world. If it wasn’t for Frankie, I wouldn’t be a DJ.
Fave Recording: “The Whistle Song.” An anthem, but also so deep, so catchy and emotive all at the same time.
D’Julz, Bass Culture, Paris: He was one of the rare house producers to know how to make a good song or who knew how to turn an average song into something big. He was an amazing remixer.
Fave Recording: I have a soft spot from his early work with Jamie Principle—“Cold World” and “Baby Wants To Ride.” From his NYC era, I’d go with “The Whistle Song” and his remix of “The Pressure” by Sound of Blackness. Masterpieces.
Phil Turnipseed, DJ Times, Newark, N.J.: His ability to be a bonafide house legend was only equaled by his humility and graciousness to his peers and those who knew him. He always gave his time. Musically speaking, his greatest strength was his arrangements.
Fave Recording: “Keep On Movin’ (The One Mix),” a deep-house banger with a delicious, soulful vocal and wicked bassline.
Neil Amin-Smith, Clean Bandit, Cambridge, U.K.: Despite being a “superstar DJ,” he never diverged from the basic aim of making people dance. So many DJs play for themselves or for the respect of others, but at the end of the day a DJ’s job is to make people dance.
Fave Recording: “Tears.” The vocal is so emotive.
Jesse Saunders, Electronic Music Café, LA: At the Warehouse, his incredible use of sound effects, combined with the soulful disco that he played and the monstrous subs and tweeters, made you feel like you were being run over by a train!
Fave Recording: The Director’s Cut remix of “Your Love.”
Nicky Siano, “Love Is the Message” film, NYC: He changed the musical selection on the dance scene from disco to house—that’s monumental! Frankie showed what it was like to be famous and still be an incredible human being.
Fave Recording: A New Reality—the entire CD. Melodic songs that sound like they’re making love to you through the speakers.
Nutritious, SpinSpinNYC, NYC: As a DJ, you’re a curator—the performance is selfless—the music is for the life of party. Frankie knew it, and it helped make him a legend.
Fave Recording: “Keep On Movin’,” a special record that still makes people lose their mind.
Chus+Ceballos, Stereo Productions, Madrid, Spain: His energy was amazing, always with an smile on his face, always with time to share a nice conversation with everyone. He was pure love, like his music.
Fave Recording: “Your Love” with the hypnotizing arpeggio, the magic vocals and the way the track progresses with the harmony creating that climax is epic.
Sultan + Ned Shepard, Harem Records, LA: In some of his remixes, he had the ability to hear a melody in places you might not expect, but it sounded so great. Also, he had great intros.
Fave Recording: “Tears” is one of our favorites and because it was the first thing he did with Satoshi Tomiie—it’s a link to the next generation of DJs.
Tom Liljegren, Max Elto, Stockholm, Sweden: His really nice mix between disco and soul that eventually turned into house music.
Fave Recording: “Your Love.” Everyone should buy it and make him climb the charts once again.
Josh Wink, Ovum, Philadelphia: He was such a positive, shining person. His visions and his ideas radiated with all the people with whom he worked. Every time I’d see him, he would have the biggest, warmest and most inviting smile and hug.
Fave Recordings: “Baby Wants to Ride” remains the most memorable. Favorite remixes were “The Pressure” by Sounds of Blackness and “Talking to Myself” by Electribe 101.
Jimmy Edgar, Ultramajic, Berlin: Frankie made some amazing music. To me, it sounded like he combined the sound of Kraftwerk with the musicality of Prince. This idea was claimed a lot by Detroit artists, but I think Frankie pulled it off best.
Fave Recordings: “Baby Wants to Ride” is so raw—the bass bounces and the track tells a story. Also, “Your Love” is very sexy, like a synthetic disco.
Shawn Christopher, DJ Times, NYC: Frankie’s sets were joyous, uplifting, spirited, emotive and inspirational with an abundance of vocals. Positivity and light radiated from the booth and he knew how to work a crowd.
Fave Recording: “The Whistle Song.” This song so touched me that I devoted my life to house music. Its ethereal rhythms, whimsical flute, and exquisite bassline gripped my soul.
DJ Pioneer, Kiss FM, London: Listening to his music gives you a guideline of how to produce it and listening to his sets would provide us DJs with the blueprint of spinning house music.
Fave Recording: “Tears” because it paved the way for soulful house. It’s a complete song with powerful lyrics and excellent production.
Sleepy & Boo, Marquee Club, NYC: If you heard Frankie or you heard his music, you knew what he was about as an individual: emotional, uplifting, spiritual, inspiring, a uniter. His strength was to channel those feelings into his music, and to bring people together to share in that moment on the dancefloor.
Fave Recording: “The Whistle Song” is just the perfect Frankie record. It makes you smile, feel good and want to dance.
Clara Da Costa, Sonica FM, Ibiza, Spain: Frankie was an innovator. Anyone who knows the history of house music knows that. He was important to other DJs and producers alike because he always supported the people around him or people that came to him with their music. He produced some of the earliest house music, creating what are now timeless classics. The Warehouse (Frankie’s club) in Chicago was also one of the first house clubs showcasing this new fresh sound. Anyone that does not know his music should get to know it. He made you want to be a better DJ, a better producer and he was in it for all the right reasons.
Fave Recording: The obvious one would be “Your Love” that he made with Jamie Principle, but his remix of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” is one that has to be mentioned. The beautiful piano at the beginning of this track is so emotional and followed by a genius arrangement. It gets me every time and often brings a tear to my eye.
Alex Cecil, DJ, NYC: Frankie Knuckles singlehandedly brought a vibe, a knowledge, and an opinion to the world. He carried the underground to a level heard by everyone.
Fave Recording: The Director’s Cut remix for “Get Involved” by Dbow—ups, downs, vocals, ’70s, disco, smooth, funky, upbeat, happy.
Tony Zeoli, Netmix, Asheville, NC: For me, it was about his longevity—40-plus years is incredible. His greatest strength was not only his personal touch on the records he worked on, but also his ability to bring together so many talented people on these productions and create unique and complete orchestrations.
Fave Recording: “The Whistle Song” with Eric Kupper on keyboards is a house-music classic, but his mix of “The Pressure” by Sounds Of Blackness is one of the most foot stomping, soulful and gospel-infused stormers I’ve ever heard.