Frankie Knuckles: Remembering a Chicago House Icon

Frankie Knuckles
Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

CIRCA 1988: Photo of Frankie Knuckles

The international dance music community is mourning the loss of one of its founders and most beloved figures today. Grammy Award-winning producer and DJ Frankie Knuckles unexpectedly died last night due to complications from diabetes.

Frankie Knuckles, Godfather of House, Mourned by Dance Community

Knuckles' music and DJ sets bridged the gap between disco and house, birthing the global nightlife scene and making the tall, radio-voiced Bronx native a living icon around the world. He once called house music "disco's revenge," referring to the American public's rejection of the genre associated primarily with urban gay minorities.

Frankie Knuckles' Top Billboard Club Hits

In 1977, the Bronx-born Knuckles was named the resident DJ at Chicago nightclub The Warehouse, thought to be the namesake of house music. There, he extended songs into tracks using drum and reel-to-reel machines; and blended disco and R&B with the stripped-down, synth-hack beats springing from Europe and Detroit, which formed the basis of house and techno.

Even Knuckles' rough, undeniably carnal early tracks with Chicago artist Jamie Principle had a certain grace to them, and later songs like "Tears" and "The Whistle Song" are timeless and definitive house music anthems; elegant, emotional, and musical. His remixes of artists from Toni Braxton to Sounds of Blackness to Depeche Mode set a standard for the art of remixing that has since been almost lost: The original artists would often re-record their vocals for him, and Knuckles would add new melodic lines thanks to his frequent partner, pianist and producer Satoshi Tomiie. Knuckles won the first-ever Grammy awarded to a remixer in 1998.

Even as house music captured imaginations worldwide, it didn't take hold in America, and Knuckles spent a good part of his DJ-ing career touring Europe and the rest of the world. He and his Def Mix crew -- the collective founded by David Morales and Knuckles' long-time manager Judy Weinstein -- were royalty on the Spanish party island of Ibiza, where their weekly party at Pacha was a must for vacationing celebs and serious dance fans alike.

He naturally assumed the role of emissary for the still-young genre of house, giving thoughtful press interviews and freely dispensing advice and guidance to young artists. But Knuckles was never interested in fame or recognition. He was a great cook and often invited friends and associates over to his Chicago home for meals. He was liberal with smiles and hugs, and welcoming to new faces in a scene that could tend toward insular.

Even after losing his foot to diabetes two years ago, Knuckles still DJ-ed, frequently seated in a chair. He played Chicago's Wavefront Festival, and a special set for live-streamed underground party Boiler Room in New York in 2013.

In 2004 Knuckles was honored by then-Senator Barack Obama, who declared August 25 Frankie Knuckles Day, and renamed the street where the original Warehouse was located in his honor.

"Frankie made the dance floor a religious experience and was a key inspiration for me to work in dance and electronic music," says Astralwerks GM Glenn Mendlinger. "We will miss you Frankie, but your spirit will remain. Thanks to you we can proudly say: 'House music all night long.'"


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