The Godfather of House Music
1955 – 2014
By Kevin E. Taylor
He was born into the world as Francis Nicholls in the “Boogie Down” Bronx of NYC on January 18, 1955. But it was as his alter ego (or his truer self) that Francis was ordained Frankie Knuckles, the Minister of the Gospel of House Music. Frankie Knuckles, lauded and touted by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the greatest DJs to ever touch the turntable, is credited for the creation for house music. But it is in doing so–the ways with which he pulled something else out of the music and put something special into it–that Knuckles blessed the world in an extraordinary way.
When you look back at the seminal legacy of “The Godfather of House Music,” you see a pattern of purpose that isn’t often credited in the articles and annals of history which record the importance of the master-mixer. The earliest track with which Knuckles’ name is associated is disco group First Choice’s “Let No Man Put Asunder.” The rousing anthem, released in 1977, is about a woman singing from her soul to sustain a sinking relationship as her affection heads towards the door. The title comes from the Book of Mark, its 10th chapter and 9th verse in the bible and that is significant to the overall course of the musical ministry of Frankie Knuckles, whose winning personality, pure concern for people, strong advocacy for issues that plagued his Black, brown and LGBTQ communities and powerful presence made him a perfect pastor for the people.
That’s where the real work and wonder of Frankie Knuckles can truly be seen and told. Knuckles may not have taken to the kind of pulpit that people who knew his spirit and who had a relationship with spirituality might have expected, but Frankie Knuckles ministered from his towering post in the DJ’s booth. He turned the club, any club in which he was asked to offer an A through Z selection, into a tabernacle, nay sanctuary, for the lost boys and lonely girls, the outsiders and the outcasts who came into the dark den of presumed inequity and found the gospel truth of love and acceptance. Frankie Knuckles blessed our sonic solitary with songs–remixed and remastered–that came into our hiding places of rejection and offered refuge and hope. On any good night at the club, the members of the worship experience would be transported away, sometimes in obvious ways and sways, with songs like “Fall Down” by Tramaine and “You Brought the Sunshine” by the Clark Sisters, both known gospel artists who ventured victoriously into the realm of house/club music. But it was with his anointed ears and producer’s pulpit that Frankie Knuckles’ took 1991’s “The Pressure” by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ signature group The Sounds of Blackness and turned a song that was a clear and cathartic shoutfest of release into an anthem. Knuckles got lead singer Ann Nesby to re-record her lead vocals for the opening of the song, this time slowed down and offered as a praise and worship prelude, forcing the exhausted listener to submit and surrender. It became a club staple and revealed to label executives en masse what those who had crept or proudly walked into any club in the late 70s or throughout the 1980s had already known–something else was going on on the dance floor.
Some of the titles he touched, like Shirley Murdock’s “Let There Be Love,” (1991) Chaka Khan’s “Never Miss The Water” (1996) and Natalie Cole’s #1 hit in 2000, “Livin For Love” testified to Frankie Knuckles’ ability to put something on and into a song when he remixed it. When finished, he was able to not only propel the song to club classic status, but the song would take the club away to a place where everyone on the floor felt safe and sacred. Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Elton John and B. Slade all had their hits baptized in the brilliance of the Godfather. Frankie Knuckles’ love for music poured out of his fingertips and when he put that into the music, with each and every single production and remix, he left you light-headed and if only for the hours that you were in his tabernacle, he left you with the message of love. That love, sometimes sensual, sometimes exact but always spiritual, helped some of us make it through the night or that breakup or out of the ugliness we had just heard in the churches we attended earlier that day or had to face the following morning. Love, in Frankie Knuckles’ hands, was the remedy that helped and healed us, hoisted us and handed us the audacity to walk back into the world with conviction and vigor that strolled the pier and made a runway out of ordinary streets.
Frankie Knuckles was given the title of “Godfather” because he was credited as the architect of house music and the sound thereof. He was the first to win the Grammy for Remixer of The Year, appropriately so. But I truly believe that, perhaps without even realizing it, we called him Godfather because just like the chosen surrogate of parents, who would assume the helm of a child’s life in the event of a loss or separation, Knuckles took the hands and hearts of clubgoers, often time separated, isolated and rebuked by their families after they had come out and were trying to come into themselves, and guided them musically through the remainder of their lives. As the musical maestro who would produce some of the world’s greatest talents and spin at some of the biggest clubs and events, he showed us that you could travel the world in your own skin, dance to your own beat and still know success, even if it wasn’t at his level. That’s why he would always come back home, back to the Sound Factory Bar in NYC, and grab hold of us again and remind us to be great, bathed in the music and supported by the love of a big brother who had gone out into the world and who had come back, if only for a while, to remind us to remain true to ourselves.
I was given the humbling opportunity to speak at Frankie Knuckles’ NYC Memorial, held at the Liberty Theatre in Times Square. I had no idea how his management team, which included Judy Weinstein, the guiding force for many DJs and producers, and the equally legendary DJ David Morales, had discovered me but I showed up ready to offer my thanks for the man who had kept my mind right while I let go of the day and got my life (back) while his music, his legacy spun and spirited me higher through the speakers. At first they told me that they wanted something spirited but not too religious. But, seated between Morales and Ms. Nesby, and after the assembled choir offered a rousing selection of “Soon I Will Be Done With The Troubles Of The World,” I knew that I could preach about the power of purpose that was the life of Frankie Knuckles and that was just fine with the towering tabernacle filled with members of the Church Of Frankie Knuckles who had been rescued by his love for music and yes, many of whom who were saved by his ability to anoint our ears with his special spin and glorious gifts.