Frankie Knuckles made house music. The sound he created, named after the Chicago club, The Warehouse, where he played during the late '70s and early '80s, was copied by literally thousands of DJs and producers over the next 40 years. And yet, an ear trained to the nuances of club music can detect a Frankie Knuckles mix and distinguish it from so many of his contemporaries and followers because first and foremost it's musical - there are harmonies and melodies and countermelodies in it that you just can't create without working with musicians schooled in music theory and classical composition. His sound is earthy yet ethereal, without gravity. To listen to his "The Bomb Mix" of Chanté Moore's 1995 R&B song "This Time" is to be suspended in air for 10 minutes.
It's like Debussy or Satie for the dance floor. Whereas most club mixes accentuate hardness to drive dancers to the floor, Knuckles did the truly daring, inspired thing and made this one actually softer. The original may have been a ballad, but Moore sings Knuckles' rendition more tenderly (she recut the vocal in his studio, following his directions to sing it at a club-friendly tempo), more like she's having a secret talk with God, as if she's praying that this time, heaven allowed, things are going to work out. She's singing as if she's asking to be blessed.
Not everything he made was this eloquent, but Knuckles, who died on Monday at his home in Chicago at the age of 59, made dance music at a spiritual level for nearly four decades. Born Francis Nicholls on January 18, 1955, in the Bronx, he started out as a DJ in Manhattan at the Gallery, one of the earliest gay discos, and the Continental Baths, the same gay bathhouse where Bette Midler and her accompanist Barry Manilow launched their careers. Another musician who started at both of those places was his pal Larry Levan, the DJ often cited as the greatest-ever, who soon moved on to the Paradise Garage, the late '70s/'80s downtown club routinely tagged the greatest-ever. [I sometimes danced there. Both were more phenomenal than there's space to get into here.]