Frankie from the Bronx
I do my head in sometimes. I do other peoples heads in too – it’s a wonder anyone puts up with me (I’m very grateful that some do!). I knew when I started out writing this blog that there was a risk that the virtual inkwell might dry up at any point and that it would be a pain in the tits when it did. I decided to have a go anyway and deal with that when it happened.
It happened. Just as I was finishing off writing up a fascinating interview I’d done with Cynthia Cherry back in February, I completely dried up. I had a few facts that still needed checking, some rearranging to do, youtube clips and links to put in, but for some reason I hit a wall and the writing stopped. A week became a couple of weeks, then it was getting too close to Mrs D and I moving house, so then it became a month, then two… Then, a few weeks ago now, noticing that my twitter stream looked a bit like a football blogger’s, I tweeted: “Hmm – I should probably write something about house music at some point…” Little did I know that within 24hrs, I would be compelled to pull my finger out and get back on with it.
One thing I’ve learned over the years (from a few more personal experiences than I’d have hoped for) is that there is nothing more brain-meltingly bizarre than getting your head round the death of a friend. Now Frankie Knuckles was not – by any stretch of the imagination – a friend of mine, but the death of someone don’t know can often affect you in strange ways too.
Truth be told, I couldn’t really even call myself a proper “fan” of Frankie Knuckles, in that he was not someone I had ever gone out of my way to see play. I think I only saw him DJ for the first time ever this New Years Eve at a Hacienda party in Manchester – I might have seen him at the Southport Weekender a couple of years ago too, but I’ll be honest, I can’t really remember. His era was not my era and even when I first started digging back into the early days of Chicago, it was always Ron Hardy’s mixes that really excited me. They were my reference point for Chicago house.
But. But… I’d already got up to get ready for work that Tuesday morning when Mrs D shouted through to me – “Frankie Knuckles has died!” It shocked me, probably because New Years Eve seemed so recent and of course because this was Frankie Knuckles we were talking about. The Frankie Knuckles. I spent the next half hour on my phone watching my facebook timeline fill up – not just with people like me sharing their thoughts and links to Frankie’s music, but also from a small handful of his actual friends, desperately trying to find out if the news could possibly be true.
If I hadn’t started writing the blog and connecting with people from the early days of house in New York, I wouldn’t have seen those posts. I had to stop looking, feeling a bit voyeuristic and at the same time, still half wondering if it might be some sick April Fool’s “joke”. Later, when it became clear that it was true, I started sharing some of my own Frankie Knuckles favourites on my Facebook page and wondering whether I should write something myself. Things can get a bit ugly when a celebrity passes away and it was obvious there would be no shortage of tributes written. Could there possibly be anything else worth saying? Would it be opportunistic of me to start writing again on the back of a personal tragedy? What makes me think I’m in any position to write anything anyway? I do my head in sometimes…
I finally came to the conclusion that if I could find something to different to contribute, it could be worthwhile. One thing I had noticed while listening to interviews from the past couple of years with Frankie was how often he was asked to retell the history of Chicago house. That had been the case from the early days – in an interview he did back in 1995 he had told Bill Brewster:
…in ’85, ’86 I came her [sic] to New York with Rocky Jones and the whole DJ International thing. And for that New Music Seminar that summer. And there were a lot of British press that were here, trying to chase down the story of the whole house music boom. And my name kept popping up. And when I came here that summer for the conference all of a sudden I was being chased down by all these journalists. they said well we know you got the right story.
It really freaked me out at first and I wouldn’t talk to that many people. So eventually what happened was they followed us back to Chicago. They got in town and I would take them out and show them around, show them everywhere and what was happening and who was doing what. Whereas everybody else wasn’t that readily interested or available. And that was Rocky’s game plan, to try and keep some kind of mystique, or some type of mystery. Oh please!!
Listening back to old interviews, I could hear a certain tiredness in Frankie’s voice when being asked to retell the same stories. There are times in last year’s interview with Benji B for BBC Radio 1 that Benji is clearly asking for reassurance from Frankie, that he doesn’t mind going into all the detail yet again. By all accounts, Frankie would have been far too polite a man to have said otherwise, but it made me wonder.
Frankie Knuckle’s contribution to the development of what we know as house music as a DJ is undisputed – he took the New York disco experience to Chicago, then the UK and eventually the whole world. In 1987, Larry Levan had invited him to come to the closing party of the Paradise Garage, but that same weekend he had been given the opportunity to travel abroad for the first ever time, to play at Heaven in London. The chance to export the real sound of house music to Europe was too good for Frankie to miss.
His immense contribution was not just as a DJ though – he was also one of house music’s great remixers and producers, something that never seems to be talked about as much. I’ve always wondered if that might be, in part, due to the controversy surrounding some of his most famous records. Some time between 1982 and 1984, he received a demo tape by a young singer/songwriter called Jamie Principle containing at least 2 of the greatest house tunes ever written – Baby Wants To Ride and Your Love. A few years later, versions produced by Frankie would both be released by Trax records (apparently without consent from either Frankie or Jamie) under Frankie’s name and without mention of Jamie Principle. People have speculated that this led to his decision to leave Chicago, but the truth is nobody really knows what went on. This episode continues to cast a shadow even now (at least partly undermining a well-meaning effort by fans to get Your Love to number one in the UK), but Frankie was responsible for some great tunes that don’t always get the attention they deserve. So, rather than write more about Frankie the DJ, I thought I might just share some of Frankie’s work as a producer, starting with the record I will always remember him for:
Very soon after his first trip to the DJ in the UK, Frankie made the decision to move to New York to concentrate specifically on production and remixing. In this interview with the Spirit Of House website in 2007, Frankie tells of hooking up with his long time friend Judy Weinstein to join her newly formed production company: Def Mix. DJ/Producer David Morales had been using the Def Mix alias on remixes since late 1986, but it would be Frankie’s collaboration with producer Satoshi Tomiie and vocalist Robert Owens that would really put Def Mix on the map. The instrumental, which Satoshi Tomiie first gave to Frankie on a cassette after a DJ performance in Satoshi’s native Japan, is stunning on its own, but its the heartbreaking vocal added back in New York that turned it into a worldwide hit in 1989.
As already mentioned, Frankie’s work as a producer was collaborative from the start – very few of his records credit him as the only producer. This was one of the first he released after he’d moved to New York with Chicago’s Chuck Artamatik, AKA Charles Farrar. As well as being one of the only house records Farrar released (he went on to produce R&B artists like Boys II Men), this was the only house record I’m aware of that was ever released on the hip hop label Wild Pitch. Its an awesome, deep, brooding cross between Chicago and New York styles of house.
Remixing is probably where Frankie Knuckles really made his mark as a producer. He did so many in the late 80s and early 90s its hard to know where to start, but this collaboration with the Blaze boys, David Shaw, Bob Blank and David Morales was only ever going to be magical. Nothing Chicago about this one, its New York Frankie all the way!
At Def mix, Frankie and David Morales didn’t just rework tracks for the dancefloor – they were pioneers of the art of reproducing songs in their entirety to get the most out of them. Electribe 101 (a UK-based pop-house act signed to Mercury/Polygram) had released “Talking To Myself” in 1988 without much success, but when they followed it with an album in 1990, they had the good sense to commission this Frankie Knuckles remix. I think it’s safe to say it’s Frankie’s version that everyone knows…
To finish things off, I need to go back to where it really started for me. As a very young looking 16 year old, getting into pubs and clubs in Southport was an absolute nightmare – I needed a plan. One weekend, I worked it out – screw my Saturday job at the Spar, what I needed was a bar job. I walked from one end of Lord Street to the other, asking in every bar I could find if they would give me a job. Eventually, at Mulligans – literally the last bar before the end of town – I was told that there might be a glass collecting job at their owner’s night – The Baroque. I was in!
From the couple of years I worked at the club, I’ve got a lot of hazy memories of long nights, broken glasses and the stink of booze soaked boxes of Smirnoff Ice – some great ones, some difficult ones, but all significant moments in my life. Listening to Frankie’s Classic Mix of Where Love Lives for the first time in years took me right back there in an instant. I can still see the people there singing along at the top of their lungs like it was yesterday.
The more faded memories it brought back of The Baroque got me searching the internet to see if I could find some pictures, to help bring them into clear view. I remembered that there were some old photos on Facebook and a search quickly found them again. It was fun to see all the guys I’d worked with so many years ago, some who I’ve kept in touch with, most who I haven’t. It was nice to see my first girlfriend in there – our mum’s are still in touch as far as I know, but I haven’t seen her in years.
One photo I wasn’t ready for though, not now. I sat staring at the picture for a while, before I realised I’d started crying. Tears I haven’t cried in a while. It’s one of me and my best friend, Simon Boyer (and another guy I don’t recognise), sat in the club late one night. I look about 14, so its probably some time around 1996 (I’d actually be 18 or 19…). It’s one of very few photos of Simon and me that I know exists, certainly of us together in a nightclub. A year or two later, just a few months before our 21st birthdays, Simon died of an illness he’d struggled with his whole life.
He was the best DJ I ever knew, but unlike Frankie Knuckles, he never had a chance to show people what he could do. I wasn’t in Simon’s league, but I decided then that I would make it as a DJ somehow. 15 more years of trying and I’ve still never managed to get much good, but on what would have been his 27th birthday, I had a chance to play at Voodoo’s New Years Eve party in Liverpool with my friends from T-Funkshun. I started with 3 of Simon’s records. It felt like I’d done something useful, somehow.
As I finish writing this now, I realise how much Frankie’s death reminded me of Simon’s, and of how important it is that I am reminded. I realise why this music is so important to me, why it will always be more than just a load of repetitive beats. I realise why I felt I had to write this post, and why I should continue to write while there are things that I feel are worth writing about – because it feels useful too. Somehow. Maybe not for anyone else, but certainly for me.
So, before I wrap up this blog once and for all, I’ll try and get back on it and finish off at least a few more posts about the music that has really defined my life. Frankie’s music. Simon’s music. I hope they would both approve.