In the waning days and nights of disco, DJ Frankie Knuckles was already spinning ’70s boogie into a brand-new sound. Manning the booth at Chicago’s soon-to-be-legendary gay nightclub Warehouse, Knuckles mixed disco grooves and underground soul with a surpassingly positive vibe that kept the club packed and moving.
Wielding a well-trained ear and inimitable style, he perfected a distinctive sound that became so associated with the Warehouse that DJs and dancefloor divas christened it “house music.”
Knuckles left the Warehouse in 1982 to start his own club, Power Plant, as house music spread around the world from Chicago to New York to London. For the next thirty years, from the Power Plant to New York’s Sound Factory and Sound Factory Bar, Knuckles continued to innovate as a hit-making record producer, Grammy-winning re-mixer, and a DJ revered worldwide by clubgoers and his colleagues.
Knuckles passed away in 2014, having duly earned the title as the “Godfather of House Music,” a moniker acknowledging not only his status as a dance music pioneer, but his generosity as a champion of other DJs, including fellow club legends Tedd Patterson and Manny Ward.
Patterson and Ward, protégés of Knuckles, will hit the decks in his honor at this year’s official Mid-Atlantic Leather weekend closing night party, “A Tribute to Frankie Knuckles,” presented by the Centaur MC and The Saint at Large. Ward and Patterson will take turns spinning the leather-clad crowd at the 9:30 Club into a house music frenzy and both men believe it will be a party to remember.
“[Frankie Knuckles] was there when it first started,” says Ward. “He was one of the three who really started this whole House thing, [along with] David Morales, a very big influence on me, as well as Danny Tenaglia. I’m a big piece of all of them, but Frankie is the ultimate, because Frankie is the one who took me under his wing when we met back in the early ’90s.”
Ward’s fateful meeting with his mentor happened totally by chance, although at a fairly likely location: a record store. Recalls Ward, “It was Dance Tracks in New York City…. I was going to that record store looking for a particular record. I remember I had been to Sound Factory like two weeks before, and it was one of the times that Junior [Vasquez] wasn’t there and I looked up and saw this huge figure in the booth, like, ‘Who’s that?’ And I didn’t know who it was until after the fact. And I remember hearing this one song that just blew everybody away.”
It was “The Whistle Song,” one of Knuckles’ five singles to hit #1 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart. And when Ward went to buy Knuckles’ record, there he was, browsing the aisle behind Ward. The store’s in-house DJ Joe Claussell introduced them, and so began a friendship that would lead Ward from hanging with Knuckles in the DJ booth at Sound Factory to interning for Knuckles and Morales at their production studio, Def Mix.
“I interned throughout the [Mariah Carey] ‘Dreamlover’ session” says Ward. “I interned throughout Frankie’s whole Welcome to the Real World album. Because of that I’ve had so many incredible experiences, and made so many friends throughout it and met all these amazing artists, and actually saw how things were created and developed. I was right there the whole time. He guided me through, taught me how to listen to a sound system in a club, sound check, you name it. He taught me everything.”
Patterson, who also befriended Knuckles in New York over their mutual love of dance music, learned most from simply observing Frankie at work.
“I learned a lot watching,” Patterson says. “I loved that he took his time playing music. His presentations were as if each record deserved to be played. He had a really special way of playing records and he didn’t play a lot of things that didn’t matter. He had a very cohesive mix that was all his own and his own style. That became a part of how I played as well. When you admire someone and you listen to them for a long time, you can’t help but that just seeps into your DNA a little bit. Not intentionally, but just as a lesson, how to play records for people.”
Watching Knuckles work the crowd during his regular Friday-night sets at Sound Factory Bar was a lesson unto itself, says Patterson. “I would get there early and I would leave there late, so I’d watch him build that crowd from a few people dancing around having cocktails. I’d listen to him peak the room. And then I’d listen to him bring it back down and play some classics at the end. He’s such a loving guy and it came through his sound.”
“I first met Frankie Knuckles when I worked as conference manager at the National Minority AIDS Council,” says the Centaur MC’s Danny Linden. “He was one of the nicest men you’d ever want to meet. He was so approachable, so laid back, and so very, very sweet.” Linden hired Knuckles to helm NMAC’s closing night dance in Los Angeles in 1997.
The Centaur responsible for overseeing the dance, Linden says the group’s partnership with producer Steven Pevner, of New York’s The Saint At Large, celebrated for its infamous Black Party, proved indispensable in devising a perfect dance event.
“In my opinion, the dance had sort of hit a plateau, and we needed to keep it fresh,” says Linden, who estimates he’s been part of 21 of the weekend’s 25 closing night dances. “The diversity at the closing night dance goes way beyond leather now. It’s leather. It’s bears. It’s pups. It’s an adult playground. So I reached out to Stephen Pevner, and he’s been invaluable in putting out ideas and helping us reinvent the dance, because we’ve never done a closing dance where we’ve paid tribute to a particular DJ. Yes, it is an MAL event, but it’s also tied into a weekend of observation around what would have been Frankie’s 64th birthday.”
Proceeds from the dance will benefit the Frankie Knuckles Foundation, whose mission, says Linden, pertains to “things that were near and dear to Frankie, such as HIV and AIDS, and diabetes. [Knuckles died from complications with diabetes.] If you look at some of the beneficiaries of Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend over the past few years, there’s always some type of HIV/AIDS funding in there. The Frankie Knuckles Foundation fits into this purpose and mission.”
“I feel like this particular event is about channeling the spirit of Frankie,” says Patterson. “And what that means for me is staying true to the original art form of playing house music how he played it. And he kept it musical, he kept it track-y, he kept it fun and interesting. He didn’t play techno and stuff like that. He didn’t play a lot of drums and stuff. So for me, respecting Frankie is about keeping it musical and keeping [that] certain vibe about his musicality that I really like. My offering to him is gonna be about channeling my feeling of those times at Sound Factory Bar.”
Ward agrees that the goal for the party is to invoke the spirit of Knuckles’ sound, but not to try and imitate him. “Any DJ can play all Frankie, but if you mix in what he did, certain things that remind you of him into your set, then it’d be like, ‘A-ha!’ That’s why I told Tedd, ‘I’m going to be listening to your set.’ I’m not going to play and leave, that’s not going to happen. Tedd’s always been one of my favorites, anyway, so this is going to be super special. I’m really looking forward to that. And, of course, Ultra. You can’t go wrong with Ultra.”
He means, of course, Ultra Naté, the diva known for such ’90s club classics as “Free” and “Rejoicing.” A house music legend in her own right, Naté will add her singular voice to what promises to be a joyful night of dancing and deep beats, a fitting finale for Mid-Atlantic Leather weekend.
And, for at least one of the night’s dueling DJs, the party will mark a significant first. “I’ve never been to a leather convention,” admits Patterson, who adds, “Y’all better look out when I roll up in there with my leather hot pants on.”
MAL Closing Night Party: A Tribute to Frankie Knuckles is Sunday, January 20 at the 9:30 Club, 815 V Street NW. Tickets are $35 in advance, $45 day of event. Visit ticketfly.com/purchase/event/1786318.