Nicky Siano (left) with Frankie Knuckles (center), a friend, and Andy Reynolds (right) at Cheetah in NYC, 1999
It was 1972. I had just finished playing an eight-hour set at my new club, The Gallery, which had been open for only a week at that point. Robin, The Gallery's door person and my business partner at the time, walked up to the booth with a large African-American man. "This is Frankie Knuckles," she said. "He wants to work for us." That began a forty-year friend-and-mentorship with one of the finest human beings I have ever known, my good friend, the Godfather of House Music, Frankie Knuckles.
I hired Frankie on the spot-he was in love with the club, and I could see that his motives were to help make it the best party in New York. His first job at The Gallery was blowing up balloons and decorating the club in the hours before it opened. Two weeks after getting the job Frankie came to me and said, "I have this friend who would love to work here-his name is Larry Levan. He's a little crazy, but very talented." On Frankie's recommendation, I hired him immediately.
Larry became my best friend, roommate, and for a time, my partner, and wherever Larry went, Frankie was not far behind. Two years passed quickly at the first Gallery, and just as we were about to open the second location of the club, 172 Mercer Street, Larry announced that he had secured a job playing records at The Continental Baths. And of course, Frankie was at his side, filling in for Larry when he overslept, working the lights for him when he played.
On opening night of the Gallery's new location, Frankie came to the back door about a half-hour before we opened. Already an established DJ, but forever humble and loving, Frankie asked me, "Is there anything I can do?"
"Come and help me set up my records," I told him. As we set up the DJ booth, Frankie and I laughed about the early days: just two years prior we had hoped the music we were playing would catch on in a big way... and here we were, about to open what most consider to be the first disco. When we opened the doors and I played that first record, "Lanzana's Preistess" by Donal Byrd, Frankie was the already on the dancefloor.
Meanwhile, Larry's career had taken off. The great soundman Richard Long hired Larry to play his house parties at a spot called the SoHo. And Frankie had taken over Larry's spot as DJ for the Continental Baths. As Larry blew up, Frankie felt he needed to make his own mark, and an opportunity to move to Chicago unfolded. His life unfolded perfectly when he got there, and he would soon outgrow his role as Larry's sidekick to become the undisputed Godfather of House Music.
It was already 1978. I was playing at Studio 54, then took a few gigs at an after-hours clubs called the Buttermilk Bottom. A year or so went by and I heard that Frankie had secured a job at a new club in Chicago called The Warehouse. But disco was seeing hard days, and many people were crying, "Disco is dead!" I was one of them. The record industry had taken a pure, loving idea and turned it into their cash cow, ruining all its credibility along the way by pushing bad songs with disco banners across their record jackets.
But Frankie was playing a new type of dance music-house. In Chicago, disco fans began a new trend by investing their own money to record a more stripped-down, funkier of dance music. They immediately brought their records to Frankie, who had a great ear for music, and he picked the hits from the beginning. Sharing them with his NYC counterpart at the Paradise Garage, Larry Levan, the two of them made house music the dominant dance music of the 80s and 90s.
One of Frankie's production hits was "The Whistle Song," a house music monster. His name circulated in the industry as "the man with the new sound." He went on to mix songs for Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. His version of "Unbreak my Heart" by Toni Braxton has always been my favorite. His name was everywhere, and everyone started calling him-and rightfully so-the Godfather of House. He introduced the world to artists like Jamie Principle and his song "Baby Wants to Ride," then in 1989 it was Frankie Knuckles presents Marshall Jefferson's "Move Your Body"-now that's house music at it's best!
I took a long break from the music industry to work with People with AIDS from 1984 to 1996. When I came back to play records for Larry Levan's birthday party at Body and Soul, Frankie was one of the first people I spoke with. We started our friendship up all over again. When he couldn't play a gig because he was booked too heavily, he would recommend me. By then, he had won a Grammy award for Mixer of the Year, which he would keep out on the table at his loft in Manhattan. I remember going over, and asking, "Can I hold it for a while?" We laughed hard.
Around 2004 I learned he was diagnosed with Type ll diabetes. I didn't think it was that serious until seeing him on the road having so much trouble with his leg. Eventually, pain and constant drug-resistant infections in his foot forced him to make the difficult decision to amputate. I called him regularly that year, and we'd usually talk on the phone for an hour or more. He always remained upbeat, but I know that this was an intensely emotional time for him. I remember him telling me, "I was putting this off, I knew this had to be done years ago-so when it finally came time, I was ready to have it done."
Frankie was a proud, strong person. I remember him telling me about his prosthetic. "There's a designer prosthesis, and then there's the one I have, the one better than that!" We laughed about it, but this is part of what killed Frankie-not the diabetes but the prohibitive costs of healthcare. During the long period of time he spent out of work recovering, he had gone through his savings, and was forced back to a life of playing records on the road.
John Brown, a good friend and record company casualty, started traveling with Frankie and helping him on the road. Most people see this as a glamorous, wonderful life, and it is, but for people who are ill, it is a stressful, poor environment for the body to recover. Plane rides three times a week wreak havoc on the body: long sitting periods cause blood clots in the legs, and the air onboard is unsanitary.
With the economy crashing, all of us were getting less money for the same gigs. In 2006, I had gotten back the footage from a film made at the Gallery in 1977. I decided to step in as director to get the film finished. The first person I sought to interview was Frankie and he graciously agreed, finding time for me through his busy tour schedule. About a year ago I heard that John, Frankie's right hand man on the road, had died. I know this broke Frankie's heart.
About three months ago, I heard Frankie was unwell again. Now I know it was much more serious than he told me. He was hospitalized at the time, and had to have several more amputations-I am not sure which. I was busy finishing and releasing the film and we didn't get a chance to talk. Two weeks ago I called him and said, "The movie is out! I want to send you a copy!"
I sent it out right away, but Frankie had to head to Miami for the Winter Music Conference. Again, if he wanted to maintain his lifestyle, he had to work. It's a great injustice that DJs who grew up in my era-who paved the way for all the massively successful DJs today-never had their pay day. We survive paycheck to paycheck, with great respect from fans and DJs alike, but without the security of money in the bank we often have to load up on jobs to pay the bills. Frankie put on his happy face, and played his heart out at the Winter Music Conference this year.
He left the conference and was en route to London for a gig when we last spoke. He was in the airport waiting to fly to London. I asked him if he'd seen the film. "Not yet. I left for WMC, and it didn't come yet," he told me. "Well it will be there when you get back," I answered. But Frankie never got to see the film. He died Monday night, and right now the word is from complications related to Type ll diabetes.
Frankie, you were one of the kindest, gentlest people I've ever known. And looking back, it's OK, Frankie, that you didn't see the film, because we had something so much better. You were there with me.
Nicky Siano has been a DJ and club owner since 1971. His new film, Love is the Message: a Night at the Gallery 1977, featuring Frankie Knuckles and David Mancuso, is now available at www.loveisthemessagemovie.com.