To those who knew him well, there was a certain rhythm to Francis Nicholls, better known to Chicago and the world as Frankie Knuckles. Of course there's the pulse of house music, which the late DJ and producer introduced to Chicago crowds and turned into a worldwide phenomenon. But as celebratory, inclusive, and uplifting as his music is, its power pales in comparison to what Frankie was like in person, according to friends and family who spoke at his funeral last night at Progressive Baptist Church, near 36th and South Wentworth. The rhythms of his speech and the ways in which he exuded warmth and encouragement made colleagues, collaborators, dancers, and even strangers on the street feel taller. A few speakers said he made them feel like the most important person in the room when he spoke to them, and just about everyone mentioned his dazzling smile.
A crowd of hundreds filled pews, sitting in rapt attention while speakers recalled evenings (and mornings) spent on their feet when Knuckles was DJing. Many recalled the way his work at the Warehouse and Power Plant brought disparate groups of Chicagoans together to celebrate under one roof. It's noteworthy that this outpouring of support and love for a local dance icon happened just blocks from where the original Comiskey Park stood, the site of Steve Dahl's Disco Demolition stunt.
The dance-music community rallied around Knuckles. The stories and testimonials in person and via video, from Chicagoans and those who flew in from as far as London, suggested that a true pillar of the community has been lost. "From midnight to 6 AM, he was our therapist," said state representative Ken Dunkin, one of a string of politicians, including Governor Pat Quinn, who spoke about Knuckles. Joe Shanahan, owner of the Metro and Smart Bar, recalled a magical evening when he first entered the booth at the Warehouse and saw an instrumental setup so elaborate—including a reel-to-reel tape machine and three turntables—that he assumed a band must have been performing. David Morales, Knuckles's partner in Def Mix Productions, said Frankie and him were Batman and Robin and the Simon and Garfunkel of house music. Jamie Principle—who produced the early house hit "Your Love," which Frankie popularized at the Warehouse—simply called him his musical father. The notion that musicians were always playing for Frankie—for his approval, and to meet the standards that he set—was repeated numerous times.
During the course of the evening, singers such as Inaya Day and Terisa Griffin delivered emotional performances in honor of Frankie. Their singing made it obvious that, as Rev. Roderick Norton said during his words of comfort, "house music was a particular type of spiritual music."