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The Birth of House Music

An ode to Frankie Knuckles from Robert Williams, the founder of the club where it all started

Frankie Knuckles photo and vinyl records
Vinyl from the Frankie Knuckles record collection at the Stony Island Arts Bank Photos: (Knuckles) Norma Caloca/Virgin Records; (vinyl) David Sampson; (record sleeves) Courtesy of labels

When I first opened the Warehouse in 1976, I served as the DJ, but I wasn’t very good. I knew Frankie Knuckles. I had been his juvenile counselor in New York. He was a truant. So I asked him to come to Chicago. He wasn’t a great DJ yet. He had always been in the shadow of Larry Levan, his boyhood friend, so he wasn’t getting a lot of gigs.

At the Warehouse, Frankie had the space to develop his skills and style. The club opened at 12, and the parties didn’t end until 8 or 9 in the morning. It started off as a gay crowd. It was like a family. Eventually, it became more diverse. Richard Long and Associates, the New York company that designed the sound system at Studio 54, put ours in. People in Chicago had never heard a sound like that. So Frankie really couldn’t go too wrong.

He and I would travel back and forth to New York for new music. He was getting European imports and songs that weren’t available yet in the Midwest. Then he would introduce them here in a different way. He would edit the tracks. He would manipulate the sound system. And he added sound effects. He would be playing a song and add the sound of a train coming through a station real loud. Here you’re dancing and all of a sudden it sounds like a train’s coming through the building. It was mind-blowing. He would start the music out at a certain pace and just build up, up, up into a real explosive situation. And then it would calm back down again.

A lot of people want to put a definition on where house music began and who started it. It started here in Chicago. And it had phases. Frankie was the first phase. He made it so that Chicago house music is known throughout the world.

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