Frankie Knuckles Passes: So Many Tears

Nightlife | By. Steve Lewis | April 1, 2014
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It was the fall of 1987 and I was on the top of my world. I had been doing real well in clubland, with major gigs at Danceteria and Palladium under my belt. I used the back of the Holiday Bar on St. Marks as my office. Stefan the owner liked the crowd I brought in, which included my burgeoning staff of go-getters and models, stylists and designers for the fashion shows, and club nights we were producing here, there and everywhere. We bought diet cokes and an occasional beer to make it Kosher.

One afternoon, a customer Frank Roccio, overheard a strategy meeting and decided to tap me to be the Director of his off again/on again Lower East Side club.  He was about to re-open a club called The World, with co-owners Arthur Weinstein, Paul Garcia and Peter Frank. Frank and I found a common ground that only club people can stand on—it’s an addiction, a game, an art, an obsession. It’s all-consuming and completely fulfilling. It’s a mother’s love, it’s sex, it’s the warmth of the sun and the enchantment of new. It seems limitless. It is validating. Frank was an asshole, but in the club life that’s O.K. He was a liar, a cheat and an egotistical P.O.S. That too is workable, understandable, predictable. We got along just fine. We flew to Los Angeles to get perspective on what we wanted to do. We stayed at the Chateau Marmont. Phil Collins supposedly hooked us up. Frank’s wife booked his travels. We stayed at a big villa there. Joe Strummer hung out with us for days. It was a time.

Frank wanted to book House Music and Hip Hop and forego the Rock, the Disco and the confused offerings we were hearing at all the clubs. We had been hanging out a small club called Black Market where owner/DJ David Piccioni was the music. It was so underground, so hip, and so new to us. It was House music and we knew it was the shit. We decided that David would be Saturday Night. David Morales did a House set at Choice, an after hours joint from Richard Vasquez. He was known to us at that time as a Freestyle guy or Latin Hip Hop. We asked around and learned he was a legend in the House community that at that time was at clubs like Paradise Garage.

I loved the Garage but never thought the music would translate to the non-gay, non-black and latin crowds. I remember not being able to get my friends to go to the Garage… so I got new friends. Roccio insisted it would work if we forced it. We gave David Morales a residency. I had booked Colonel Abrahms at the Palladium at the insistence of my ultra-hip assistant Rachel (forgive me dear, your last name is lost in time). Steve Rubell almost killed me for the booking. I argued with him and my time there ended until I came back years later under another god.

Frank and I talked about Frankie Knuckles. He was a legend. He was the originator of House. He was in Chicago. It was decided to move him to New York and give him a residency. It would legitimize us with the coolest set. We knew the fashion flock, celebrities and hipsters were merely followers. When we fetched him from the airport, I was expecting a short white guy with big, hairy knuckles. That’s what a Frankie Knuckles would look like from my neighborhood. My naivety ran deep. Big, Black, Gay Frankie was all laughter and forgiveness for my …faux pas.

He was a gentle giant who never played his cards too hard. He was open to everyone and to everything. He wanted what he needed of course, but he was driven by his passion—his music. We gave him a big beautiful room with a great sound system and a great crowd. The music, which started in Chicago, twisted in Detroit bounced back and forth to England, packed our house as its derivitives pack the world’s stages today. At that point, I had a wife. Her name was Jennifer Hamdan Lewis and she was beautiful and could sing.

Frankie and Satoshi Tomiie put her on as background singer for the Robert Owens classic track, “Tears.” Props must also be put to David Morales and Judy Weinstein. Frankie made her feel as comfortable as she could. She was a nervous sort. The song always makes me tear up. To me, it represents a beautiful era, a time when fairy tales would come true. It was a time of great success for me, both in my craft and in my heart. Jennifer would move away from me later on. She’s married and has a kid. My tears for her ended when I saw her finally happy in her new world.

Frankie continued his journey and I would see less of him as I chased different stars—but when we connected, it was all smiles and love. He was so full of that stuff, smiles and love. Now my tears are for Frankie Knuckles. He was larger than life in his lifetime and with his passing his legend will surely grow. Others will talk more about his musical legacy, name the songs and talk of his influence. I’m still so naive. I can only say how he put my love on that record, and how much that meant to me and mine. It would go: “One word would wash them away, one word could take their place,” and she would sing, “so many tears”. No word or a million can wash away the tears we shed today for Frankie Knuckles. I thank him for making my life more meaningful, for being an example and a beacon and for being a hell of an artist.