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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

House music began in Chicago, and DJ Frankie Knuckles was its godfather. He was a legend in this world of electronic dance music now played in nightclubs all over the world. Knuckles died unexpectedly yesterday in Chicago. He had diabetes, and he lost a foot a few years ago after a skiing accident. He was 59 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: House music is so mainstream that by the mid-1990s, this Frankie Knuckles hit single was used in a Lipton tea commercial.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHISTLE SONG")

ULABY: It wasn't always that way. Frankie Knuckles started in the underground. When he was only 18, he got a job as a DJ at a major destination for gay men: the Continental Baths, in New York. That's where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow got their starts. In an interview with the BBC two years ago, Knuckles described it as a world unto itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FRANKIE KNUCKLES: It was more than just a bathhouse. You know, there was a boutique. There's an Olympic-size swimming pool. There was a theater room. There was a salon.

ULABY: And a dance floor. That's where Knuckles worked eight-hour shifts.

KNUCKLES: A lot of people would check in on Friday night, and they wouldn't check out until Monday morning - and they were on their way to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Frankie Knuckles' sets were not about explosive, nonstop energy. He structured them, he once said, like stories with internal logic and a certain moody momentum. Knuckles was born Francis Nicholls in the Bronx. And in his 20s, before he became known as "The Godfather of House," Knuckles moved halfway across the country to Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHARLES MATLOCK: Frankie had - he was the main DJ - was the only DJ at a club called The Warehouse.

ULABY: Charles Matlock is another Chicago DJ. He appeared on NPR last year to discuss the origins of Chicago house.

MATLOCK: That club ended up lending its name to this genre of music.

ULABY: That's disputed by some. But what's not is that Knuckles packed the place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR LOVE")

ADRIENNE JETT: (Singing) Don't make me wait too long. Oh, I need your touch...

ULABY: When he arrived in the 1970s, The Warehouse was mostly gay and black. Within a few years, everyone who loved to dance went there. But when disco fell out of fashion, Knuckles had to create new sounds by sampling music he liked: Philadelphia soul, Motown, rare European imports. He added drum effects, and used a reel-to-reel tape machine in the DJ booth to edit sections of songs over and over - giving dancers more time on the floor.

KNUCKLES: I did it out of necessity, you know what I mean, because there were no more disco records being made, nothing with any kind of real energy.

ULABY: So he created songs, songs that sometimes went on for 10 minutes or more, that remain classics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR LOVE")

JETT: (Singing) I can't let go...

ULABY: Charles Matlock.

MATLOCK: The song "Your Love," quite honestly, was probably about the year zero in the history of house music. So it really was one of the major shots heard 'round the world.

ULABY: Knuckles' style of music spread from Detroit to Ibiza to Berlin, and it helped sweep in rave culture in the U.K. in the 1990s. But Knuckles was never interested in hedonism. He saw the dance floor as a spiritual, even sacred, space. The beat united everybody there. For Frankie Knuckles, the beat was a creed. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR LOVE")

JETT: (Singing) I can't let go. I can't let go. I can't let go...

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