Smart Bar Chicago's talent buyer Marea Stamper remembers Frankie Knuckles
It was Sunday, January 19. We had a line down the block since 9PM and now it was nearly midnight. The club was absolutely electric. It was the Frankie Knuckles Birthday Bash at Queen!, with an almost impossible all-star lineup: Frankie, David Morales, Louie Vega, Inaya Day and our secret guest, Ultra Naté, plus Queen! residents, Derrick Carter, Michael Serafini and Garrett David. There were so many moving parts involved in making this show happen. Our amazing staff and residents worked around the clock for weeks to make sure that Frankie had a perfect birthday party.
You see, Frankie Knuckles has been a part of this club for over 30 years—he was our very first guest DJ in 1982. In the three decades since, he played our little room hundreds of times, calling it home as a resident. Thanksgiving eve, Memorial Day, those were the real family reunions, but there was never an off-night, not in 30 years.
Of course there wasn't.
By 11PM, we all knew that something very special was happening. People from every corner of a city often segregated by neighborhood filled the club, laughing, hugging, singing along with the songs they knew. Derrick Carter is always great, but on this night, he was a different kind of great. Michael and Garrett glowed in the booth. All of our special guests had arrived, with the exception of the birthday boy, so I stepped outside to look at the throngs of shivering Chicagoans waiting to get in. Then one of our security guards grabbed me and said that I was needed immediately inside Metro, the sister venue above Smart Bar. As I opened the door, I saw our owner, Joe Shanahan, and our bar manager, Lenny Lacson, standing with Frankie Knuckles' loyal and ever-present manager, Frederick Dunson.
Ducking into the green room, Frederick, visibly shaken, said Frankie wasn't well and wouldn't be able to make it to the show. Without missing a beat or even beginning to think of the business-end of what Frederick was telling us, Joe stopped Frederick, his voice softening, "I don't care about the money part, or a rescheduled date. That's not important to me. Frederick, this isn't about that tonight. What's going on? Just tell us how we can help. What's going on with Frankie? We have doctors that we can send to his home. We have medical personnel on staff. Do we need to go there now? We can be there in minutes."
In that moment, the bond of love that Joe and Frankie had shared over the last thirty years became absolutely clear to me. I knew they were close, but this was something else. Though they couldn't have come from more different backgrounds, they couldn't be any closer.
This is what house music always promised us it could do: tear down the walls, free us as brothers and sisters, black or white, Jew or gentile, it makes no difference, right? House music, Frankie's gift, brought these two men and so many of us together in ways we never could have imagined.
What a blessing this is.
Then, like a miracle, Frederick's phone rang. Frankie was getting dressed. He wouldn't be able to play, but he would be here. When he arrived, we tried to make sure he was comfortable. It must have taken Herculean will to come at all. He spent the night sitting in the green room receiving old friends, sharing hugs and kisses. One by one, people filed in. Michael Serafini sat at his feet. Big Karl, our gentle giant of a security guard, was placed on personal detail for Frankie and sat next to him like a bear, beaming proudly at the honor of his duty. It was a beautiful affair.
When it came time to tell the audience that Frankie wasn't well enough to play, but that he was in the building upstairs, the crowd erupted in into song, led by Inaya and Ultra. He heard five-hundred people singing to him through the floor.
We didn't know this would be goodbye. Last night my husband woke me up from a deep, jet-lagged sleep to tell me that Frankie was gone. We put on a recording of one of Frankie's WBMX shows. My phone went off. It just said: "Frankie!"
I can't imagine the strength it took to type that one word to me into his phone, but this morning, Joe issued the following statement:
"Frankie was always one of those DJs that through his music could take us from the dancefloor to church. He was the first person I heard use a Martin Luther King Jr. speech as part of a remix. He was an innovator and a pioneer who influenced generations of musicians and music fans. He took me under his wing 35 years ago at the original Warehouse and then the Power Plant. Frankie was the first DJ we ever booked for Metro/Smart Bar—he played our opening weekend. He's one of the few artists to have played the club in all three decades of its existence. He was a pioneer, a consummate professional. I was lucky to have worked with and collaborated with him. He is and will always be the Godfather of House, but more than that, to me, he was a dear, dear friend who I will deeply miss."
It wasn't easy to come into the office today. Lots of our staff have been here for decades. Frankie has been intimately connected to every point of our little world for over 30 years. It's not even noon and we've all shed plenty of tears. There are things to do. What do we put on the marquee? What tribute could suffice? How can we even begin to express our grief and respect? Derrick Carter wrote, "Still, this isn't about me and my sadness. I am not important here. Our community has lost one of its pillars and one of its founders so we all mourn. We all share this. Blessings and light to you all. Now count those blessings and live in that light."
My heart is with Derrick, Michael, Garrett and Joe especially, but it is with everyone in house music who is feeling this loss as well as his blessing and light.
Last night I asked, "How do you thank someone for giving you a gift like house music? Think about that. What has house music meant to you in your life?"
I still don't know the answer to that question, so on behalf of myself, the residents and all of us at Smart Bar I will just say thank you for blessing us, Godfather.
Marea Stamper is the talent buyer at Smart Bar Chicago. Be sure to check out Five Frankie Knuckles Tracks You Need To Know