All Photos by Scott Kaplan
Last night, Frankie Knuckles was very much alive in Chicago. Inside the posh Underground nightclub in the River North neighborhood, friends, fans and supporters of the late DJ gathered on the anniversary of his passing to support his legacy and that of his legendary club, The Warehouse, with a launch party for the production of a movie in the club's name and the Frankie Knuckles Foundation.
"I know they call him the Godfather of House but I look at him as the Frank Lloyd Wright of house," says Joe Shanahan, a longtime friend of Knuckles and owner of Chicago clubs Smart Bar and Metro. "He's the architect of house. He was beautiful."
Mingling with the crowd and alternating between sipping cocktails, laughing with friends, and dancing to a classics set by Chicago fixture Lady D were the city's house elite including former owner of The Warehouse Robert Williams, longtime friend and now head of the Frankie Knuckles Foundation Frederick Dunson, and Shanahan. All were gathered to propel the foundation forward with fundraising as much as they were there to celebrate house music and the city where it was born.
"After Frankie made his transition, [Knuckles's manager] Judy Weinstein said to me, this is a lot. Somebody needs to deal with it," Dunson explains. He retired from his job with Cook County government last year to focus on the foundation full time. Its primary goal is to preserve the musical legacy of Knuckles through media, events, and conversation while also advocating for causes he supported. Through Weinstein, the Elton John AIDS Foundation reached out and offered to start a fund in honor of Knuckles to support HIV and AIDS awareness particularly among high risk men in Africa as well as African-American communities in the US, and African communities in the UK and around the world. "We were friends for 38 years and 25 of them we spent working together. I pretty much knew his mindset. They said, look, this is what you need to do. So I did it. Piece by piece, it's all been falling into place."
One of those big pieces, as Dunson announced last night, is an archiving project in partnership with the artist Theaster Gates. The project, expected to be completed by this coming fall, will collect, preserve, and archive the entire Frankie Knuckles record collection at Gates's Stony Island Arts Bank in a reclaimed bank building in Chicago. The Foundation's previously announced efforts around a documentary about The Warehouse were also championed at last night's events, with several of its producers, including owner of The Underground, Billy Dec, Shanahan, and noted film producer and Chicagoan Bob Teitel on hand to talk up the work of Knuckles and Williams in particular. Still, the conversation was less about the details of these works and more about the man who inspired them.
"I want people to know the spirit of Mr. Frank Knuckles and myself and what we tried to give to the cause, to the musical cause," Williams says. "The purpose for The Warehouse was to network ethnic groups and bring them together and party. Whether they were bisexual, heterosexual, homosexual, it didn't matter. We had to show them that they could all party in the same room together without any conflict. It turned out pretty wow."
"There wasn't a better club that I had ever been to," adds Shanahan. "It was magical. When I showed up, I was always welcome. It was very nice because there were very few straight white males there."
"Not to take anything away from what EDM is, but to me, some of it begins to sound the same," Shanahan continues. "Maybe I'm showing my age, but all I can say is that some dubstep drop over and over again doesn't really remind me of anything except for when people get together, that fraternal, tribal experience. When I've seen Diplo do his thing, I look and I go, yeah, that's his tribe. When I think about the clubs today and all the money that the uber and megaclubs spend… Frankie did it simple. In a dark room with a few strobe lights, some balloons and a big sound system."
As a clubowner, Shanahan is very much immersed in the house scene, as is Dunson to an extent through his work with the Frankie Knuckles Foundation. Though Williams says he rarely goes dancing much anymore ("not without my Ben-Gay!"), he made the trek to Nicky Siano's birthday party on Coney Island in New York last month. Shanahan's 19-year-old daughter was there too ("I was like, all right, then she was listening to me," he says). Still, the event at The Underground last night, along with two nights of back to back Boiler Room parties at Smart Bar epitomized how Chicago's music community has been galvanized in the last year.
"Unfortunately, what the untimely death of Frankie did for all Chicagoans is immediately educate and remind those who already knew that we're all brought together by one thing," explains Dec, who himself was too young to have been at the Warehouse but has made his career in the city's house and nightlife scenes because of his love for house music. "House started here and it came from him. [His passing] checked everybody to go, listen, I don't care if you've moved on to another genre of music or you don't listen to house anymore or you like a certain kind of house now—at the end of the day we all have our own evolutions and timelines—they're all affected by that club and by Frankie."
"This man was so important," agrees Shanahan. "He was the first global ambassador of music and dance culture out of Chicago."
"I take offense when I'm in other countries and people are trying to tell me their house is better or not even understand that house was actually made in Chicago," says Dec. "I find it offensive. I feel like we need a publicist, so I want to tell that story."
The stories of Chicago, house music, and Knuckles are made that much more personal by the spirit of the DJ himself, a subject all of his friends are ready to discuss with a personal memory of their friend, Frank.
"He was incredibly generous," says Dunson. "We were somewhere with my mother and he had a pair of earrings on and my mother asked him where he got them. And he said 'Tiffany, of course.' He pulled them off and gave them to her. That's the type of person he was. He was such a kind soul. Even with the success he had acclaimed, he would never go Hollywood on you. Even out on the road I'd be like, 'come on, let's go' and he'd be like 'no, people want to take a picture, they want an autograph, they want to speak to me, I'm going to stay.' That's how lovely he was."
Shanahan recalls fondly his "gentlemen's lunches" with Knuckles that would last for hours at places like the tony RL Restaurant. "He was an elegant man in the sense that you never wanted to hurry with him," Shanahan says. "He was never in a hurry when he was with friends."
As positive as the night was for celebrating the impact of The Warehouse and the future of the foundation, those close to Knuckles acknowledged their own sadness associated with the anniversary of his death. For those original Warehousers, the night was somewhat of a solemn reunion.
"I'm kind of emotional to think about if Frank was here with me," Williams says before trailing off. "But he's here in spirit. Along with my mother. I'm grateful for that."
"This morning, I woke up and I thought about it and there was one of two ways I could have dealt with the day," says Dunson. "It's kind of bittersweet but by the same token he would be so happy. He would be like, 'oh my god, all of this for me?' He'd shy away from it but he'd rise to the occasion and sit here and talk to you like you'd known him for a lifetime. This gives me an opportunity to keep him alive for me."
More information about the Elton John AIDS Foundation's Frankie Knuckles Fund can be found here.