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The late, legendary house DJ and producer Frankie Knuckles had an intimate connection to Smart Bar. He performed numerous times at the subterranean north-side club; of particular note were a standing Thanksgiving Eve gig and a performance in 1982 (when the club was located on the fourth floor of the Metro building) in which hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa performed downstairs on the main stage. But perhaps his most poignant visit was last January 19, when the then-ill DJ received friends in the bar's green room while a stacked lineup of house DJs (including David Morales and Derrick Carter) performed in celebration of his birthday.
"I think we all had a sense of the gravity that night would hold in the long run," says Marea Stamper, the Smart Bar talent buyer who performs and produces under the name the Black Madonna and wrote about Knuckles' final appearance at the club. "It was something none of us talked about the night of the show, but there was an unspoken feeling of deep reverence and magic."
After the DJ and longtime ambassador of Chicago house music passed away last March 31 due to complications from diabetes, Smart Bar owner Joe Shanahan spoke at his memorial. Now Shanahan, along with friends and members of Knuckles's inner circle, want to continue to preserve Knuckles's legacy and help others experience the joy and community that came through in his music. They've spearheaded the formation of the Frankie Knuckles Foundation, which will present For Frankie, a night of music this Sunday the 18th, nearly a year after his last birthday bash (Leor Galil previews the show in Soundboard).
Shanahan currently serves as advisory board president of the group—principles assisting in one way or another with the foundation include Frederick Dunson, Frankie's best friend and manager; Theaster Gates; Robert Williams, former owner of the Warehouse; entertainment attorney Randy Crumpton; film producer Robert Teitel; and Stamper. Other initiatives have already tapped into Knuckles's history and legacy, including an Elton John-established fund for HIV research and a J Willard Design commemorative shirt, the proceeds of which went toward diabetes research. The still-coalescing Chicago group's mission includes celebrating Knuckles's contributions to global music, maintaining a civic presence, and continuing the DJ's mission to act as a global ambassador of the music of the city of Chicago.
While no specific causes or partner institutions have been named yet, and the final shape of the foundation is still to be determined, Stamper says the cultural and civic aspects are obviously key. And as the impressive lineup of the Sunday night show—David Morales, Louie Vega, Tony Humphries, and Jamie Principle—suggests, so is the music.
"We're going to come together as a community like never before, and dance till the lights come on," says Stamper. "Frankie was family, so this is a family event comprised of his closest friends and loved ones."