Aretha Franklin's 'Forever Friend' Willie Wilkerson Dies of COVID-19 at 72

Willie Wilkerson, Aretha Franklin
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

Willie Wilkerson and Aretha Franklin pose at the "Motown: The Musical" Pre-Broadway Sneak Preview Celebration at The Liberty Theater Party Space on Sept. 27, 2012 in New York City.

When Willie Wilkerson Jr. first met Aretha Franklin -- whom she called her "forever friend" -- during the mid-80s, his daughters say he wasn't sure who she was.

The two were living at Detroit's Riverfront Apartments and were each outside getting some air, Wilkerson with his leg in a cast. Franklin motioned for him to come over and signed his cast, and that began a relationship that lasted until Franklin's death in August of 2018, with Wilkerson at her bedside.

"She was a very large part of his life," his youngest daughter Tequila "Tiki" Wilkerson tells Billboard. "They loved each other. They were like best friends. They called each other sweetie. She called him all the time. There’s nothing he wouldn't do for her. They had a special relationship."

Willie Wilkerson, who was briefly engaged to Franklin during 2012 and was an integral part of her touring entourage, died April 8 at the age of 72 in a suburban Detroit hospital from complications of COVID-19.

"He was a great guy," says Hilton Kincaid, Franklin's longtime security guard and a close friend of Wilkerson's. "We had a great little entourage and a great relationship, and Willie was a big part of that. Aretha obviously saw his heart, and that allowed her to trust him. Willie was the only other person she had enough faith in to handle her business and personal issues."

While the public knowns about Wilkerson because of his relationship with Franklin, he had already led an accomplished life before they met. Raised on Detroit's east side, he was a Vietnam War veteran with the U.S. Marines and returned to spend 20 years as a fire engine operator with the Detroit Fire Department. "He was the best that ever did it, and I'm not just saying that," notes David Webster, who's still a captain with the department and referred to Wilkerson as "Uncle Will." "He was one of the first group of people that I met when I came on the job, and he was really helpful and supportive. Our relationship really blossomed."

During his time with the department Wilkerson also leased a small fleet of taxi cabs, and Kincaid even recalls buying a dog from him. "Willie was just a natural salesman type of guy -- a big, infectious smile, and people just loved him," Kincaid says. Noting that Wilkerson was the top seller of fire department benefit tickets, his daughter Tanya Thompson added that, "He was a convincing man, and a really open and honest kind of guy. If he wanted to do something he wanted to do it the very best he could, from cutting the grass to frying chicken."

His children -- three daughters (Wilkerson, Thompson and Sandra Evangelista) and son Kenny McGovern -- were also top priority. Tiki Wilkerson recalls her father coming to her house in the middle of the night to kill a spider and another trip to rid her attic of hamsters. "His children were his life. There's nothing he wouldn't do for us," she says.

With Franklin, Wilkerson was a devoted companion who, in addition to their personal time, organized the sheet music for her orchestras, took care of side-stage and backstage operations such as outfit changes, having tea ready during breaks and serving as a de facto backup bodyguard. He also made a cameo appearance in Franklin's video for "Jimmy Lee," a single from her 1986 album Aretha.

"I was kinda keeping my eye on him in the beginning, but it turned out he was a very, very genuine guy," says Kincaid. "Willie always kept her happy, which allowed me to do my job. He was an integral part of making sure her social or her happiness needs were met. I developed a great respect for him."

Though Kincaid says that Wilkerson had proposed to Franklin on previous occasions, he was surprised when she announced their engagement publicly on Jan. 2, 2012. "Willie didn't find out until the next day that she had put that out," Kincaid recalls. "Everybody was calling him saying congratulations. 'Congratulations for what?' Will told her, 'Re, it would've been nice if you told me!' We had a good laugh about it." The engagement was called off just three weeks later, however, with Franklin saying in a statement that "we were moving a little too fast, and there were a number of things that had not been thought through thoroughly."

"Willie and Aretha loved each other, but they were not lovers," says Kincaid, whose last contact with Wilkerson was a text message "Got it," referring to COVID-19. "But it worked out because they stayed dear, dear, dear friends forever. He was always there. He was a great part of her life." Tiki Wilkerson adds that during her illness, her father was constantly at Franklin's house. "He cleaned her up, fed her, cooked for her, spent hours over there with her," she remembers.

In addition to his children, Wilkerson is survived by his second wife, Doris Ogburn, 10 grandchildren, six great grandchildren and a Great Dane named Max.