Aretha Franklin‘s going home ceremony was filled with exactly the amount of emotion, spirit and grandeur that you would expect at the funeral of the Queen of Soul.
The sprawling, nearly 8-hour tribute to the singer who died on Aug. 16 at age 76 following a fight with pancreatic cancer filled Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple with song, humor and warmth as those gathered remembered the singer for her sacred and secular music, dedication to civil rights and ability to be a down-home natural woman despite the trappings of more than a half century of global fame.
The Rev. Al Sharpton read from a letter written by former Pres. Barck Obama, who said Franklin, “rocked the world of anyone who had the pleasure of hearing her voice, whether bringing people together through thrilling intersections of genres or advancing important causes through the power of song, Aretha’s work reflected the very best of the American story.”
Rev. Sharpton called Franklin the “soundtrack of the civil rights movement,” praising her for being bathed in the black church, but also taking her music downtown and teaching people how to shout about the holy ghost at her shows. He joked that he got a lot of flack for misspelling “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” on his show recently, then asked the audience to “help correct president Trump to teach him what it means,” eliciting hoots from the house and a standing ovation. He also alluded to the tweet from Trump in which the president said impertinently that Franklin used to “work” for him. “No, she used to perform for you,” Sharpton said. “She worked for us. Aretha never took orders from nobody but God.”
Pres. George W. Bush — who presented the singer with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 — also sent along a letter to Franklin’s family, writing, “She made important and lasting contributions to American music with her gospel-inspired style and distinctive voice… I am proud to have met Aretha and am grateful that her music will continue to bring joy to millions for generations to come.”
Seated on stage for the ceremony, a smiling former Pres. Bill Clinton took the podium more than four hours in and thanked the Franklin family for inviting him and former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to the ceremony, joking that they didn’t start out as governors, senators, presidents or secretaries of state, but as “Aretha groupies or something.” Calling Franklin the “voice of a generation, maybe the voice of a century,” Clinton paid homage to the years the singer spent singing in churches before moving on to rock, jazz and R&B clubs, even opening for John Coltrane at one point.
“This woman got us all here in these seats today,” he said. “Not because she has this breathtaking talent, which she did. Not because she grew up… at least a princess of soul because of her father, her mother, her relatives. But because she lived with courage, not without fear, but overcoming her fears. She lived with faith, not without failure, but overcoming her failures. She lived with power, not without weakness, but overcoming her weaknesses. I just loved her.”
And, in homage to Franklin’s legendary taste for finery, Clinton asked for God — and the family’s — forgiveness before quipping, “I was glad… when I got here today when the casket was still open because I said, ‘I wonder what my friend’s got on today?,'” ending by playing a bit of “Think” and saying, “It’s the key to freedom! God bless you Aretha we love you!”
In between moving performances from Faith Hill, Ariana Grande, opera sopranos Alice McAllister Tillman and Audrey Dubois Harris, the voluminous Aretha Franklin Celebration Choir, gospel singers Shirley Caesar, Tasha Cobbs-Leonard, The Clark Sisters and Marvin Sapp, a soul-splashed take on Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by son Edward Franklin, there were also many other tributes, including a particularly poignant one from Franklin’s dear friend Motown legend Smokey Robinson.
The singer-songwriter remembered meeting Aretha when they were both kids, recalling how they were close from the very first. “I didn’t know especially this soon, that I was going to have to say goodbye to you,” he said, recalling that the two often lamented that they were among the final ones standing among their generation of musical icons. “[We were] the longest ones… so now my longest friend has gone home.”
Robinson pictured Franklin in heaven, though, certain that she would be one of the “featured voices in the choir of angels,” because, well, she had to be. He ended with an a cappella run through his tribute to former Temptations member Melvin Franklin, “Really Gonna Miss You,” singing tenderly, “Really miss you/ It’s rally gonna be different without you/ For the rest of my life gonna be thinking about you/ I’ll miss you my buddy/ I’ll miss you my friend/ I know that my love for you will never end.”
“I’m gonna love you forever,” he said, before blowing a kiss to Franklin’s gilded casket.
Another emotional high point was a remembrance by granddaughter Victorie Franklin, who said when people asked what it was like to be the Queen of Soul’s granddaughter, she’d just shrug her shoulders and say, “I don’t know… it’s just my grandma… When I would go to her shows and watch her sing it would be the best feeling in the world. Nothing sounded better to me than the way my grandma sings. Her voice made you feel something. You felt every word, every note, every emotion in the songs she sang. Her voice brought peace.”
As the service stretched into late afternoon, R&B icon Chaka Khan took the stage waving a sparkly blue fan that matched the color of her royal blue dress for a rousing rendition of Walter Hawkins’ “Goin’ Up Yonder” that had the entire house on their feet clapping and swaying as she stretched out the ending of the gospel standard with a series of soaring ad libs.
Next up was soul legend Ron Isley of the Isley Brothers. “I should’ve brought the brothers here!” he exclaimed, getting slightly tripped up over his own words attempting to commemorate Aretha, and eventually just concluding, “Let me go on and sing.” He went on to perform a beautiful version of the hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” audibly having to fight back tears throughout the rendition.
After Rev. Jesse Jackson offered some words of comfort (“Aretha is not lost… we know where she is”) and some words of caution about voter turnout (“We have long lines for death and short lines for voting”), and Dr. William J. Barber II shared testimony about how Franklin’s singing “was liberation and the revolution in a major key,” R&B singer Fantasia Barrino took the stage. She took off her shoes to perform a visceral rendition of Franklin’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” / “You’ve Got a Friend” medley from 1972’s Amazing Grace live album.
Actor/director Tyler Perry recalled his mother playing Franklin’s music to reflect her mood (“I could tell what my father had done by the music she was playing”) and shared how much Franklin loved his Madea character, while Oscar-nominated actress Cicely Tyson recited a spirited version of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “When Malindy Sings,” amended of course to “When Aretha Sings.” Then longtime label head Clive Davis shared memories of first recruiting Aretha to Arista in 1979, saying “We were committed to demonstrating to all the budding musicians how long a career can last.”
Gospel great Yolanda Adams then got the crowd on their feet with an inspired version of “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” also performed by Franklin on Amazing Grace. Then, a couple local greats paid tribute, with Detroit radio host Mildred Gaddis sharing tales of Franklin’s selfless good-doing, and Hall of Fame Detroit Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas discussing how inspiring it was to see Aretha sitting with his mother in the stands during Pistons games (“I know I was her favorite Bad Boy”).
Friend Ron Moten then shared his personal remembrances, including a resounding shoutout to Aretha’s security team, while Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson put Franklin’s cultural importance into context (“She was black girl magic, before there was black girl magic”) and reached a feverish climax while disparaging Pres. Trump for his comments about Franklin “working for” him. Then Jennifer Hudson, the R&B singer reportedly handpicked by Aretha herself to play her in her eventual biopic, led the choir in a mighty performance of “Amazing Grace.”
Franklin’s official eulogy was then delivered by Rev. Jasper Williams, Jr., who performed a rendition of the hymn “Father, I Stretch My Hand to Thee,” and proceeded to urge his audience to take stock of how “black America has lost its soul,” in a controversial sermon that many viewers found distasteful. Franklin’s soul peer Gladys Knight then performed a pair of modern pop standards, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” both of which Aretha had notable renditions of during her career.
With the ceremony nearing its close, all-time musical legend Stevie Wonder took over on the harmonica, performing “The Lord’s Prayer.” He then offered a simple message: “As we talk about all the things that those have talked about today, please remember that the greatest gift we have been given in life itself is love. Yes, we can talk about all the things that are wrong — and there are many — but the only thing that can deliver us is love.” He also shared his joy at Franklin having recorded his “Until You Come Back to Me” as a hit single, and expressed a desire to write with her again in the afterlife, before leading the crowd in a joyous rendition of his 1976 classic “As,” backed by soul greats Angie Stone and Jenifer Lewis.
After Wonder’s performance, the service closed with the recessional rendition of “Climbing Higher Mountains,” led in a rapturous performance by Broadway icon Jennifer Holliday, as the pallbearers collected Franklin’s coffin and carried her out of the Greater Grace Temple.
Additional reporting by Andrew Unterberger.