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Aretha Franklin's funeral draws big names in music, politics

Last Updated Aug 31, 2018 7:39 PM EDT

Former presidents and preachers joined a parade of singers Friday in a hip-swaying, piano-pounding farewell to Aretha Franklin, remembering the Queen of Soul as a powerful force for musical and political change and a steadfast friend and family member.

"Aretha's singing challenged the dangling discords of hate and lies and racism and injustice," the pastor William J. Barber II said. "Her singing was revelation and was revolution." 

The Queen of Soul died of cancer earlier this month at the age of 76. In a send-off both grand and personal, a celebrity lineup of mourners filled the same Detroit church that hosted Rosa Parks' funeral and offered prayers, songs and dozens of tributes. Guests included former President Bill Clinton, former first lady Hillary Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.

Robinson, the Motown great, remembered first hearing Franklin play piano when he was just 8, and he remained close to her for the rest of her life. They talked for hours at a time.

"You're so special," he said, before crooning a few lines from his song "Really Gonna Miss You," with the line "really gonna be different without you."

Celebrity singers pay tribute in song

  • Country singer Faith Hill was the first of many singers to take the stage
  • Ariana Grande performed Aretha Franklin's "A Natural Woman" during the service
  • Jennifer Hudson, whom Franklin said she wanted to play her in a movie about her life, brought the crowd to its feet with a rousing "Amazing Grace."
  • Chaka Khan performed Tramaine Hawkins's gospel staple "Goin' Up Yonder"

The Aretha Franklin Orchestra performed a medley featuring "I Say a Little Prayer," ''Angel" and other songs the Queen of Soul was known for, along with gospel numbers "I Love the Lord" and "Walk in the Light." Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton among the speakers

The Rev. Jesse Jackson told Aretha Franklin to "sleep on" and "I'll see you in the morning." Jackson, who has Parkinson's disease and is in his late 70s, spoke slowly as he stood in front of the gathered mourners at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit. He led them in a prayer of thanks for Aretha and her minister father, asking that god make all in the church "better, not bitter," by the time the day is over.

"Aretha's not lost, we know where she is," Jackson said. He praised her for the funding she gave to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and for singing through tear gas during the civil rights fight.

He said, however, that it was a shame that the lines to mourn famous people are long, but lines to vote are so short, lamenting that President Trump won Michigan by so few votes. Jackson said if anyone who leaves the funeral and isn't registered to vote "dishonors Aretha." 

Former President Bill Clinton memorialized Franklin as a woman with "breathtaking talent" who kept on charming audiences despite her illness. He recalled being an "Aretha groupie" all his life and being thrilled to meet her backstage at her last public performance, a benefit in Harlem for Elton John's AIDS charity last year. She was "gaunt" but went on to perform for 45 minutes.

"How you doing, baby?" she asked him.

"I'm doing better now," Mr. Clinton replied. 

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Former US President Bill Clinton speaks during Aretha Franklin's funeral at Greater Grace Temple on August 31, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.

Angela Weiss / AFP/Getty Images

The former president also asked the audience to forgive him, saying he was happy that Franklin's casket was still open when he arrived because he just had to see what she was wearing.

"I wonder what my friend has got on today," Mr. Clinton said. "I wanted to see what the girl was carrying out," to a wave of laughs and claps from the crowd. Franklin was wearing a gold gown, her fourth outfit of the week.

He ended his time by playing Franklin's "Think" on his iPhone into the mic. "It's the key to freedom!" Clinton said. 

Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush didn't attend Franklin's funeral but they sent messages to honor the Queen of Soul. Mr. Obama, in a statement read by the Rev. Al Sharpton, hailed Franklin for reflecting "very best of the American story." Her music, he said, "captured some of our deepest human desires, namely affection and respect."

Mr. Bush's statement, read by Franklin friend Barbara Sampson, called Franklin "a woman of achievement with a deep character and a loving heart" who made "lasting contributions to American music with her gospel-inspired style and distinctive voice." 

Record giant Clive Davis remembered Franklin as a woman with a thirst for knowledge, as a "true Renaissance woman" -- and one with a streak of perfectionism.

Davis, who produced Franklin's music for decades, including such later hits as "Who's Zoomin' Who?" and "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," said once Franklin committed to a project, she'd go into "Aretha mode," privately rehearsing and preparing so intensely that it was rare for her to need more than a few takes in the studio.

Said Davis: "Aretha's voice will be influencing others, literally, for centuries to come."

Davis recalled the time Franklin surprised him when he was getting a lifetime achievement award in New York by showing up onstage in a tutu.

"There was the Queen of Soul, accompanied by members of the City Center Ballet Company, she doing well-rehearsed pirouettes and dancing with most impressive agility and dignity. It was wonderful."

Former NBA star Isaiah Thomas eulogized Franklin as someone who offered her advice and friendship and someone who "shifted the universe." He laughed that in the week since Franklin died, her music is being sung everywhere, forcing people in restaurants to stop eating and spontaneously dance.

Thomas recalled how, as a young man, Franklin's music soothed his mother when the family faced challenges, and later smiled when the soul icon would attend his Detroit Pistons games and sit near his mom.

"She found a way to inspire all of us with hope, love and dreams through her music," Thomas said. "Her voice found a way to help this nation soothe and deal with its troubled past."

Pink Cadillacs line up to honor Franklin

On Friday morning, about 100 pink Cadillacs lined the street outside Greater Grace Temple, which seats 4,000 people.

Franklin's body arrived early Friday in a 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse. She wore a shimmering gold dress, with sequined heels -- the fourth outfit Franklin was clothed in during a week of events leading up to her funeral. 

The casket was carried to the church that also took Franklin's father, the renowned minister C.L. Franklin, and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks to their final resting places at Woodlawn Cemetery, where the singer will join them. Pink Cadillacs filled the street outside the church, a reference to a Franklin hit from the 1980s, "Freeway of Love."

Program covers showed a young Franklin, with a slight smile and sunglasses perched on her nose, and the caption "A Celebration Fit For The Queen." Large bouquets of pink, lavender, yellow and white flowers flanked her casket.

Floral arrangements from singers such as Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett and from the family of the late Otis Redding, whose "Respect" Franklin transformed and made her signature song, were set up in a hallway outside the sanctuary. An arrangement from singer Sam Moore included a card that read, "You know I always adored and loved you to bits and pieces ... Even when we would fuss."

Family members, among them granddaughter Victorie Franklin and niece Cristal Franklin, spoke with awe and affection as they remembered a world-famous performer who also loved gossip and kept pictures of loved ones on her piano.

Sabrina Owens, Franklin's niece, told The Associated Press she started putting thoughts to paper about events earlier this year as her aunt's health failed. Since Franklin's death, Owens said a close group she described as "Aretha's angels" have "worked tirelessly" and have been guided by a single question: "What would Aretha want?"

"After all she gave to the world, I felt we needed to give her an appropriate send-off that would match her legacy," Owens said.

The City of Detroit honors Aretha Franklin

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, in his remarks at the service, announced he would rename Chene Park in her honor. Chene Park was the location of the tribute concert for Aretha Franklin Friday night.

"I will be sending city council a proposal to rename Chene Park. Our beautiful waterfront jewel will be Aretha Franklin park. And when perofrmers for generations from around the world come here, they will be reminded that they are performing at the home of the Queen of Soul." 

Brenda Jones, Detroit City Council President, also said a street will be renamed in her honor. She said a portion of Madison Avenue in Detroit would be renamed "Aretha Franklin Way."