Aretha Franklin leads tribute to her father, brother

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit It was not an ordinary Sunday at New Bethel Baptist Church.

The black stretch limousine outside the entrance, the overflowing parking lots and security guards buzzing about inside and out were the first clues that Aretha Franklin was inside.

The church was made famous by her father, the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, who would have been 100 years old this year, and her brother, the Rev. Cecil Franklin. The Queen of Soul was there to host a memorial service in their honor. Her father, a civil rights pioneer, died in 1984, and her brother, a pastor at the church for three years before becoming his sister's manager, died in 1989, according to family documentation inside the memorial service program.

"I used to listen to Aretha's father preach on the radio when I was a teenager," said Kendretta Richards, 78, of Detroit. "This is such a special day to be here celebrating his legacy. I imagine Aretha can't even put into words how she feels right now, it's so special."

Several dignitaries delivered emotional reflections on father and son during the event, which featured a gospel choir, noted gospel singers and a free soul food buffet.

But it was Franklin whom the hundreds of people who packed the church came to see.

When she finally took the stage an hour and 44 minutes after the memorial began, the audience stood and applauded loudly before cellphones lit up through the aisles, as record buttons were tapped.

She thanked the audience for coming.

"Thank you for coming to look back and reminisce with us," she said. "I'm just gong to sing a little something that has been recorded and has been in my spirit all weekend."

She then launched into the gospel song, "The Old Ship of Zion."

Some in the audience cried. One woman had to sit back down while her friend comforted her.

Franklin then motioned for the church choir to join in and the voices rang out with the horns, drums, organ and tambourines.

She sang the one song, leaving the audience standing and applauding before being escorted back to her seat.

Ronald Schwartz, 55, and his wife Viola, 61, came from Clarkston for the service.

"There's so much history in this church, it's just an honor to be in the same room with Aretha Franklin," said Ronald Schwartz. His wife added: "Aretha Franklin is so much a part of Detroit, I can't imagine the city without her."

A civil rights activist, the Rev. C.L. Franklin was the area leader for the Metro Detroit Freedom March, with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in June 1963. The march preceded the March on Washington with King as guest speaker.

Franklin also had a career as a recording minister, according to the memorial program highlights. He began recording with Chess Recording Co. in 1953. His first album in 1953 was "The 23rd Pslams" and his second, and one of his most famous, was "The Eagle Stirs her Nest."

The Rev. Cecil Franklin graduated cum laude from Morehouse College as valedictorian, and served as assistant pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church for about three years before assuming the managerial duties for his sister, according to the program.

One of Aretha Franklin's sons, Eddie Franklin, paid tribute to his grandfather before singing one of his mother's favorite gospel songs, "His Eye is On the Sparrow."

His performance left many in the audience crying as they gave him a standing ovation:

"I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free,

For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me."


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