Graham: Aretha was a queen for the world, a Detroiter to us

The Queen of Soul's presence was felt in Detroit, because she was one of us

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Aretha Franklin was the legend of legends, the diva of divas, but it was her quirks that made her ours, an endearing, everyday Detroiter.

Motown legend Aretha Franklin sings the national anthem at the beginning of WrestleMania III. Traffic was so bad getting to the Silverdome, she arrived just on time, with no time for a sound check. Aretha Franklin headlined a celebrity roster that also included Bob Uecker and Mary Hart.

I remember watching her stroll onto Ford Field at Super Bowl XL to perform the National Anthem and seeing her set her purse down on stage. Sure, a woman is rarely far from her purse, but I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of performances over the years and I don’t remember anyone else ever bringing their purse onto stage with them. I remember thinking, “Doesn’t she have someone else who could take care of that for her?” But it was her purse, so of course, she brought it with her, like she was walking into a bank or a restaurant. And as she exited the field, she picked up her purse and carried it off with her.

I saw her do this at almost every performance thereafter. Sometimes it was a fun game to play: spot the purse. It was always there, a subtle trademark, and something that brought her down off the cloud of Aretha and onto the pavement with the rest of us.

Aretha Franklin performs at the  “Let Freedom Ring Celebration" for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.  on January 19, 2009.

Of course, she wasn’t like the rest of us. Aretha, who died Thursday at the age of 76, was music royalty, the first female inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the greatest singer of all-time, as she was honored by Rolling Stone. But as famous and heralded as she was, she was weirdly relatable, despite her international stardom and her importance to the world of music.

Aretha was the world’s, yet she was distinctly ours. She was around. At The News, we would hear from her from time to time. She would sometimes call, she would sometimes comment on a story, from a Facebook account that wasn’t tied to her name but that we knew was hers. Earlier this year, she called our online desk one Sunday and ordered a subscription to the newspaper. She got one of our editors on the line. Aretha’s name had come up on the caller ID, and when asked if it was indeed  “the Miss Franklin?" She said it was and kindly asked for prayers for her health.

Aretha Franklin’s greatest live performances

When she announced her plans to retire from touring — she famously refused to fly for more than 30 years, another Aretha quirk — she did so during a casual phone call to WDIV’s (Local 4) Evrod Cassimy. Not via a press release, not to the New York Times, but to Cassimy, with whom she had developed a friendship over the years. Word spread from there.

She had a lifetime of unbelievable performances, and there were always ties back home to Detroit. When Barack Obama was inaugurated as President in January 2009, it was a historic day for America, and yet Aretha nearly stole the entire day from underneath his feet with her decision to wear a hat adorned with a bow the size of the Spirit of Detroit. The hat wasn’t from Milan or Paris or some other world fashion capital; it was from a Detroit designer named Luke Song, the son of hat makers who immigrated to Detroit from South Korea. The hat is now in the Smithsonian, and one day will be a part of Obama's Presidential library — a little piece of Detroit that made history thanks to Aretha.

She would host holiday feasts at New Bethel Baptist Church on the city’s west side, where her father, the late Rev. C.L. Franklin, was once pastor. She could be counted on to cut $10,000 checks to the church several times a year. She also hosted an annual gospel concert at the church where she would showcase new singers and up-and-coming talent.

She didn’t turn her nose up at a good professional wrestling bout, either. She sang “America the Beautiful” to kick off WrestleMania III at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1987 —  legend has it that she nearly missed her call time due to heavy traffic — and she returned 20 years later to perform the song again when WrestleMania 23 hit Ford Field in 2007. “I’m a hometown girl singing at WrestleMania 23, and I’m here to have a good time,” she told the WWE that night, kicking off the sweat-and-spandex celebration in front of more than 80,000 fans.  

That hometown girl was back at Ford Field in 2016, performing the National Anthem for the Thanksgiving Day Detroit Lions game. Franklin delivered an epic four-and-a-half minute rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that was like a history lesson in song. It was bluesy and gospel-soaked and heartbreaking, one of the most honest and true performances of the song ever given, and she performed it while wearing a mink coat, a Lions knit cap atop her head and a visible gap in her front teeth. There was no glamour that day, no pretense, just an aching soul, singing for a country that was entering into a deeply divisive time. Her Anthem performance, which was playfully mocked for its length, signaled the path we were headed down as a country.

During her final Detroit concert, in June 2017 at Detroit Music Weekend outside Music Hall, Aretha turned in a shattering, soulful performance, taking the stage nearly an hour after her advertised start time. She was helped to the stage by the Rev. Jesse Jackson — it was clear she was not in good health. As she left, she told the crowd, “Keep me in your prayers.” But during that 95-minute concert, Aretha let the crowd hear her truth — her pain, her struggle, her praise, her pride — like only she could.

Her purse was elsewhere, she was too weak to carry it, but rest assured it was, and is, in good hands.

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