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Aretha Franklin gets stirring sendoff: 'Detroit loves you'

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

It was a sendoff fit for the Queen.

Pallbearers carry the casket out of Greater Grace Temple at the end of the funeral for Aretha Franklin, Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, in Detroit. Franklin died Aug. 16, 2018 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76.

Aretha Franklin was laid to rest on Friday at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit with a rollicking, spiritual, touching, graceful, fiery and joyous celebration of her life, her personal and professional achievements and her indelible contributions to American culture. 

During the ceremony, which ran a royal eight-plus hours, Franklin was remembered as a once-in-a-lifetime talent, a pioneer for civil rights, a trailblazer for women’s issues and a regular ol’ down-to-Earth Detroiter, one who, when not performing on the world’s classiest stages, was “homegirl enough to make some potato salad and fry some chicken,” said Bishop T.D. Jakes.

He was one of more than 20 speakers who talked glowingly of the Queen of Soul to a crowd of 4,000, and he shared the podium with politicians, spiritual leaders, entertainers, family members and notables from the community honoring Franklin, who died Aug. 16 after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer.

Former President Bill Clinton called Franklin “the voice of a generation, maybe the voice of the century,” and called himself a “groupie” of Franklin’s long before he entered politics. He noted Franklin’s hard work in addition to her spectacular talent.

“She worked her can off to get where she was,” he said. “She decided to be the composer of her own life song — and what a song it turned out to be.”

A funeral attendee holds a program during Aretha Franklin's memorial service at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.

What a song, indeed. And that song was sung on Friday, loud and proud, capping off several days of Franklin celebrations in Detroit. Her viewing took place this week over three days — two at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and another at New Bethel Baptist, her home church — and on Thursday night at Chene Park, a nearly five-hour concert was held to honor her extensive musical legacy.

Friday’s celebration featured an all-star lineup of musical talent, including Faith Hill, Ariana Grande, Ron Isley, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson and a showstopping Chaka Khan, whose performance of “Goin’ Up Yonder” earned her the day’s only curtain call.

Watch: All the performers at Aretha Franklin's funeral

Smokey Robinson told a personal story about his lifelong friendship with Franklin, “and now my longest friend has gone home,” Robinson said. He sang a few bars of his song “Really Gonna Miss You” and dedicated it to Franklin.

Stevie Wonder closed out the day, performing his “Songs in the Key of Life” single “As,” after tuning up with the Lord’s Prayer on harmonica.

Detroit played an essential, indelible role in the ceremony. Franklin wasn’t just the Queen of Soul, she was “our” queen of soul, as speaker after speaker referred to her. Franklin was Detroit and Detroit was Franklin, and the two were so intertwined as to become one.

“Each time she soared, it felt like the people of Detroit soared with her, because she never lost her connection to our city,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said. 

Added Clive Davis, who signed Franklin to Arista Records in the early ’80s and worked with her for decades, “Aretha loved Detroit. She loved her life in Detroit, she loved her family, and Detroit, you led the world in loving Aretha.” 

“Our” also stood for Franklin’s standing in the black community. She was an icon of black music with deep roots in the church and the community, especially as it relates to her hometown. 

More: Who's who of politicians, musicians, clergy bid farewell to Aretha

“Dee-troit,” as Georgetown sociology professor and author the Rev. Michael Eric Dyson called it. “The blackest city in the world. Dot & Etta’s Shrimp Shack. Faygo Red Pop. Vernor’s ginger ale. Coney Island hot dog.”

Dyson was one of several speakers who touched on politics during the afternoon, befitting Franklin’s role as an outspoken political activist. 

Dyson referred to recent comments by President Donald Trump that Franklin once “worked” for him, leading Dyson to call Trump an “orange apparition,” a “dopey doppelganger of deceit and deviance” and a “lugubrious leech,” among other non-flattering terms. 

“She ain’t work for you,” Dyson said. “She worked above you; she worked beyond you. Get your preposition right.” 

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who called Franklin “the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement,” also came down on Trump in his remarks. He admitted a flub where during his television show last week, he misspelled “respect” when paying tribute to Franklin, and said he heard about it from viewers. 

“You corrected me,” he said. “Now I want y’all to help me correct President Trump by teaching him what (respect) means,” also referring to his comments regarding Franklin.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Franklin’s longtime friend, also mentioned politics, questioning why lines at Franklin’s viewing this week were longer than those seen at the polls. 

“Long lines to celebrate death and short lines for voting,” he said. “Something is missing. If you leave here and don’t vote, you’ve dishonored Aretha.”

In sheer size and scope, the event — which was broadcast on several TV networks and streamed live on the web — recalled the 2005 funeral service of civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Franklin’s was longer, topping Parks’ ceremony by more than an hour.

Clinton was one of several U.S. presidents who weighed in; remarks from Barack Obama and George W. Bush were also heard during the ceremony. 

Detroit rapper Big Sean was in the audience but was not part of the day’s program. 

Greater Grace Temple was packed for Aretha Franklin's funeral.

Moves were made during the ceremony to ensure Franklin’s Detroit legacy will continue for generations to come. Duggan announced plans to rename Detroit’s riverfront amphitheater Chene Park as Aretha Franklin Park, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said she plans to award Franklin with the Congressional Gold Medal. Former Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson advocated for Franklin to be put on a U.S. postage stamp.

Former Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas teared up at the podium, remembering the way Franklin and her family took Thomas in when he was new to Detroit in the 1980s. He said Franklin opened his eyes and gave him the courage to speak on race and class and gender while he was a champion.

“I’m gonna miss you Aretha,” Thomas said. “I’m gonna miss our phone calls. I’m gonna miss your words of wisdom and advice. The world is gonna miss you. 

“I want you to know I love you, the world loves you, and most importantly, Aretha, Detroit loves you.” 

More: Duggan says Chene Park will be renamed for Aretha Franklin

Franklin was eulogized by the Rev. Jasper Williams, pastor of Salem Bible Church in Atlanta, and Bishop Charles Ellis III of Greater Grace led the ceremony, which started more than 30 minutes after its planned 10 a.m. start and quickly fell behind schedule. 

“It took us a little time to get in here,” said Ellis, “but I believe the Queen wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Ellis vowed to keep the ceremony moving along, but added he would be sure to “take the necessary time to honor this great woman of God.”

Franklin herself was dressed in a sparkling full-length gold dress, designed by Linda Swanson of Swanson Funeral Home, with gold sequined Louboutins for her final outfit.

MorePink Cadillacs line 7 Mile for Franklin funeral

Her casket arrived at the church around 7:30 a.m. in the same hearse that took her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, to his final resting place.

Numerous floral arrangements from celebrities including Sam Moore, Mariah Carey, Barbra Streisand and the family of Otis Redding were set up in a hallway outside the sanctuary.

Family members filled the middle pews at the church, and several took the stage during the ceremony. Franklin’s granddaughter Victorie said, “nothing sounded better to me than the way my grandma sings,” and Franklin’s son, Edward Franklin, sang Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” in tribute to his mother. “We love you Mom, you’re still here with us,” he said. 

Franklin was also celebrated for her charitable side, the way she would regularly cut checks to local churches and the way she was always willing to help those in need.

That heart was at the center of comments by Stevie Wonder, who noted Franklin’s message of love is worth spreading. 

“Please remember the greatest gift we have been given in life itself is love,” he said. “So what happens today, not only in this nation but throughout the world, is that we need to make love great again.” 

Dr. William J. Barber II, pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsborough, N.C., said Franklin’s music “made you want to choose togetherness over hate.

“Aretha told us respect is non-negotiable,” he said. “And that’s why we respect our Queen Mother of Soul. And that’s why we will never stop remembering her and never stop singing her song.” 

Detroiters wave as  Aretha Franklin's funeral procession passes by on Livernois Avenue.

Twitter: @grahamorama

Susan Whitall and Leonard Fleming contributed.