Aretha Franklin's companion Willie Wilkerson Jr. dies of COVID-19

The Detroit News

Willie Wilkerson Jr., a longtime friend and former fiance of legendary singer Aretha Franklin, died Wednesday from the coronavirus, relatives reported.

"I know most of you were praying for him and our family and I want you to know how much we appreciate you," his daughter, Tanya Wilkerson-Thompson, said in a post on Facebook. "If you knew him at all or ever met him even once, you know how full of life he was. He was my hero, my father and my friend. I will cherish every memory of him."

Willie Wilkerson, Federal Judge Damon Keith and Hostess Aretha Franklin at Franklin's annual Christmas Party at the International Banquet Center in Detroit's Greektown on December 22, 2012.

Other details were not released. Wilkerson-Thompson and other relatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

For years, Wilkerson, a former Detroit firefighter, was a constant companion of Franklin, accompanying the icon to many public events locally and elsewhere before her death from cancer in August 2018.

“Let me tell you, I wasn’t just with her for 35 years, I was with her — all the time, every day," he told The Detroit News during a visitation. "Nobody else can say that.” 

Wilkerson was at the performer's side when she celebrated her 70th birthday in New York in 2012.

Months earlier, Franklin confirmed she and Wilkerson planned to marry. She told the Associated Press he was a longtime friend before their relationship became romantic, proving that "sometimes what you're looking for is already there."

Weeks after that interview, Franklin announced the wedding was off, saying in a statement: "Will and I have decided we were moving a little too fast, and there were a number of things that had not been thought through thoroughly."

In a 1999 book, "Aretha From These Roots," the singer included details about her relationship with him as well as other men, according to Detroit News archives.

Wilkerson met Franklin while attending one of her area concerts in the 1980s, said Reginald Amos, a longtime friend and retired Detroit deputy fire chief who knew him more than 30 years.

Judge Damon Keith, Aretha Franklin and Willie Wilkerson with Franklin's hat-shaped birthday cake at Seldom Blues in Detroit on March 21, 2009.

Despite wearing a cast from an injury suffered while on the job, "he was whooping and hollering and rooting for Aretha, and they got to talking and the rest was history," Amos said.

Wilkerson told a reporter for a Vanity Fair story in 1994 that he and Franklin had been engaged another time but ended that, as well.

"She's a homebody," he said at the time. "She really is as far as I can see. She likes being around the house and likes having a man around the house. The type of person I am, I can't sit around the house. If I could be that type of guy, I would have been there. I'm too hyper." 

Wilkerson handled security for the singer at times and had been a road manager, Amos told The News. "He enjoyed it immensely."

The Detroit native served in the Marines before joining the fire department by the early 1970s, Amos said.

Wilkerson became a fire engine operator known as "one of the best, if not the best, we had on the department at that time," Amos said. "He knew his apparatus.

"He knew the city ... and if he went in a new district, he would stay up all day to study the map so we never had a problem getting from point A to point B. He was one of the senior instructors teaching new fire engine operators how to perform their jobs."

After retiring more than a decade ago, Wilkerson enjoyed traveling with Franklin and golfing, Amos said. "He was a hell of a guy. He always gave back to the city. He served the citizens of the city of Detroit admirably, and he never turned his back on the city or its citizens."