DETROIT—Aretha Franklin’s funeral began Friday with tributes, prayers and songs, as pink Cadillacs filled the street outside a Detroit church where the guests included former the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.
Robinson, the Motown great, remembered first hearing her play piano when he was just 8 and remaining close to Franklin for the rest of her life, talking for hours at a time. “You’re so special,” he said, before crooning a few lines from his song “Really Gonna Miss You.”
“Really gonna miss you, really gonna be different without you,” he sang.
Ariana Grande sang one of the Queen of Soul’s biggest hits, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and Faith Hill performed “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” While attendees found their seats at the Greater Grace Temple, the Aretha Franklin Orchestra performed a medley featuring “I Say a Little Prayer,” ”Angel” and other songs she was known for, along with gospel numbers “I Love the Lord” and “Walk in the Light.”
Barbara Sampson read a statement from former President George W. Bush, saying that Franklin would continue to inspire future generations. The Rev. Al Sharpton read a statement from former President Barack Obama, who wrote that Franklin’s “work reflected the very best of the American story.”
Franklin died Aug. 16 at age 76.
Her body arrived 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, legendary minister C.L. Franklin, and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks to their final resting places at Woodlawn Cemetery, where the singer will join them. The pink Cadillacs were 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 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.”
Organizers insisted the funeral would be a service, not a show. Yet the Queen of Soul’s final send-off certainly will encompass many elements, emotions and grand entrances that were hallmarks of her more than six decades on sacred and secular stages.
Bishop Charles Ellis III of Greater Grace knows well the boldface guest list and surrounding pomp and circumstance, but he has a higher mission in mind for a service expected to last several hours.
“It is my goal and my aim to ensure that people leave here with some kind of spiritual awakening,” Ellis said. “This is not a concert, this is not a show, this is not an awards production. This is a real life that has been lived, that a person regardless of how famous she became, no matter how many people she touched around the world, she still could not escape death.”
Of course, some get-down and lift-up need not be mutually exclusive.
“I really believe that this … is going to be an eye-opening experience for everybody in the world watching,” said gospel artist Marvin Sapp, also among the scheduled performers.
Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece, told The Associated Press that 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 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.
By Jeff Karoub