Hundreds gathered at Detroit’s Greater Grace Church on Friday morning to honor the legendary Aretha Franklin, who died on Aug. 16 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Outside the ceremony pink Cadillacs lined the street, referencing her ’80s hit “Freeway of Love.” Inside, floral arrangements from Diana Ross, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand greeted mourners in the sanctuary’s entrance. White and pink flowers were assembled at the front of the church; the words “A Celebration Fit for the Queen” were projected above the golden casket.
In the hour before the service began, public figures ranging from the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to Motown legend Martha Reeves and Faith Hill milled about inside the church as a gospel group performed gentle, soulful instrumentals and an announcer gently but firmly told the mourners to take their seats.
At around 10:10 a.m. local time, the audience hushed as former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived at the service. Shortly after, the announcer admonished the crowd that anyone seen taking cellphone pictures — which some people had been doing flagrantly before the service — would be asked to leave.
As the music began at around 10:25, Ariana Grande and fiancé Pete Davidson posed for photos with the former president. Celebs ranging from Tyler Perry and Whoopie Goldberg to Lous Farrakhan were seen chatting and smiling for photographs in the moments before the service officially began.
The gospel group’s second song was a horn-driven version of Franklin’s arrangement of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” as featured on her 1971 “Live at the Fillmore West” album. It was immediately followed by a snippet of her 1968 hit “I Say a Little Prayer.” In the hours before the service began, the choir sang powerful versions of hymns and traditional gospel songs like “Marvelous” and “I Shall Wear a Crown.”
At around 11 a.m. family members, along with Motown legend Smokey Robinson, began their viewing — some were visibly distraught as they passed the open gold casket. One woman wore a white hat with a giant bow on it, in homage to the one Franklin wore when she sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
The ceremony got underway about 90 minutes behind schedule. “It took us a little time to get in here, but I don’t believe the Queen would have had it any other way,” the church’s pastor said in his opening welcoming remarks. “You cannot celebrate the legacy of an icon in a couple hours.”
Dr. E.L. Branch, Pastor of Third New Hope Church, followed. “She was classy enough to sing on the most prominent stage of the world, but homegirl enough to make potato salad and fried chicken.
“She is not here; she is risen.”
After several prayers, Faith Hill was the first performer, singing a powerful version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson swayed along.
Following Hill’s performance, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan spoke of how much Aretha loved the city’s Chene Park — and concluded his comments by announcing that he has entered a motion to rename it Aretha Franklin Park. “When performers from around the world come here,” he said, “they are going to know this is the home of the Queen of Soul.”
Ariana Grande was the next performer to take the stage. She delivered pitch-perfect rendition of Franklin’s iconic “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” after which the officiating reverend joked that when he saw Grande listed on the program, he thought it was “a new item on Taco Bell.” He recognized Grande as “an icon herself.” (Watch the performance here.)
Reverend Sharpton delivered a message from Barack and Michelle Obama in which the former president remarked that Franklin “rocked the world of anyone who had the pleasure to hear her voice” and played a vital role in “advancing important causes through the power of song.” To sum up, Obama stated that Franklin “reflected the very best of the American story.”
Franklin’s influence on the civil rights movement was a theme of Sharpton’s speech. Her fellow longtime activist noted that Franklin was a “freedom fighter” and that gospel music was at her core. He also took a dig at President Trump’s controversial comment that Franklin “worked for” him several times. “She never took orders from nobody but God,” said Sharpton.
One of the most touching moments of the service occurred shortly afterward, when several congregations members began spontaneously dancing — the band fell in, the pastor said “you’ve got 60 seconds,” but the gospel-style rave-up went on for several minutes as the crowd joined in.
Up next was Smokey Robinson, the Motown star who was a contemporary of Franklin’s, who doesn’t write his speeches in advance. Addressing Franklin directly, he recalled a time during his childhood when he heard her sing for the first time. “My longest friend has gone home,” said Robinson.
Family members of Franklin’s followed, including her grandchildren and niece — Vaughan, Cristal, Victorie and Jordan Franklin — and offered a glimpse of Franklin the matriarch, parent and friend. She was a woman who gave her all to her offspring, encouraged their education, comforted them, advised them, cooked for them and liked to gossip with them — nothing sounded better to me than the way my grandma sang,” said her granddaughter Victorie. Her brother Edward sang a solid version of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 Motown hit “Mercy, Mercy Me.”
Former President Bill Clinton gave a rambling but charming speech in which he referred to himself and wife Hillary as “Aretha Franklin groupies” before their political careers. He spoke of her history in the jazz world, her singing at both his and Barack Obama’s inaugurations, adding “I even had her come and sing for the prime minister of Japan — I thought she’d loosen him up a little.”
He then lightened the mood even further by saying, “I hope you’ll forgive me for saying this, but I was so glad when I saw the casket was open today, because I wanted to [find out] ‘What has my friend got on today?’,” to laughter.
He also spoke of attending her final concert at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Gala in New York last fall. “My most enduring memory is what turned out to be the last public singing she ever did, at Elton John’s AIDS benefit last year in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Harlem, just a couple of blocks from my office. I showed up a little early — I was [a fan] like a grade school kid — and she heard I was there and she summoned me back,” he recalled. “And she’s sitting there, obviously desperately ill, gaunt. She stood right up and said, ‘How you doin’, baby?’ I said, ‘Well I’m doing better now!’ And she said, ‘Look at me, I finally got thin again.’
“It took a lot of guts to say that, and then she went out into that setting, and all those people said, ‘Can you believe she showed up?’ And she sang not one, not two, not three songs — she brought a chair out and sang for 45 straight minutes.
“I’ll never forget it,” he continued. “She stood up singing in that cathedral when she good, she sat down when got tired, and she even went over and played piano just in case any of us forgot she could do that.
“She did this great thing, knowing she could not live long, and she even told the audience that that day she had gotten a good medical report. I have no idea if it’s true or not, but I know one thing: She wanted them to sit back, relax, feel good listening to her sing and not worry about how long she was gonna live.”
He concluded by pulling out his phone and playing the beginning of Franklin’s 1968 composition, “Think,” a song that has taken on a political poignance over the years.
As the audience clapped along, Clinton concluded, “It’s the key to freedom — God bless you, Aretha we love you!”
After more testimonials, including one from Rev. Donald Parsons of Chicago, who noted Franklin’s longtime fear of air travel. “She’s no longer afraid of flying,” he said. “She hasn’t gone someplace, she’s gone to someone.”
Next up was Chaka Khan, who sang a stirring rendition of Walter Hawkins’ gospel classic “Going Up Yonder” accompanied by the choir — she reached into the upper range of her powerful voice for a lengthy vamp on the final chorus, bringing the audience to its feet. She was quickly followed by Ron Isley, who sang a soaring version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is battling Parkinson’s Disease, nonetheless gave a strong and stirring speech. “Aretha’s family asked me to share my reflectings,” he began. “I’ve known Aretha almost 60 years, that’s a lot of reflecting.” After asking various family members, the funeral home director and Rep. Maxine Waters to stand and receive applause for the work they’ve done, he spoke at length about Aretha’s importance to the Civil Rights movement, and recalled a benefit concert where she continued performing despite tear gas from police, and remembered her and Harry Belafonte donating money so that Dr. Martin Luther King could continue his work.
“Aretha was our queen, she belonged — and belongs — to us,” he said.
Yet his most poignant moment may have come when he spoke of how “death has caused another unplanned family reunion” with the funeral. “We give death too much power,” he continued. “We have long lines for death and short lines for voting — we lost Michigan by 11,000 votes, 100,000 unregistered in Detroit.” After allowing that to sink in, he said “Something is missing.”
Fantasia took the stage, saying she would sing for Aretha. “I hope she don’t mind, I don’t think she would — I’m gonna come out of these shoes.” She then belted out a soaring gospel rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” fused with the hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
Tyler Perry, a friend of Franklin’s, recalled growing up with his mother blasting the singer’s music in the car. “And I could tell what my father might have done by what song she was playing,” he laughed. “If it was ‘Respect’ or ‘Think,’ he might have done something wrong — but if she was playing ‘Dr. Feelgood,” he might have done something right!”
He recalled his surprise when she called him out of the blue one day, saying she loved Perry’s Madea character and said she wanted to speak with her. “I said, ’You know she’s not real, right?’ ‘I don’t care!’” So he immediately put on his Madea voice and made her laugh. But he then spoke about the beauty of Aretha singing gospel, his speech becoming more and more like a sermon as he went along.
“When Aretha sang ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,’ it never sounded so sweet. When Aretha sang gospel, she connected the creator with the created. Something shifted in the atmosphere. I’m so grateful to god that Aretha walked this earth. “
Among those closest to the Queen of Soul was Clive Davis, whose long career in the music industry includes nearly four decades during which they worked together. Davis signed Franklin to Arista Records, which he founded in 1974. During his eulogy, he described being in the recording studio with Franklin. “By the time she came into the studio, she literally owned the song,” said Davis. “Everyone in the studio would be in awe of her mastery when she stepped up to the microphone. It was a real rarity if she ever were to do more than two takes. She was in control and she was to nail it.” Read the veteran music executive’s speech in its entirety here.
Isiah Thomas, former NBA player for the Detroit Pistons, recalled getting to know the music of Franklin through his mother. “Aretha found a way to comfort us all during troubling times,” he said. Similarly, the Franklin family took care of him when he first arrived to Detroit. “I was her favorite bad boy,” cracked Thomas. “But nothing was more inspiring for me than to see my mom sitting in the stands sitting next to Aretha sandwiched between Stevie watching a Pistons game. … It was such a powerful moment for me. She found a way to inspire all of us with hope, love and dreams through her music. Her voice found a way to help this nation soothe and deal with its troubled past.”
Friend and longtime neighbor Ron Moten regaled those gathered with stories of how Franklin would ask him to come over at 1 a.m. to talk politics, and how he asked her for a personal favor, to perform for his elderly mother at her assisted living home, and she obliged.
Georgetown professor Michael Eric Tyson addressed several of the VIPs gathered, including, “President Clinton and her husband Bill” and “soon-to-be president Eric Holder.” Commenting on the “genius” of Franklin and her father, Tyson recalled that “when Aretha sang at 14 she convinced people that, indeed, she would never grow old.” His fiery eulogy took aim at President Trump. Said Tyson: “This orange aberration had the nerve to say Aretha worked for him. You lugubrious leach. You lethal liar. you dimwitted dictator. You foolish fascist. She didn’t work for you. She worked above you. She worked beyond you. Get your composition right.”
A blistering “Amazing Grace,” sung by Jennifer Hudson, was followed by Rev. Jasper Williams, Jr., who had delivered the eulogy at the funeral of C. L. Franklin, and preached a sermon about honoring the “living soul.” He also addressed “black-on-black” crime, “Black Lives Matter” and the still resonating issues of racism that stem from the hundreds of years of institutional slavery.
Singer Gladys Knight was next to the podium and delivered a moving rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Capping off the ceremony was Stevie Wonder, who performed two songs, “Until You Come Back to Me” and “As,” and remarked of Franklin’s enduring love, which often came through pain. “It is our love that will make all things matter,” said Wonder. He also praised Franklin for her handling of “Until You Come Back to Me,” a song he wrote at 15. She “sang it better than I could ever have.”
And with that celebratory vow and one final blessing, the congregation set out for Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery, home to her late father and civil rights activist Rosa Parks.