What was billed as an epic 5-hour funeral, actually turned into an almost 7-hour celebration of the incredible life of the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin.
Hundreds of fans, friends, family, musicians, religious leaders and politicians packed into Greater Grace Temple in Detroit Friday to pay their last respects to the late icon who died Aug. 16 at the age of 76 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
The likes of former President Bill Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Tyler Perry and many, many more spoke about not only the untouchable talent that Franklin had, but more about the caring, loving friend and woman she was.
They spoke about not only her hit records, but her work as a civil and women’s rights activist. Many spoke about how funny she could be but also how unflinching she was in the face of adversity.
Only a legend like Franklin could have garnered such a tribute. It was a day that no one who was there or who watched from a far would ever, ever forget.
Faith Hill was one of the first artists to perform after the Aretha Franklin Orchestra provided a lengthy and inspiring musical prelude, and after numerous religious leaders read prayers of scripture and comfort.
Hill yelled “celebrate Aretha!” then sang Franklin’s gospel classic, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” She had the audience on their feet, singing along.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan spoke about Franklin’s connection to the the city. When Franklin soared, so did Detroit, he explained. “When Aretha Franklin sang, it felt like the voice of Detroit,” he said.
Duggan then went to announce that Detroit’s Chene Park will be re-named Aretha Franklin Park. A portion of a local avenue was also renamed Aretha Franklin Way.
Ariana Grande then took the podium and performed an amazing rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Sharpton spoke next and said Franklin “was not only an unparalleled artist, she was freedom fighter and civil rights activist.
“She fought for our community until the end,” he said. “She was never one to forget where she came from.”
Franklin was an early supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and fought for women’s rights before it was popular to be a feminist, he pointed out.
“She was a feminist before feminism,” he said. “We don’t agree on everything, but we can agree on Aretha.”
Sharpton then got the crowd riled up when he mentioned President Trump.
The president had said Franklin was once his employee.
“No, she used to perform for you, she worked for us,” Sharpton said to a rousing ovation. “Aretha took orders from nobody but God.”
“She was a black woman in a white man’s world,” he continued. “She fought a good fight. Now it’s time to crown the queen.”
Sharpton then read a passionate letter written by former President Obama.
Obama wrote about the power of her songs and the causes she fought for, adding, “Aretha’s work reflected the very best of the American story.”
He said she fought tirelessly for the “vulnerable, the downtrodden” and that she was truly “one of a kind.”
Some of Franklin’s nieces, nephews and grandchildren spoke later in the service, including Vaughn, Cristal, Victorie and Jordan Franklin, showing she was more than just a game-changing artist, but a beloved grandmother as well.
Clinton, with wife Hilary watching, said they started out as “like Aretha groupies or something.”
“When we were getting out of college was finally when she had her big breakthroughs,” he said, adding she had the “voice of a generation, maybe the voice of a century.”
But he spoke about the long road and hard work it took for her to become the “Queen of Soul.”
“She lived with courage,” he said. “Not without fear, but overcoming her fears … she decided to be the composer of her own life’s song and what a song it turned out to be.”
During the celebration, Franklin’s son Edward performed “Mercy Mercy Me,” while other icons like Chaka Khan and Ron Isley also gave musical tributes.
Others that took the stage to speak about their personal connection to Franklin, included famed producer Tyler Perry, legendary actress Cicely Tyson and music mogul Clive Davis.
Perry spoke directly to the family and said his hope for her children and grandchildren was that their grief comes in “gentle waves” and not all at once.
“I’m glad that I had an opportunity to know this woman,” he added. “I’m so grateful to God that Aretha walked this earth. I’m grateful to God that I had the pleasure to walk this Earth the same time as Aretha Franklin.”
Tyson spoke about the “great day” the celebration was and “how blessed we are to be here today.”
“Aretha was the sum total of her life’s experience,” she continued. “And she shared that with us … She spoke to us through her soul and everything she experienced. And that’s why, no matter what she was singing, she moved every single person.”
The ceremony closed with Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson’s chilling rendition of “Amazing Grace,” followed by the incomparable Stevie Wonder performing two songs and speaking about how love is the key to the future.
“Let’s make love great again,” he said. “God bless you, God bless Aretha.”
Jennifer Holliday and the Aretha Franklin Celebration Choir also performed as the casket was carried out, and as everyone in attendance excited the temple.
This celebration ends a week-long tribute to the singer, which included droves of fans descending on Detroit to see her lying in repose at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday, a tribute concert took place nearby at Chene Park Amphitheater with The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and more performing for fans.