Aretha Franklin’s funeral began Friday with prayers and songs, as pink Cadillacs filled the street outside a Detroit church where the guests included former President Bill Clinton, former first lady Hillary Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande.
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 the Queen of Soul was known for, along with gospel numbers “I Love the Lord” and “Walk in the Light.” Bishop T.D. Jakes was among those reading from the Bible and offering tributes to Franklin, who died Aug. 16 at age 76.
Franklin’s body arrived early in the day 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.”
Funeral organizers insist it will 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.
And it boasts a lineup of speakers and singers that would rival any of the hottest revues, past or present. Among those offering words will be Bill Clinton, Jackson and Smokey Robinson, Franklin’s friend since childhood.
Songs will be provided by Wonder, Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Faith Hill, Shirley Caesar, Chaka Khan and more.
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 that could exceed five 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.
Sapp would not reveal what he will perform Friday, but said every song was picked out by Franklin. Robinson also didn’t share what he will say, but that’s for a different reason.
“I do not plan anything (with) someone I love like that,” Robinson told The Associated Press. “I love her. She was my longest friend.”
Robinson said he will make it “personal,” since he remained close with Franklin until the end. He said they “talked all the time,” the last time just a couple weeks before she became too ill to speak.
“We saw all of our other close friends go,” Robinson said. “We used to talk about that — we saw a lot of soldiers go.”
Amid the sadness of these days, Robinson believes Franklin’s legacy is secure. A new generation of singers like Grande who were inspired by the Queen of Soul is just the beginning.
“There are some girls who haven’t been born yet … who will be inspired by Aretha,” he said.
Sabrina Owens, Franklin’s niece, told the AP 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 have 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.