Aretha Franklin: Stevie Wonder offers stirring goodbye at memorial service

Mourners including the Rev Al Sharpton, Bill Clinton and Ariana Grande paid tribute to the singer at a service fit for royalty

It was a star-studded and ostentatious “homegoing” fit for royalty: “We will have never known a queen like this,” Stevie Wonder told the gathering of mourners. Aretha Franklin’s funeral service in Detroit on Friday drew some of music’s brightest stars and a sprinkling of political figures for a proper send-off for the “Queen of Soul”.

“What needs to happen today, not only in this nation but throughout the world, is that we need to make love great again,” Wonder said during a eulogy nestled between his performances of The Lord’s Prayer and As. “Because black lives do matter. Because all lives do matter ... That is what Aretha said throughout her life. Though the pain, she gave us the joy, and said, ‘Let’s make love great again.’”

Franklin’s arrival in repose at the city’s Greater Grace Temple on Friday morning was met by a throng of mourners who had waited hours to pay their respects. Many ultimately couldn’t get in as the church quickly reached capacity.

At the morning’s onset she lay gracefully in her casket, legs crossed in tall high heels as the open, gold-plated coffin glinted under the lights. It had been transported to the church by the same pearly white 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse that took the civil rights icon Rosa Parks to her final rest in 2005, as well as Franklin’s own father in 1984.

Ever the diva, Franklin’s outfit was the third “costume change” over the course of her several viewings since her death on 16 August: this final time, a rose gold gown.

“She was first Detroit’s, then America’s, then the world’s, thank you, Lord, for Aretha,” pastor EL Branch told the rapt congregation.

The Rev Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and former president Bill Clinton made quite the lineup next to each other on the dais in front of a gospel choir belting out an extended version of Marvelous. Hillary Clinton was also in attendance in Detroit, the city where Franklin began her career singing gospel in the New Bethel Baptist church choir.

The Rev Jesse Jackson, right, consoles a family member as they pause at the casket.
The Rev Jesse Jackson, right, consoles a family member as they pause at the casket. Photograph: Paul Sancya/AP

The musicians Wonder, Chaka Khan and, of the new generation, Ariana Grande, were among those on hand to perform in honor of Franklin over the course of the day. Director Tyler Perry, actress Cicely Tyson and Motown legend Smokey Robinson were among those to share remembrances of the singer.

Singer Smokey Robinson, a long time friend of Franklin’s brought many to tears with a touching and personal remembrance. “I’m going to miss our talks, we used to talk for hours about anything we wanted-- or nothing at all,” he said. “You will be a featured voice in the choir of Angels,” he went on, addressing Franklin’s closed casket.

Before leaving the podium, Robinson broke out into a brief a cappella of a song he wrote for the late Temptations member Melvin Franklin (no relation), which went: “Really gonna miss you, it’s really gonna be different without you, for the rest of my life, gonna be thinking about you.”

Bill Clinton told the congregation, of Franklin: “The secret of her greatness is that she took this massive talent, and this perfect culture that raised her, and decided to be the composer of her own life’s song. And what a song it turned out to be.”

To laughter, he then joked about how glad he was for the open casket, because it would mean he could see “what my friend is wearing,” adding: “I wanna see what the girl is carrying out!”

Franklin sold more than 75m records in her lifetime and won 18 Grammy awards. She had 77 entries in the US Billboard Hot 100 and 20 No 1 singles on the R&B chart. She passed away from pancreatic cancer, having been diagnosed with a tumor in 2010.

Franklin had continued to tour and record intermittently through her final year. Her last album, A Brand New Me, was released in November 2017, which paired archival vocal recordings for Atlantic Records with new orchestral arrangements by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Franklin was also an ardent champion of civil rights in her public associations and statements through the tumultuous 1960s, and quietly funded the work of Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Council.

“Franklin was not only an unparalleled artist, she was a civil rights activist and freedom fighter,” said Sharpton, a veteran civil rights organizer who described first meeting Franklin as a teenager. “She would not want us to celebrate her without talking about [how] she stood for something,” he continued. “She represented the best in our community and she fought for our community until the end.”

Sharpton also took the opportunity to take Donald Trump to task for remarks he made after learning of Franklin’s passing. “when word went out that Ms Franklin passed, Trump said, ‘She used to work for me.’ No, she used to perform for you. She worked for us,” Sharpton said to loud applause.

Sharpton then read a letter from Barack Obama, who wrote that “Aretha Franklin rocked the world of anyone who had the pleasure of hearing her voice,” and that “her work reflected the very best of the American story.”

The funeral is the capstone on what has been a long national celebration and mourning of her immense legacy and talent. Thousands of fans paid their last respects to the “Queen of Soul” on Tuesday at Detroit’s Charles H Wright Museum of African American History.

Some had trekked across the country to pay homage. When Franklin’s casket was escorted into the museum, 46-year-old Sir Diego Brazil of North Miami Beach, Florida, said he couldn’t help but burst into a rendition of Amazing Grace.

“I embodied her spirit because that’s one of her favorites,” Brazil told the Guardian earlier this week.

At home on both secular and sacred stages, Franklin’s final service was heavily steeped in faith and gospel. The first celebrity performance was the country star Faith Hill singing a rendition of What A Friend We Have in Jesus.

The Rev Charles Ellis III, who commenced the events on Friday morning, said that despite the award glittering guest list, he had a higher mission in mind for a service that was expected to 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.”

He added: “And hopefully, a lot of people here with money and fame and influence and friends and notoriety and wealth, hopefully they will think of their mortality and say there is something bigger than fame.”

Julia Carrie Wong contributed reporting