Print Edition - 2018-09-02 | et cetera
Stars, dignitaries and fans honour Franklin—the Queen of Soul
- Ben Sisario and Steve Friess
Sep 2, 2018-
Praised by presidents and pop stars, eulogised by a dozen preachers and feted with a fleet of pink Cadillacs, Aretha Franklin was celebrated on Friday as a musical titan, an empowering feminist and an American icon during a marathon goodbye that showcased a generation of talent that drew inspiration from her.
Franklin, who died of pancreatic cancer two weeks ago, at 76, was the ‘Queen of Soul’, one of the unimpeachable stars of American music. And her funeral, at a mega church on the outskirts of Detroit, was suitably regal, with tributes that stretched on for eight hours by Bill Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Rev Jesse L Jackson, the basketball star Isiah Thomas and others.
But the ceremony, a traditional “homegoing” event in front of thousands, also underscored Franklin’s roots in the Baptist church and in black culture. The church, Greater Grace Temple, with room for 4,000 people, had been the site of Rosa Parks’s funeral in 2005—where Franklin was a featured performer.
“Thank you, Lord, for Aretha,” a local pastor, EL Branch, said in prayer. “She was first Detroit’s, then America’s, then the world’s.”
In speech after speech, Franklin in death became a rallying point for speakers who used her example to address political and social frustrations, and to vow to persevere. Jackson noted that there were long lines for her viewings but short lines at voting booths. Pastor William J Barber II described Franklin’s voice itself as being vital to the civil rights movement.
“Before Obama said, ‘Yes we can,’” Pastor Barber announced, “Aretha sang, ‘We can conquer hate forever, yes we can,’” alluding to her song Wholly Holy.
Wonder cited similar themes before a rousing musical performance near the end of the ceremony. “We can talk about all the things that are wrong,” he said, “and there are many, but the only thing that can deliver us is love. So what needs to happen today, not only in this nation, but throughout the world, is that we need to make love great again. Because black lives do matter.”
‘She’s just an icon, a legend’
Inside the church doors, an entire wall was filled with floral displays from a host of well-wishers, including Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Mariah Carey, Tony Bennett, Don King, Diana Ross and the family of James Brown. Outside, more than 100 of the pink Cadillacs lined up, four abreast, after having served as part of the early morning funeral procession.
“Her song, the pink Cadillac song, meant so much to us, we use it at every event,” said Joy Bailey Greff, a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman who drove her pink Cadillac SUV for 14 hours from Alabama to be part of the procession. “She’s just an icon, a legend, and it’s an honour to just be part of something like this and to be able to give back after she’s given so much to people.”
The tributes encompassed Franklin’s outsize role as a sainted gospel singer, fur-tossing pop diva, symbol of women’s liberation and the civil rights movement, and hometown hero in Detroit, where many of the hotels flew their flags at half-staff.
Former President Barack Obama, at whose inauguration in 2009 Franklin sang My Country, ’Tis of Thee, did not attend—he and former President George W Bush had been selected by Senator John McCain to deliver eulogies at his funeral in Washington on Saturday morning. Both sent letters to be read to the mourners.
But Louis Farrakhan, the 84-year-old head of the Nation of Islam, did attend the service, and was seated in a prominent position, in a VIP section near the front of the church, facing the crowd and just three seats over from Clinton, whom he has harshly criticised. The Rev Al Sharpton and Jackson sat between them.
Political debates were part of her life
Hillary Clinton was seated in another section. Also in attendance were Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former Trump aide, and Whoopi Goldberg.
In his remarks, Clinton described himself as a lifelong Aretha Franklin fan—he and Clinton, he said, were “almost groupies”—who admired how hard she worked.
“The secret to her greatness is that she took this massive talent, out of this perfect culture that made her, and she became the composer of her own song,” he said.
Earlier, Sharpton discussed how Franklin’s artistry was connected to her politics. “Aretha Franklin was not only an unparalleled artist, she was a civil rights activist and freedom fighter,” he said. “We don’t all agree on everything, but we agree on Aretha.” He added, “She was the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.”
“Trump said she worked for him,” he continued. “No, she performed for you—she worked for us. Aretha never took orders from nobody but God.”
Sharpton also read from Obama’s letter: “Aretha’s work reflected the very best of the American story.” Barbara Sampson, a friend of Franklin’s, later read from Bush’s letter.
Towering voices and plaintive remarks
The mood of the ceremony swung from somber to rollicking as the mourners heard early performances from Faith Hill, who sang What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and Ariana Grande, who performed one of Franklin’s signature hits, (You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman.
But the biggest heft came from gospel performers like Yolanda Adams and the Clark Sisters. Chaka Khan sang a high-energy version of the gospel standard Going Up Yonder, and toward the end of the ceremony Jennifer Hudson brought the room to its feet with Amazing Grace.
Among the other speakers was Clive Davis, the music producer, who discussed plotting her career when he signed her to his label, Arista Records, in 1979, a low point for her.
“We were determined to show all musicians how long a career could last,” Davis said.
The funeral was the culmination of almost a week of events. On Tuesday and Wednesday, crowds of thousands waited for hours outside the Charles H Wright Museum of African American History for a brief glimpse of Franklin’s body. On Thursday, another viewing was held at the New Bethel Baptist Church, where a young Franklin had performed in the congregation of her father, the Rev CL Franklin. And on Thursday night, the Four Tops, Johnny Gill and others sang in a free People’s Tribute concert.
Recalling a woman of style
Franklin’s outfits changed for each of the viewings. Many of those who attended also wore sparkling attire, some with fascinators on their heads. Their arrival was marked by hundreds of people who stood outside behind barricades.
Though entry to the service had been reported to be invitation-only, organisers ultimately allowed in about 1,000 fans who had waited in line for hours. A block away, several hundred fans watched the proceedings on a giant outdoor screen that the church had arranged to be set up in the parking area of a gas station. At some points, they sang along with the performers.
The author and sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, who attended the funeral, said outside that Ms. Franklin’s connection to people was built on more than that fabulous voice. “She represented a soul music tradition,” he said, “that really dug deep into the roots of gospel to tell the world the agonies, the ecstasies, the joy, the griefs of what it meant to be a woman, a black woman, a woman struggling for self-definition and humanity in a culture that refused to acknowledge our existence.”
Born in Memphis in 1942, Franklin moved to Detroit as a young girl, and by her teenage years had a budding career as a gospel singer. With her father a celebrity preacher, their home was visited by black luminaries like the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
Franklin, following the path of Sam Cooke, soon made her way to pop. But it was not until 1967, with her first recordings on the Atlantic label—including smoldering songs like Respect and I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)—that she took on her full role as a cultural giant, adored not simply as a supreme vocal talent but also as a symbol of civil rights and women’s empowerment.
Franklin is scheduled to be entombed at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit, along with her father and other family members.
— ©2018 The New York Times
Published: 02-09-2018 07:55