DETROIT (Reuters) – A Detroit church swelled with gospel music on Friday for the funeral of Aretha Franklin, driving mourners to their feet to clap and sing ahead of tributes to the Queen of Soul by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and singer Stevie Wonder.
“Come on, this is a church service, lift your voice!” Bishop Charles Ellis III, the officiant, exhorted the congregation at the Greater Grace Temple, as the choir and orchestra swayed behind him.
The crowd grew louder, its ranks bolstered by singers including Chaka Khan and Ariana Grande, who came to pay musical tribute to Franklin following her death on Aug. 16 at age 76. Before the golden casket was closed, Franklin’s body could be seen dressed in gold sequins.
“She had the voice of a generation, maybe the voice of a century,” Clinton said, describing himself as a Franklin “groupie” long before he became president. Closing his remarks, Clinton held the microphone to his smartphone and played Franklin’s 1968 hit “Think” over the church’s speakers.
Civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were onstage to honor Franklin’s contributions to the 1960s civil rights movement. Sharpton took to the pulpit to call her the soundtrack of the movement, with songs such as her signature 1967 hit “Respect.”
“She was a black woman in a white man’s world,” Sharpton said, as mourners cheered. “She was rooted in the black church, she was bathed in the black church, and she took the black church downtown and made folks that didn’t know what the Holy Ghost was shout in the middle of a concert.”
Franklin was recalled as both an American institution, who sang at the presidential inaugurations of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and as an aunt and grandmother, who took her young relatives shopping or to see Disney on Ice shows.
“Nothing sounded better to me than the way my grandma sings,” Victorie Franklin said.
Many of the tributes were musical.
Smokey Robinson, the Motown singer and a long-time friend, crooned a few lines of his song “Really Gonna Miss You.” Ariana Grande belted out “Natural Woman.” An ensemble performance of “Precious Lord” so moved the congregation that the officiant told the orchestra to keep vamping as clergy danced on the stage, expanding an already delayed five-and-a-half-hour program.
The funeral had been billed as closed to the public, but crowds of fans gathered outside, many dressed in their Sunday best. “This is as close you get to royalty here in America and Aretha earned every bit of it,” said Missy Settlers, 53, an automotive parts assembler. Some fans were admitted into the church to sit behind Franklin’s family.
Franklin, who died at her Detroit home from pancreatic cancer, began her musical career as a child singing gospel at the city’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father, C.L. Franklin, was the pastor, famous for his hypnotic sermons.
The city has treated her death as the passing of royalty, with Franklin’s body laying in repose in the grand rotunda of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for two days of public visitation earlier this week.
Mayor Mike Duggan announced at the service that he intended to have the city’s riverfront Chene Park renamed in Franklin’s honor.
Her coffin is to be entombed on Friday in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery near the remains of her father; her brother, Cecil Franklin; and her sisters, Carolyn and Erma Franklin.
Reporting by Nick Carey in Detroit and Jonathan Allen in New York; writing by Jonathan Allen; editing by Bill Berkrot, Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis