Former presidents, stars and musical royalty paid joyous tribute to Aretha Franklin at her marathon funeral on Friday, leading her family and members of the public in bidding goodbye to America’s “Queen of Soul.”
The formal part of the service stretching nearly eight hours, the celebration of the life and legacy of the US icon was packed with gospel, eulogies, music and sermons.
The 76-year-old singer, beloved by millions around the world, died of cancer on August 16, closing the curtain on a glittering six-decade career that spanned gospel, R&B, jazz, blues and even classical music.
Former US president Bill Clinton extolled her gifts, courage and compassion, sharing his memory of her final public performance, in November 2017, when she was already ill but performed with gusto.
“I hope God will forgive me but I was so glad when I got here, and I hope you will forgive me, when the casket was still open because I said I wonder what my friend’s got on today,” he said to laughter.
Franklin, loved not only for her powerful voice but her civil rights work, was dressed in a different outfit for each of three days of public viewings, visited by thousands in her Michigan hometown. For the funeral, she was clothed in a sparkling golden dress.
“She worked her can off to get where she was. She took the gift God gave her and she kept getting a little bigger every day,” said Clinton, playing a snatch of her singing “Think” on his cell phone.
“It’s the key to freedom. God bless you, Aretha, we love you.”
Letters from George W. Bush and Barack Obama were read out, praising her contribution to America. Gospel music and opera filled the rafters, congregants danced and one of her sons sang “Mercy Mercy Me.”
‘Make love great again’
Franklin’s gold-plated casket was escorted out of the church at 6:45 pm (2245 GMT), a simple posy of roses on top, nearly eight hours after the service officially began at 11am. VIPs had been in place at 10am.
Stevie Wonder performed a virtuoso harmonica solo and a rendition of his hit “As.”
“What needs to happen today, not only in this nation, but throughout the world is that we need to make love great again,” he said, one of several oblique or overt criticisms of Donald Trump at the service.
Pop star Ariana Grande powered through Franklin’s 1968 hit “Natural Woman,” while Jennifer Hudson stirred congregants with an impassioned delivery of “Amazing Grace.”
Singer/songwriter Smokey Robinson bid goodbye to his childhood friend, blowing a kiss toward her coffin and singing: “I miss you my buddy, I miss you my friend, I know that my love for you will never end.”
Franklin’s grandchildren spoke and a delegation represented the South African government. Franklin sang for Nelson Mandela in Detroit after he was released from prison.
Hundreds of members of the public invited at the last minute and who queued up — some through the night — to be the first in line were also admitted, mingling with the television stars and politicians.
Outside, dozens more crowded around a large screen broadcasting the funeral at a nearby gas station, reclining in beach chairs or standing in the sun, applauding and laughing at all the speeches.
“It’s better than Inauguration Day!” said Theresa Cranford, 62, a retired auto worker, in reference to Barack Obama’s investiture.
“This is something that I’ll be in history,” she told AFP. “We don’t have queens and kings in America, so she is our queen.”
Franklin influenced generations of singers from the late Whitney Houston to Beyonce, with unforgettable hits including “Respect” (1967) and “I Say a Little Prayer” (1968).
She won 18 Grammy awards and was feted for her civil rights work, raising money for the cause and inspiring activists with her anthems.
For African American women in particular, she was a role model and a benchmark for success, feminism and empowerment.
Pink Cadillacs — some having been driven across the country — parked en masse outside the church, expected to follow her cortege to the cemetery where she is to be buried alongside her father.
They are a nod to her 1985 hit “Freeway of Love,” an anthem to her Motor City hometown.
Franklin was expected to make her final journey in the same ivory 1940 Cadillac LaSalle used at the funerals of her father and of civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
The daughter of a prominent Baptist preacher and civil rights activist, she sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the inaugurations of presidents Clinton and Obama.
She was awarded America’s highest civilian honor by Bush in 2005.