Presidents, pop stars join in epic farewell to Queen of Soul

Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during the funeral service for Aretha Franklin at Greater Grace Temple, Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, in Detroit. Franklin died Aug. 16, 2018 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

DETROIT — Former presidents and preachers joined a parade of pop stars Friday in a singing, hip-swaying, piano-pounding farewell to Aretha Franklin, remembering the Queen of Soul as a powerful force for musical and political change and a steadfast friend.

“Aretha’s singing challenged the dangling discords of hate and lies and racism and injustice,” said the pastor William J. Barber II. “Her singing was revelation and was revolution.”

In a send-off both grand and personal, an all-star lineup of mourners filled the same Detroit church that hosted Rosa Parks’ funeral and offered prayers, songs and dozens of tributes. Guests included former President Bill Clinton, former first lady Hillary Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.

Robinson, the Motown great, remembered first hearing Franklin play piano when he was just 8 and remained close to her for the rest of her life, talking for hours at a time.

“You’re so special,” he said, before crooning a few lines from his song “Really Gonna Miss You,” with the line “really gonna be different without you.”

Bill Clinton described himself as an Aretha Franklin “groupie,” saying he had loved her since college. He traced her life’s journey and praised her as someone who “lived with courage, not without fear, but overcoming her fears.”

He remembered attending her last public performance, at Elton John’s AIDS Foundation benefit in November in New York. She looked “desperately ill” but managed to greet him by standing and saying, “How you doing, baby?”

Clinton ended by noting that her career spanned from vinyl records to cellphones. He held the microphone near his iPhone and played a snippet of Franklin’s classic “Think,” the audience clapping along.

“It’s the key to freedom!” Clinton said.

The hourslong service at Greater Grace Temple encompassed many elements, emotions and regal entrances that were hallmarks of Franklin’s more than six decades on sacred and secular stages. She was remembered as the pride of Detroit and as a citizen of the world.

Music mogul Clive Davis, who helped revive Franklin’s career in the 1980s, described her as a loving friend and a dedicated and unpredictable artist, whose passions ranged from soul to ballet. He remembered her turning up at a tribute to him in a tutu, dancing with “most impressive agility and dignity.”

Ariana Grande sang one of the Queen’s biggest hits, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and Faith Hill performed “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” The Aretha Franklin Orchestra performed a medley featuring “I Say a Little Prayer,” ”Angel” and other songs she was known for, along with such gospel numbers as “I Love the Lord” and “Walk in the Light.”

Barbara Sampson read a statement from former President George W. Bush, saying that Franklin would continue to inspire future generations. The Rev. Al Sharpton read a statement from former President Barack Obama, who wrote that Franklin’s “work reflected the very best of the American story.”

Sharpton received loud cheers when he criticized President Donald Trump for saying that the singer “worked for” him as he responded to her death. “She performed for you,” Sharpton said of Franklin, who had sung at Trump-owned venues. “She worked for us.”

“She gave us pride. She gave us a regal bar to reach. She represented the best in our community,” Sharpton said.

Many noted her longtime commitment to civil rights and lasting concern for the poor.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson urged attendees to honor her memory by registering to vote. Her friend Greg Mathis, the award-winning reality show host and retired Michigan judge, recalled his last conversation with her. They talked about the tainted water supply in Flint. “You go up there and sock it to ’em,” she urged Mathis, paraphrasing the “sock it to me” refrain from “Respect.”