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Aretha Franklin’s Funeral: Views From Inside the Church

Queen of Soul’s memorial service doubled as star-studded, sprawling and musically potent concert

Former President Bill Clinton speaks during the funeral service for Franklin at Greater Grace Temple, in Detroit. Franklin died Aug. 16, 2018 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76Aretha Franklin, Detroit, USA - 31 Aug 2018

Aretha Franklin's funeral was as much a star-studded concert as memorial service. Here's what you didn't see if you saw on TV or online.

Paul Sancya/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Befitting a woman whose influence spanned decades and genres, Aretha Franklin’s eight-hour memorial service on Friday encompassed just about everyone and everything. In the 4,000-seat Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Franklin was eulogized by former presidents, entertainment titans, and religious figures: From Bill and Hillary Clinton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson to Clive Davis and Franklin’s grandchildren, every aspect of her life was represented.

Letters from both Barack Obama and George W. Bush were read aloud. (Franklin, wrote Obama, reflected the “very best of the American story.”) Performers ranged from Ariana Grande to Cicely Tyson, who is almost four times Grande’s age yet exhibited more spunk and energy with her theatrical reading of “When Malindy Sings” (refashioned as “When Aretha Sings”) by the vital late 19th century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The tribute was sprawling, overwhelming and musically potent.

Although the entire service was live-streamed, the viewpoint from inside the church was sometimes a bit different. Here are a few things you may not have noticed during the broadcast.

Franklin’s impact was felt before everyone even walked into the church
Seven Mile Road, the wide boulevard where the house of worship sits, was lined with families sitting on folding or beach chairs to pay their respects as limousines drove by. Two dueling Aretha T-shirt bootleggers also got into a brawl on one 7 Mile Corner. But Franklin’s influence, especially in the music world, was seen in the lobby, where massive floral arrangements from Barbra Streisand, “The Jackson Family,” Mariah Carey, the Four Tops, Tony Bennett and “The Carters” (yes, Jay-Z and Beyoncé) were on display. Hard to imagine too many performers who would be saluted by such a variety of peers.

Gospel went over better than pop
It may not have been easy to tell on TV or online, but sacred music electrified the thousands inside Greater Grace Temple more than the pop star appearances. Faith Hill, one of the first performers of the day, tackled the Christian hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and Ariana Grande offered up a relatively reined-in rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.”

While those performances were respectfully received, it was the spiritual numbers that repeatedly brought the crowd to its collective feet. Local gospel heroines the Clark Sisters unleashed magnificent three-power harmonies in “Is My Living in Vain,” and the Williams Brothers and Vanessa Bell Armstrong’s call-and-response at the end of “Precious Memories” (which Franklin herself once recorded) turned into a euphoric release. Performed with the repeatedly impressive Aretha Franklin Celebration Choir, Chaka Khan’s rendition of the gospel standard “Goin’ Up Yonder” built in intensity and brought out churchly aspects of her voice that we hadn’t heard in a while.

In light of Franklin’s roots in the church, it was only natural that gospel was part of the program, but the crowd made it clear that those were the types of songs they yearned to hear, almost as a way to channel its sorrow. Interestingly, many of the speeches referred to her version of “Respect,” but the song wasn’t performed by anyone.

Bill Clinton is still beloved and Donald Trump still isn’t
Judging by the response inside the church to his introduction and tribute, Clinton maintains a strong bond with African-Americans even after nearly 20 years out of office. His affection for Franklin came through when he talked about he and Hillary being “Aretha groupies” during their youths and the time he spent with Franklin backstage at her last public performance (at Elton John’s AIDS Foundation benefit last November, where he marveled that she sang for 45 minutes despite growing health issues). Clinton ended his tribute by pulling out his cell phone and playing “Think” on it into the microphone. (“It’s the key to freedom!” he beamed.) The crowd ate it all up.

One of the only eruptions inside the church that was louder came when writer and Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson took offense with the current president’s comment about Franklin (“She worked for me”). With unapologetic indignation, Dyson, one of the tribute’s most fiery speakers, roared, “She ain’t work for you. She worked above you. She worked beyond you. Get your preposition right!” The church practically shook in response.

For all the talk of Franklin’s music, her political and culture significance loomed far larger inside the church
Many of the speakers, from Tyler Perry to former Attorney General Eric Holder, cited their favorite Franklin songs (“Dr. Feelgood” for Perry, for instance). Clive Davis, who helped reignite Franklin’s career in the Eighties, talked about meeting with her in 1979 to plan her comeback and proudly cited all the hits the two had together, to appreciative applause.

But Franklin’s role as a symbol of civil rights and empowerment came up more than tales of the power of her voice. “She never ashamed us, she never disgraced us,” said Reverend Al Sharpton, adding that while people disagree on many things, “we all agree on Aretha.” She “left the world a better place than she found it,” declared another minister. During his somber tribute, a soft-voiced Jesse Jackson said, “If you leave here today and don’t register to vote, you’ll dishonor Aretha.” (Jackson appeared the most visibly struggling with the day as he repeatedly moved about the stage; when Franklin’s open casket was closed before the tribute began, he stepped down to the front of the stage and put his hands on the casket as a final, moving farewell.) Those in the church loved Franklin’s music, but her struggles, determination and feistiness clearly made her one of the most human of pop stars.

Stevie Wonder was worth the wait
Along with unnamed “National Artists,” Wonder was scheduled to close the service at approximately 3 p.m. The day stretched out longer than anyone had planned for several reasons, one being all the networking, hugging and introductions that took place on the church stage as the audience filtered in. Those inside the church were able to see Clinton being introduced to Grande and her fiancé Pete Davidson as Louis Farrakhan looked on. (Take in that range of participants for a moment.)

By 6 p.m., Wonder was nowhere to be seen, and the energy inside the Greater Grace Temple was waning. A portion of the audience had filtered out after eight straight hours, and last-minute addition Gladys Knight sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as the crowd waited.

Then Wonder was announced and escorted onstage. Looking solemn and pained, he was dressed entirely in black, his braids tucked beneath a black cap. Pulling out a harmonica, Wonder began playing “The Lord’s Prayer” instrumental as the backup musicians for the tribute gingerly joined in. No one seemed to know where he was going with it or when it would end. When it did, Wonder spoke a bit about Franklin: “Because black lives do matter. Because all lives do matter. And if we love God, then we know, truly, it is our love that will make all things matter. When we make love great again, that is what Aretha said throughout her life.”

By then, most of the big-name acts who’d performed earlier had left. But joined by the Clark Sisters and others, Wonder sat down at a keyboard and played “As.” Its refrain — “That I’ll be loving you always” — revived the flagging energy in the church and served as a poignant finale.

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