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Saluting ‘the greatest singer America has produced’

By Richard B. Muhammad and Katrina Muhammad | Last updated: Sep 7, 2018 - 12:34:36 PM

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Aretha Franklin meant a lot to the city of Detroit and the city in return loved her. People from around the world flocked to the Motor City to pay final respects to Ms. Franklin. Makeshift memorials, t-shirts and other paraphernalia showing her image were a common sight in the city during several days celebrating and remembering the life of “The Queen of Soul,” who died Aug. 16 at the age of 76.

DETROIT—“Baby I Love You” by Aretha Franklin played loud out of the speakers on the grounds of the Charles H. Wright African American Museum as the rotunda was where the “Queen of Soul” lay in repose for two days.

Thousands, who came from across the country and different parts of the world, stood in long lines that moved relatively quickly from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., on Aug. 28 and Aug. 29, at times stretching five blocks deep or longer.

Some tears were shed but with Aretha’s music as the soundtrack, the thousands celebrated her life, her love and their love for her. Her music spanned six decades.

“Aretha was the greatest singer America has ever produced. She loved news, and she loved talk radio. It was great knowing her, talking to her, texting her and talking about politics with her,” said Black journalist Roland S. Martin as he recorded the throngs in line who waved at him and smiled. “My favorite song by Aretha is ‘Jump’ from the ‘Sparkle’ soundtrack,” he added.

Some danced while they waited in line. Children clapped their hands and elders tapped their feet. The spirit over both days was warm, respectful, thankful and even celebratory.

Inside the rotunda, the Queen of Soul was laid out for her final journey, dressed in a red dress and red pumps the first day, and a beautiful baby blue ensemble the second day. Flowers surrounded her gold casket. Cameras were not allowed inside. Admirers were given a program that told some of the story of Ms. Franklin—who was one of few people in the world known by a single name, “Aretha.” Many in Detroit referred to her as “Auntie Re Re.” Though not blood related, she was part of the family, they said.

Hearse that carried the remains of Ms. Franklin. Photo: Haroon Rajaee
A white 1940s classic hearse transported Ms. Franklin to the Wright Museum and a 1963 pink Cadillac was on scene both days, paying homage to her 1985 hit song “Freeway Of Love,” with the unforgettable lyrics, “We’re going riding on the freeway of love / In a pink Cadillac.” The album went platinum.

 Not even 90 degree heat the first day of the public visitation could dampen spirits as Detroit police quietly directed the crowd and members of the Nation of Islam handed out a free reprint of an edition of The Final Call highlighting the life and legacy of the Queen. About 40,000 papers were given away outside the Wright Museum and 90,000 would be given away by the end of the week—including at a special concert in her honor, visitation at her father’s church in Detroit and finally her funeral services.

Forty-thousand copies were given out in just 16 hours, said Fontaine Muhammad, Final Call general manager, who led and coordinated the effort. Believers from Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, Baltimore, Milwaukee and other locales came to help distribute the newspaper.

Woman sports Aretha Franklin shirt. (r) A beautifully printed program with photos and facts about Ms. Franklin was distributed.
“For a lot of people (the special gift Final Call newspaper) is a keepsake to recognize the Queen of Soul. I think a lot of people in Detroit will appreciate it,” said Mr. Martin.

The Final Call with Ms. Franklin gracing the cover featured one of the most beautiful pictures of her taken, said some who received the newspaper. Many were brought to tears.

“The gift of 90,000 Final Calls given by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan shows His heart and love for our people. The sight of the FOI and MGT placing these papers in the hands of our people throughout Detroit was such a sign of discipleship, of angels delivering the message of God,” said Troy Muhammad, student minister at Detroit’s Muhammad Mosque No. 1 of the Nation of Islam.

“This paper presents our great sister, Aretha Franklin, in such high esteem. It actually gives a picture of her spirit. It reminds us that she wasn’t just a magnificent singer. But was indeed a gift and blessing to us all from God,” he added.

This was evident based on the lengths many went through to get a final glimpse and pay their respect to her. They traveled from Japan, Italy, Canada, Kenya in East Africa, England and Australia. They traveled stateside by plane, car, train and bus from across the state of Michigan, Nevada, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Missouri, New York, Maryland, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania and  other states.

People were all smiles holding their complimentary Final Call Newspapers, a gift from Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Ms. Franklin has been called the “Heart of Detroit,” never leaving her city despite major accomplishments, charting 43 Top 40 Singles; the record holder for the most entries on Billboard’s Hot 100 of any female artist for 40 years; 46 albums on the Billboard 200; the first  woman inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; second female inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame; Gospel Music Hall of Fame inductee and other honors.

She held numerous honorary degrees, lifetime achievement awards, citizenship awards, the key to the city of Detroit and presidential awards.

But she was also a champion in the Black struggle, following her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, who was a civil rights activist. She supported Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with her voice, her fame and her money. She sang at his funeral. When Black revolutionary Angela Davis was jailed in the 1970s, Aretha offered to pay her bond.

When police stormed the New York mosque of the Nation of Islam in 1972, almost sparking a riot in Harlem, Aretha came to check on and meet with Min. Farrakhan, who was minister for Mosque No. 7.

When the first Black president was inaugurated in 2009, the Queen of Soul sang at his inauguration.

In her adopted hometown, she fed people, kept her father’s church in the city and truly “represented” the Motor City wherever she went.

Her homegoing at the museum felt like a family reunion. “I’m overwhelmed and consumed with emotion. We know her and have worked with her and we have been around her on several occasions,” said Bertha McNeal and Cal Carolyn Gill from the Velvelettes, a 1960s singing group. “She is just a wonderful lady, we respect the talent and contribution she made to music. She is the Queen of Soul, and she is the original Voice. We looked up to her so much that we had her album in our dressing room and we played it all the time before we did our performance.

“People, in general, got to know she is a child of God. She endured so much in her life, so much heart ache and fame but her feet stayed planted on solid ground. She respected herself and she demanded respect. She knew that our Father would have her back regardless of what she was going through. I respect her for all that she contributed, knowing that her life, for the 76 years that she lived, she dedicated herself to the public and to the people and we love her for that,” added Ms. Gill.

“With all the turmoil that’s going on around us, it’s like when you hear her music, it reaches you inside, your soul, your mind, your heart and everything. Her music seems to make everything all right for that moment in time. We love her for that. We were listening to her music while in line and we danced,” said Ms. McNeal.

“She could take that note and bend it, which is what Berry Gordy said. She was ahead of her time. As a three-four-year-old child she was playing the piano. I first saw her perform at the 20 Grand in Detroit, Berry Gordy allowed me to ride with his entourage. I was 19. We sat at the table and we were looking right up at her. I was like in a trance,” said Ms. Gill.

“When God handed out talent, he gave her an extra dose. There will never be another Aretha Franklin. She is far superior then any vocalist that I have ever come across. Little known fact is that she was a small woman, short like 5’3, but she sang like a tall woman, you would never know,” concluded Ms. McNeal.

The Velvelettes hit song, “Needle in a Haystack,” was released through Motown Records in 1964.

Detroiters and others walked by the Queen, looking peaceful and regal, and a few tears were shed. Some were overcome with emotion, but felt she looked every bit the Queen that she was.

Outside of the museum, photos were taken, hugs exchanged, and vendors offered mementos—buttons, t-shirts and other items to remember the Queen. A prized possession, however, was The Final Call. Some waited to get copies when the Muslims ran out and were waiting for another delivery.

Many slept outside the museum to be first in line to see Aretha. Lisa Scott from St. Louis, Mo., was one of the first 10 people to view Ms. Franklin. She slept outside in lawn chairs after arriving in Detroit with her sisters. “I wasn’t expecting to be that emotional, but it really was an emotional experience,” she said.

And, Ms. Scott added, on the first day, one of Ms. Franklin’s nieces showed up with burgers and water for those that stayed overnight, thanking them for their love and dedication to her auntie.

The niece shared stories of her aunt’s kindness to others, which motivated her to bring refreshments to the museum for those who loved her Auntie Re Re, said Ms. Scott.

Museum staff were excellent hosts for the world, the Detroit Police Department handled visitors with care and the Swanson Funeral Home presented the Queen in a wonderful way.

She was known around the world, but was described as down to earth, and she loved Detroit. Detroit loved her. She was a divine gift to Black America and through Black people, she was a gift to the world, said Min. Louis Farrakhan. “As a people, we needed some form of relief or balm for our wounded soul. Her root was Allah (God), and His Christ and her love for Allah (God) and the wonderful preaching and guidance of her father. She, therefore, offered the gift of her being and life to all of us, who have benefited from her life. Starting with the songs she sang in church and every song that she recorded, whether gospel or otherwise, all touched the souls of those who were uplifted by the majesty of her voice,” he said.

“Her songs, her soul and her voice did not only reach our ears, but reached our hearts, our souls, and our spirits to lift us above where we were and caused us to survive the horror, the tyranny of our painful existence as ex-slaves, free slaves, Jim Crow sufferers, our souls yearned for relief. She supplied that balm to our pain.”