DETROIT (AFP) – Aretha Franklin on Thursday returned to her father’s church for the last time, lying resplendent in an open casket dressed in a rose gold outfit and sequin stilettos ahead of a tribute concert on the eve of her funeral.
Thousands of fans have poured out to pay their respects to the US music icon and “Queen of Soul” at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit on Thursday, and earlier for two days at the Charles H. Wright Museum for African American History.
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 made her one of America’s most celebrated artists.
Debra Demmings, 63, drove all night from Minnesota to get in line at 7:30 am (1130 GMT) — more than four hours before the final public viewing of Franklin’s body began.
“I’m on a cloud,” Demmings told AFP, comparing the atmosphere to that of a Barack Obama presidential inauguration she attended.
“It was like pure love. Everybody was together… I feel that same feeling here today,” she said.
On the outer wall of the church, the words “Queen” were spelled in gold balloon letters and “Aretha” in silver. The queue was estimated to stretch for more than a kilometer in a carnival atmosphere with people breaking out into song and swapping stories.
On Tuesday, Franklin’s body wore a red dress with matching heels, on Wednesday she was in blue, and on Thursday in rose gold, along with rose-gold sequined Christian Louboutin stilettos.
“She’s the Queen of Soul and the Queen of Detroit and she will truly be missed,” said Susan Hendricks, 57, whose parents used to worship at the church and was brought up listing to Franklin’s music.
“I was truly emotional,” she said of seeing Franklin for the last time.
– ‘Like a party’ –
The ivory 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse with Franklin’s remains pulled up to the church in a convoy of white vehicles. White-gloved, dark-suited pallbearers then carefully wheeled the gold-plated coffin inside.
“I wanted to come here in the jubilance, the joyousness, the celebration of Aretha and her legacy,” said Dorlena Orange, 68. “We’re like a party. It’s like a beautiful, wonderful thing.”
The New Bethel Baptist Church held a special place in Franklin’s heart. It was there that she hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for parishioners and the needy, and also recorded an album.
In the evening a free concert honoring Franklin’s life is set to kick off at 6 pm at the Chene Park Amphitheatre, an outdoor riverfront arena in downtown Detroit that has 5,000 seats and 1,000 lawn spaces.
Headliners include Gladys Knight, The Four Tops, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Angie Stone. Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, is also in the line-up.
Guests are encouraged to wear white, with more than 40 performers to take part in what has been billed “A People’s Tribute to the Queen.”
– ‘Jubilant service’ –
Franklin is considered royalty in her Michigan hometown, and tickets were snapped up within minutes of being released. The running order includes Franklin’s hits “Freeway of Love” — an anthem for her Motor City hometown — and a rendition of “Respect” as the finale.
Her signature song is a feminist anthem and became a rallying cry as African Americans rose up nationwide in the 1960s to fight peacefully for racial equality.
Franklin influenced generations of female singers from the late Whitney Houston to Beyonce, with unforgettable hits including “Respect” (1967), “Natural Woman” (1968) and “I Say a Little Prayer” (1968).
On Friday, former president Bill Clinton and Smokey Robinson are among those due to address her six-hour, invitation-only funeral with musical tributes coming from Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande.
“I think it’s going to be a very upbeat service. I think it’s going to be a very jubilant service,” said Bishop Charles Ellis, pastor at the Greater Grace Temple where the funeral is being held.
Franklin won 18 Grammy awards and was feted for her civil rights work, raising money for the cause and uplifting activists with her anthems.
The daughter of a prominent Baptist preacher and civil rights activist, Franklin sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the inaugurations of presidents Clinton and Barack Obama.
She was awarded America’s highest civilian honor by George W. Bush in 2005. Letters from Bush and Obama are expected to be read at the funeral.
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