Aretha Franklin lies at father's church ahead of tribute concert

Aretha Franklin Hearse outside church (Photo: Getty)
Aretha Franklin Hearse outside church (Photo: Getty)

Detroit - Aretha Franklin on Thursday returned to her father's church for the last time, lying resplendent in an open casket in a rose gold dress 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 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 outside the church at 07:30 - 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 inauguration she attended. "It was like pure love. Everybody was together... I feel that same feeling here today."

On the outer wall of the church, the words "Queen" were spelt out 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 was dressed in a red dress with matching heels, on Wednesday in blue and Thursday in rose gold, and rose-gold sequined Christian Louboutin stilettos.


Her ivory 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse arrived outside the church in a convoy of white vehicles before white-gloved, dark-suited pallbearers carefully wheeled the gold-plated coffin inside at around 11:40.

"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 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, Angie Stone and political activist Angela Davis. Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, is also in the line-up.

The venue is encouraging guests to wear white to celebrate Franklin's life and legacy with more than 40 performers due to take the stage in what has been billed "A People's Tribute to the Queen."

Franklin is considered royalty in her Michigan hometown, and music will encompass the R&B, Gospel, Jazz and Blues genres in which Franklin excelled, with a special tribute from her granddaughters.

The star influenced generations of female singers from the late Whitney Houston to Beyoncé, with unforgettable hits including Respect (1967), Natural Woman (1968) and I Say a Little Prayer (1968).

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.

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 provided a soundtrack to the civil rights movement, singing to raise money for the cause and uplifting activists with her anthems.

The daughter of a prominent Baptist preacher and civil rights activist father, she sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the inaugurations of presidents Clinton and Barack Obama.

She was awarded the highest US civilian honor by George W. Bush. Letters from Bush and Obama will be reportedly read out at the funeral.

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