During Aretha Franklin‘s funeral on Friday (Aug. 31) in Detroit, former U.S. President Bill Clinton told mourners that Franklin “took this massive talent and the perfect culture that raised her and became the composer of her own life’s song — and what a song it was.”
Make that songs.
While speakers at the Greater Grace Temple lauded Franklin throughout the 8-hour-and-15-minute ceremony for her contributions to the civil and women’s movements, Christianity, African-American culture and identity and to her home town of Detroit, music was her first and foremost achievement.
And she was, properly, celebrated with music — more than 20 performances by artists from the pop, R&B, gospel and opera worlds, with longtime Franklin musical directors H.B. Barnum and Fred Nelson III conducting the Aretha Franklin orchestras and a full choir and corps of background singers, making everything sound richer. Organizers of the ceremony did not want it to be considered a concert, per se, but the musical tributes were, rightly, the spine of the service, with results ranging from brilliant to unavoidable moments of shrill over-singing.
These were the 15 performances that registered best throughout the lengthy celebration fit for a queen.
Chaka Khan, “Goin’ Up Yonder”
At a point of the ceremony when a musical pick-up was needed, Chaka Khan delivered with a buoyant “Goin’ Up Yonder.” It was so captivating that few noticed she had the lyrics taped inside the handheld fan she carried during the performance.
Gladys Knight, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
It was an unexpected two-fer as Gladys Knight, who was a no-show at the People’s Tribute to the Queen concert the night before. She made an unannounced appearance during the ceremony — ostensibly to fill time while Stevie Wonder‘s keyboards were set up, but her performance of Simon & Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which Franklin covered, was more than mere filler. And Wonder made it even better by seguing into his own performance with a harmonica vamp on the song’s melody.
Stevie Wonder, “As”
Coming after a lengthy eulogy and near the end of the service, Wonder told the mourners that “we need to make love great again” before delivering a spirited “As” with help from Angie Stone and Shirley Murdoch, this time using it to express his enduring love for Franklin — whom he visited a couple of days before she passed away.
Cicely Tyson, “When Malindy Sings”
It wasn’t music, but actress Cicely Tyson blew the church away with her dramatic and heartfelt revision of the late Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “When Malindy Sings,” inserting Franklin’s name in the appropriate places and sending social media into a flurry of mostly positive responses.
The Clark Sisters, “Is My Loving in Vain”; Shirley Caesar, “How I Got Over”; Marvin Sapp, “Perfect Peace” & Audrey DuBois Harris, “Great Is They Faitfulness”
There was plenty of gospel to be had on Friday — appropriately, given Franklin’s church roots. The Clark Sisters raised the roof with “Is My Living in Vain.” Shirley Caesar did the same with a high-voltage “How I Got Over.” Marvin Sapp and Audrey DuBois Harris took things in a more melodic and sublime direction with “Perfect Peace” and “Great Is They Faithfulness,” respectively.
Williams Brothers and Vanessa Bell Armstrong, “Precious Memories” & Yolanda Adams and Bishop Paul Martin, “Mary Don’t You Weep”
Ariana Grande, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
Ariana Grande, attending the ceremony with fiancé Pete Davidson, again nailed her rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” sporting a short black dress that caused a bit of kerfuffle on social media afterward. She also gracefully played off Greater Grace Bishop Charles H. Ellis III’s “apology” that when he saw her name added to the roster he “thought it was a new item at Taco Bell.”
Faith Hill, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
Faith Hill’s “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” which started the “major” performances of the day, was simple, to the point and powerhouse. ‘Nuff said.
Edward Franklin, “Mercy Mercy Me”
It wasn’t long or particularly ornamented, but it was certainly a Kleenex moment when Franklin’s son Edward sang a brief rendition of Marvin Gaye‘s “Mercy Mercy Me.”
Smokey Robinson, “Really Gonna Miss You”
Similarly, Smokey Robinson‘s brief bit of “Really Gonna Miss You,” which he wrote about the late Melvin Franklin for The Temptations miniseries, was an emotional high point, followed by the Motown great and Franklin friend since childhood blowing a kiss to her gold-plated casket.
Jennifer Holliday, “Climbing Higher Mountains”
Folks were filing out as Jennifer Holliday accompanied the recessional with “Climbing Higher Mountains” (from Franklin’s Amazing Grace album), but it was as sweet a sound as you could hope for to close the proceedings.