Hundreds gather to honour Aretha Franklin

Former US President Bill Clinton has paid tribute to the "voice of a generation", Aretha Franklin.
Former US President Bill Clinton has paid tribute to the "voice of a generation", Aretha Franklin.

Hundreds have gathered at Detroit's Greater Grace Church to honour the legendary Aretha Franklin, who died on August 16 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

Outside the ceremony pink Cadillacs lined the street, referencing her '80s hit Freeway of Love. Inside, floral arrangements from Diana Ross, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand greeted mourners in the sanctuary's entrance. White and pink flowers were assembled at the front of the church; the words "A Celebration Fit for the Queen" were projected above the golden casket.

In the hour before the service began, public figures ranging from the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to US Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to Motown legend Martha Reeves and Faith Hill milled about inside the church as a gospel group performed gentle, soulful instrumentals and an announcer gently but firmly told the mourners to take their seats.

At around 10:10 am local time, the audience hushed as former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived at the service. Shortly after, the announcer admonished the crowd that anyone seen taking cellphone pictures -- which some people had been doing flagrantly before the service -- would be asked to leave.

At around 11 am family members, along with Motown legend Smokey Robinson, began their viewing -- some were visibly distraught as they passed the open gold casket. One woman wore a white hat with a giant bow on it, in homage to the one Franklin wore when she sang at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.

The ceremony got underway about 90 minutes behind schedule. "It took us a little time to get in here, but I don't believe the Queen would have had it any other way," the church's pastor said in his opening welcoming remarks. "You cannot celebrate the legacy of an icon in a couple hours."

Dr EL Branch, Pastor of Third New Hope Church, followed. "She was classy enough to sing on the most prominent stage of the world, but homegirl enough to make potato salad and fried chicken.

"She is not here; she is risen."

Ariana Grande also performed. She delivered pitch-perfect rendition of Franklin's iconic You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman) after which the officiating reverend joked that when he saw Grande listed on the program, he thought it was "a new item on Taco Bell." He recognised Grande as "an icon herself." (Watch the performance here.)

Reverend Sharpton delivered a message from Barack and Michelle Obama in which the former president remarked that Franklin "rocked the world of anyone who had the pleasure to hear her voice" and played a vital role in "advancing important causes through the power of song." To sum up, Obama stated that Franklin "reflected the very best of the American story."

Franklin's influence on the civil rights movement was a theme of Sharpton's speech. Her fellow longtime activist noted that Franklin was a "freedom fighter" and that gospel music was at her core. He also took a dig at President Trump's controversial comment that Franklin "worked for" him several times. "She never took orders from nobody but God," said Sharpton.

Australian Associated Press