Detroit’s Love Affair With Aretha

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Image credit: Detroit Music Weekend

The life of the legendary Queen of Soul is being remembered by many in her adopted hometown of Detroit. For some Franklin embodied female empowerment.

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The death of the legendary Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, is bringing an outpouring of condolences from fans, from musicians, from U.S. presidents. But the loss is hitting no place harder than in Franklin’s adopted hometown of Detroit, where residents say the legendary singer brought respect to both women and to the Motor City itself.

Eli Newman / WDET
Eli Newman / WDET

The New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit is a tall, white building with a huge cross in the front. The presence of Aretha Franklin and what she meant to the city hangs here like one of the notes it seemed only she could hit.

Detroiter Ken Coleman remembers how an increasingly frail Franklin used to still perform at dinners here.

She always came back. And she’s given concerts here within the last couple of years. She kept her connection to the city, and I think that’s why the city vibes with her so much today,” he said.

Aretha Franklin’s father, the well-known preacher C.L. Franklin, used to perch her on a footstool as a small child so she could sing before his congregation. By the 1960s, the church had moved to a different location in the city, and Aretha Franklin was a star and a key part of the civil rights movement in Detroit and elsewhere.

Her family helped fund the movement, and Franklin sang at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and many years later at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

For many fans, Franklin embodied female empowerment - a natural woman with no need for a man to validate her.

In Detroit’s downtown, Taylor Nelson says her family embraced that and used Franklin’s music to teach her that message, and the Queen of Soul became a kind of bond between them.

You cannot think about Detroit without thinking about Aretha and thinking about our parents and our grandparents,” Nelson said. “So because of that, her music is very special.”

Across town is Hitsville U.S.A., the original home of Motown Records and now a museum.

Even though Franklin did not record here, Diane Embree has come to this music shrine because there’s nowhere better to mourn a singer who she says brought generations together.

We all miss Aretha, the respect that she gave the city. I went to the church a lot, and hearing her sing in the choir - amazing grace, how sweet it sounds - we still sing it today. We miss her. We will miss her,” Embree said.

The Motown Museum feels the same. Officials say they will spend the weekend playing Aretha Franklin’s music over its loudspeakers.


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Quinn Klinefelter, Senior News Editor

Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.

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