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'In a class by herself': Moving anecdotes from Aretha Franklin's funeral

Aretha Franklin may have been the Queen of Soul to the general public, but she was someone truly special to those who knew her best.
by Ethan Sacks /

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Amid the rousing musical numbers, speeches from politicians, and spiritual appreciations at Friday's funeral service for Aretha Franklin were some more intimate moments.

A number of the famous figures that took the stage at the Detroit's Greater Grace Temple Church shared some their best personal anecdotes of their time with the Queen of Soul. Here are some of our favorites:

Motown legend Smokey Robinson reminisced about first hearing Franklin's voice as an 8-year-old. He met a new friend, Franklin's older brother Cecil, while playing a game of marbles as a child in Detroit and was invited back to the Franklin home.

Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson
Smokey Robinson joins Aretha Franklin at her 69th birthday party, in New York on March 25, 2011.Charles Sykes / AP file

"We're walking around the house and I hear music, the piano being played and this voice, it sounds like a little girl singing," said Robinson, who is 2 years older than Franklin. "And I go and look in that room and I see you and you're there and you're singing and that was my first meeting and my first sight of you. And from that moment on, almost, we had been so close and so tight and I didn't know especially this soon that I was going to have to say goodbye to you or farewell...

"We've talked about it many times how we were the two who were, who were left out of all of our neighborhood friends. We were the longest [surviving] ones."

Image: Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin performs at the Elton John AIDS Foundation's 25th Anniversary Gala at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York on Nov. 7, 2017.Andy Kropa / Invision/AP file

Former President Bill Clinton spoke of the last time he saw the singer, who sang at his 1993 inauguration. It was the very last public signing performance Franklin gave at Elton John's AIDS benefit in New York last November at Harlem's Cathedral of St. John's the Divine.

"Because Aretha's the talent so I showed up a little early. I was like a grade school kid. She heard I was there and summoned me to the back," began Clinton.

"And she's sitting there, obviously desperately ill, gaunt. She stood right up and said, 'How are you doing, baby?' I said, 'I'm doing better now.' And she said, 'Well look at me. I finally got thin again.'“

And then she went out into this setting and in front of all these people who loved her…She sang not one song, not two songs, not three songs, she had them bring a chair out. She sang for 45 straight minutes.”

Music industry titan Clive Davis, who signed Franklin to Arista Records in 1979, regaled the crowd with a story about that Clinton inauguration in Washington, D.C. "We brainstormed the song and chose 'I Dreamed a Dream' from 'Les Miserables' as most appropriate. Flash forward to the performance," he said. "She was totally in command right from the beginning, hitting those soaring notes as only she could.

"Everyone in the audience was transfixed as the performance kept building, and then the one and only Aretha, on her own, spontaneously changed the lyric from 'I Dreamed a Dream' to 'I Have a Dream' and that instinctive switch to the Martin Luther King mantra made the climax chillingly unforgettable to this day. Aretha was being Aretha, in a class by herself."

Rev. Al Sharpton first met the Queen of Soul as a teenager, while he was attending strategy meetings for his mentor, Rev. Jesse Jackson, in New York City in the early 1970s.

"About three days later I got a check made by Aretha Franklin," said Sharpton. "I told her later, I framed that check.

"She said, 'Boy don't you have a copy machine.' She said, 'You don't know how I am with my bank account, you better cash that check!'”

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