Detroit—When Aretha Franklin’s death Thursday was announced over the PA system, glassmaker Maurice Black says grief was so great at his Detroit auto plant that supervisors briefly shut the line.
“The look on everybody’s face. It was just shocking,” the 53-year-old told AFP outside Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where the music icon kicked off her storied career singing gospel as a child.
“Hearts were heavy, people were like trying to get themselves together, so the supervisor was like go to the bathroom,” he said.
“Too many people were going to the bathroom, so they officially shut it down... they cranked it back up.”
What made it all so raw was many still remembered how Aretha had only visited the factory only four to six years earlier, Black recalled.
“When she came in there everybody was hollering and everything. ‘Aretha! Aretha! Queen of Soul! Queen of Soul!’”
Cars and the “Queen of Soul” go together in Detroit, the largest city in Michigan where long-standing ties to the auto industry have given rise to the nickname Motor City.
Black grew up in the neighborhood around the church, where he would eat Franklin’s cooking at lavish meals she provided for the community and the homeless each Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Soup and cornbread
“She made the best oxtail soup, with that cornbread, and it was to die for,” he recalled. “It would be so much food that you wouldn’t know what to do.”
There is pride in the neighborhood that the legendary singer shunned the celebrity trappings of cities such as Los Angeles or New York to continue to stay close to her roots.
Those who came to pay their respects, braving bursts of rain to lay bouquets and bring balloons, honored her music but also that down-to-earth personality and her commitment to giving back.
“I know she was rich but she never let it out that she was rich,” said Reverend Charles Turner, whose father was a trustee at the church.
“She always gave you respect. When you came up to her, she let you hug her and she spoke to you always, had a smile on her face.”
He, too treasured her visits, and her dinners for church members and the homeless, who queued around the corner waiting to be fed by Aretha.
“I’m heartbroken,” sobbed Jerome Greear, a 52-year-old recording engineer whose mother Joyce went to high school with Franklin, tears pouring down his face on the muggy summer night.
“I am devastated. However, I am so thankful that I’ve grown up in a time when I actually saw it happen. I saw her rise. I saw her pinnacles. I saw her dips and I saw her true ascension, and I’m proud.”
‘Jumping for joy’
His 76-year-old mother also cried when she heard of her death, recalling how she used to be jealous of Franklin in their teens for having had a relationship with the man she dated at the time.
“I was thinking how can I compete? This is Aretha Franklin,” she said. “She was popular, people gravitated toward her,” she recalled.
“I just see her as a pillar, I really do, and I respect her and I love her and I do lift her family up in prayer.”
“She was the type of person who would always talk to anyone,” said Black, who says he last saw the singer at church last year when she had started to lose weight and he realized that she was ailing.
“She didn’t care about how much money she had,” Black said. “She said ‘look we’re giving a gospel show this weekend. Now I don’t know who’s coming, but I’m singing and I’m playing the piano.’”
“She had you jumping for joy, crying,” he said.
Greear recalled how Aretha would show up at some local chicken wing spot, walk in and be one of the ordinary folk. Her funeral, he said, would have to be “presidential” to befit the queen that she was.
“The folks that adored her, this ain’t big enough,” he said of her father’s old church. “This building’s not big enough.”
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