She was the Queen of Soul and so much more to the Harlem community members who gathered on a rainy Sunday to remember Aretha Franklin with music and words.
“Let the world know that long before we had a black president, we had a queen,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told the crowd gathered at St. Nicholas Avenue and 135th Street. “We are here to salute her even in the rain because there is nothing but sunshine when you turn Aretha Franklin on.”
The legendary singer died Thursday of advanced pancreatic cancer. She was 76 years old.
Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, recalled Franklin’s strong ties to Harlem.
“Aretha would come to the Apollo, she would eat at our restaurants, she would stand for our causes,” Sharpton said.
A crowd, some clad in shirts celebrating Franklin, gathered at the performance stage set up as part of the annual Harlem Week celebration. Her voice filled the air as a DJ played her hit tunes including “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Fans remembered how she used that strong voice to support the civil rights movement and to serve as a special inspiration to African-American women.
“Aretha was a phenomenal black woman,” said Gloria Mathis, 61, of the Bronx. “She touched most African-American lives all over the world, and I miss her.”
Diane Harris of New Jersey praised Franklin for helping celebrate women’s independence and pride.
“She was a backer for civil rights and women’s rights within the entertainment industry and outside of it,” said Harris, 64. “She’ll always have a special place in my heart.”
Franklin won 18 Grammy Awards in her long career, including her first two in 1967 for “Respect.” She reached the top 10s of the pop charts 17 times and had 20 number one hits on the R&B charts. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
She sang at the funeral for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and the inauguration for President Barack Obama in 2009.
Franklin moved to New York City from Detroit and signed with Columbia Records in the early 1960s. She worked and lived in the city for almost a decade before moving to California.
She maintained a special connection with the Apollo Theater, which famously welcomed her in 1971 with the message “She’s Home. Aretha Franklin” on its marquee.
New York City was also the scene of her final public performance. In November 2017, Franklin sang at the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s fall gala at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Schwon Tardd of the Bronx said even in death, Franklin knew how to bring people together.
“When this happens to someone like her, everyone comes out — blacks, whites, Asians, they all loved her,” said Tardd, 49. “And they want to come and remember her.”
Outside the Apollo Theater, where fans had gathered last Thursday after hearing about her death, a special plaque in her honor was protected behind a barricade.
It was covered with notes, photos and dozens of bouquets of flowers. A wreath of red and white roses included a ribbon that read “Rest in Peace (Queen)”.
“My mother used to play her music when I was growing up. Nobody has a voice like hers, she’s one of a kind,” said Cornell Sims, 43, from the Bronx, whose favorite song is “Rock Steady.”
“Every time that comes on I feel chills,” Sims said.