Bill Clinton remembers Aretha Franklin at Detroit funeral

Former President Bill Clinton elicited laughter, applause and a few uncertain expressions as he recalled his decadeslong friendship with Aretha Franklin at her funeral celebration in Detroit on Friday. 

“We started out not as a president, a first lady, senator, secretary of state,” Clinton said, referencing his wife, the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sitting nearby.

“We started out as, like, Aretha Franklin groupies or something.”

The 18-time Grammy Award winner and the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 16 at age 76. 

The Clintons and Franklin go way back. (Tellingly, their arrival at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple brought a standing ovation.) Franklin appeared and performed at a number of events during the Clinton years ― a time when the White House was occupied by a pair of superfans. 

RELATED: Aretha Franklin through the years

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Aretha Franklin through the years
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Aretha Franklin through the years
American singer Aretha Franklin looks over her shoulder, her hair pulled up into a beehive style, 1961. Franklin was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Photo by Metronome/Getty Images)
CIRCA 1962: Soul singer Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait in circa 1962. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
CIRCA 1964: Soul singer Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait in circa 1964. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Aretha FRANKLIN; Posed portrait of Aretha Franklin (Photo by RB/Redferns)
circa 1960: Studio portrait of American singer Aretha Franklin, wearing a beaded top. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
CIRCA 1964: Soul singer Aretha Franklin works in the studio with an engineer in circa 1964. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW -- Aired 5/4/69 -- Pictured: Aretha Franklin (Photo by Fred A. Sabine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW -- Aired 5/4/69 -- Pictured: Aretha Franklin (Photo by Fred A. Sabine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
CIRCA 1965: Soul singer Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait in circa 1965. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Aretha Franklin performs at Martin Luther King Jr Benefit Concert on June 28, 1968 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
American soul singer Aretha Franklin, a star on the Atlantic record label. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JUNE 28: Soul singer Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the Soul Together concert on June 28, 1968 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JANUARY 09: Soul singer Aretha Franklin sings in the Atlantic Records studio during 'The Weight' recording session on January 9, 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
MUSCLE SHOALS, AL - JANUARY 9: Singer Aretha Franklin smokes as cigarette as she works in the studio by a microphone at Muscle Shoals Studios on January 9, 1969 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: TOP OF THE POPS Photo of Aretha FRANKLIN (Photo by Ron Howard/Redferns)
384820 04: Singer Aretha Franklin with show host and producer Don Cornelius. Franklin was one of many entertainers who performed on 'Soul Train' in the 1970''s, part of the Soul Train 30th Anniversary 'Divas and Kings 2000 & Beyond.' (Photo by 2001 Tribune Entertainment)
Aretha Franklin (Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage)
NEW YORK - JULY 01 : Singer Aretha Franklin performs on stage as part of the Newport Jazz Festival held in New York City in July 1973. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
Portrait of American singer and musician Aretha Franklin, 1973. (Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)
MUHAMMAD ALI VARIETY SPECIAL - Airdate: May 16, 1975. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ARETHA FRANKLIN
1976 AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS - Airdate: January 31, 1976. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) L-R: OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN;GLEN CAMPBELL;ARETHA FRANKLIN
Publicity photo of soul music singer Aretha Franklin, June 4, 1977. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
CIRCA 1978: Soul singer Aretha Franklin attends an event in circa 1978. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - 1980: Singer Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait in 1980 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)
Portrait of American musician Aretha Franklin as she poses backstage during ChicagoFest, Chicago, Illinois, August 3, 1981. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
1983 AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS - Show Coverage - Airdate: January 17, 1983. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) ARETHA FRANKLIN
American musician Aretha Franklin performs on stage at the Hyatt Hotel during the 1985 NBA All-Star Game celebration, Chicago, Illinois, April 18, 1985. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
NEW YORK- JULY 5: Aretha Franklin at a party in New York City on July 5, 1989. (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)
Singer Aretha Franklin at Grammy Awards. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Aretha Franklin Attending a party at the Hilton Hotel, New York City. (Photo by Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images)
American musician Aretha Franklin performs on stage at the Park West Auditorium, Chicago, Illinois, March 23, 1992. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
Aretha Franklin during Grand Opening of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, 1995 at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, OH, United States. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)
Aretha Franklin (Photo by Kevin Mazur Archive 1/WireImage)
WASHINGTON, : US President Bill Clinton (R) along with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton presents singer Aretha Franklin (C) with the 1999 National Medal of Arts and Humanities Award 29 September, 1999, at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Stephen JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 01: RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL Photo of Aretha FRANKLIN, Aretha Franklin performing at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on September 20, 2003 (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)
NEW YORK CITY, NY - DECEMBER 17: Aretha Franklin attends Joe Blount 50th Birthday Celebration at Cipriani 42nd street on December 17, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Christian Grattan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Airdate 12/11/2009 -- Pictured: Aretha Franklin appears on NBC News' 'Today' show (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 06: Former Kennedy Center honoree Aretha Franklin arrives at the 32nd Kennedy Center Honors at Kennedy Center Hall of States on December 6, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06: Aretha Franklin poses backstage at the hit play 'The Mountaintop' on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on December 6, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
LIVE WITH KELLY AND MICHAEL -12/24/12 - The legendary Aretha Franklin stops by the newly-rechristened syndicated talk show, LIVE with Kelly and Michael,' distributed by Disney-ABC Domestic Television. (Photo by Lorenzo Bevilaqua/Disney-ABC via Getty Images) ARETHA FRANKLIN
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - OCTOBER 06: Aretha Franklin performs in concert at the Etess Arena on October 6, 2012 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Donald Kravitz/Getty Images)
Aretha Franklin attends the 'Selma' premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City. ?? LAN (Photo by Lars Niki/Corbis via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 12: Singer Aretha Franklin attends the 2014 Billboard Women In Music Luncheon at Cipriani Wall Street on December 12, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: Singer Aretha Franklin attends the 102nd White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on April 30, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/FilmMagic)
Detroit native Aretha Franklin sing the National Anthem prior the game between the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings in Detroit, Michigan USA, on Thursday, November 24, 2016. (Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07: Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Commemorates Its 25th Year And Honors Founder Sir Elton John During New York Fall Gala at Cathedral of St. John the Divine on November 7, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07: Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Commemorates Its 25th Year And Honors Founder Sir Elton John During New York Fall Gala at Cathedral of St. John the Divine on November 7, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07: Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Commemorates Its 25th Year And Honors Founder Sir Elton John During New York Fall Gala at Cathedral of St. John the Divine on November 7, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/WireImage)
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“This woman got us all in these seats today,” Clinton said. “Not because she had this breathtaking talent, which she did. ... But because she lived with courage. Not without fear, but overcoming her fears. She lived with faith, not without failure, but overcoming her failures. She lived with power, not without weakness, but overcoming her weaknesses.”

“I just loved her,” he added.

Franklin was central to the 42nd president’s first inaugural celebrations in January 1993. Franklin helped kick off events surrounding the swearing-in ceremony, performing in an outdoor concert on the National Mall along with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan and others. Later, she performed a rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables” at the televised Presidential Gala, swathed in one of her signature furs that she cast aside as the song crescendoed. 

The following year, in 1994, she returned to Washington for “In Performance at the White House,” a show in the Rose Garden where the singer “rocked so hard that she lost a shoe crossing the stage” as she flaunted some of her greatest hits, The Washington Post noted

Asked for her thoughts on Clinton, Franklin told the Post: “Well, they said he was a bubba, didn’t they?” And then: “I think he’s very down to earth, very decent. That’s the impression I get.”

The singer returned to perform at Clinton’s second inauguration in January 1997, where she sang with James Taylor. (That summer, she serenaded then-Vice President Al Gore’s daughter Karenna at her wedding.)

In May 1999, Franklin was on hand to deflect some of the awkwardness surrounding that year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner; in the fall of that year Clinton granted her a National Medal of the Arts.

In his Friday remarks, Clinton praised not only the singer’s talent but her work ethic and empathy for others. He recalled seeing her onstage at the last performance she ever gave, a benefit for Elton John’s AIDS Foundation where she sang “for 45 great minutes” and also played piano, “just to make sure none of us ever forgot she was real good at that.”

In one particularly Bill Clinton moment, he praised her opulent sense of style.

“I hope God will forgive me. But I was so glad when I got here ― and I hope you will forgive me ― when the casket was still open. Because I wondered what my friend’s got on today,” the former president said, to applause. A quick pan to Franklin’s grandchildren, however, revealed a string of dubious expressions.

President Bill Clinton awards singer Aretha Franklin with a National Medal of the Arts in 1999 as first lady Hillary Clinton looks on.

The singer has met and performed before a number of those holding the nation’s highest office, starting with President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. President George W. Bush honored her in 2005 for her work, and President Barack Obama tapped her to sing at his 2009 inaugural.

While Bush and Obama could not attend Franklin’s funeral, as both were scheduled to eulogize the late Sen. John McCain at the National Cathedral in Washington, both sent letters about her legacy that were read before congregants in Detroit.

Franklin was laid to rest in a gold-plated casket following an extravagant, five-plus-hour “celebration of life” after several days of open-casket public viewings ― during which she underwent multiple costume changes.

Other public figures made remarks, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Clive Davis, Tyler Perry and Smokey Robinson.

Ariana Grande, Faith Hill and Fantasia Barrino ― among many others ― gave gospel-flavored performances in honor of the icon.

Clinton concluded his remarks by reminding the crowd of his age, reminiscing about outdated music formats before waving his black iPhone before the crowd and marveling at its small size.

He then put the gadget up to the mic and pressed play on Franklin’s hit “Think.”

“That’s the best I can do,” he said.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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