It wasn’t just her health battles Aretha Franklin sought to keep out of the headlines.
The famously private singer, who died of pancreatic cancer on August 16 aged 76, was also coy about her long-time partner, the man she called her “forever friend,” William “Willie” Wilkerson.
The queen of soul reportedly met the dashing former firefighter at an autograph-signing session in her hometown, Detroit, in the early 1980s.
The gregarious Wilkerson is said to have asked the star to sign the cast on his broken leg, sparking friendship which bloomed into romance.
In a surprise move in 1987, Franklin and her lover went public about their relationship in a cover story for Jet magazine.
Referencing their star signs (she’s Aries, he’s Capricorn), Franklin said they were “a fiery match … We’re locking horns, baby!”
Wilkerson added: “She’s a very warm, very loving woman.”
Wilkerson, who had a cameo in the video for Franklin’s 1986 single, Jimmy Lee, understood how his partner was not her on-stage persona: “I’m glad that he could make the distinction between the lady and the artist,” said Franklin. “Because a lot of men can’t.”
Just after new year’s in 2012, Franklin’s rep announced the couple were engaged and planning to wed on Miami Beach, followed by a private reception aboard a yacht.
“Ms Franklin is considering Donna Karan, Valentino and the queen of wedding dresses, Vera Wang, to design her gown,” said the rep, while the bride-to-be, then 69, quipped, “We’re looking at June or July for our date and no, I’m not pregnant, LOL!”
It was to be the third wedding for the mother of four, who was married to her one-time manager Ted White — they divorced in 1969 after eight years—and then to actor Glynn Turman from 1978-84, with The Wire star among those keeping vigil throughout his ex-wife’s final days.
Failed unions aside, Franklin never gave up on the idea of making it official. “I love marriage,” she once said. “I love the institution.”
Despite her optimism, Franklin never did take that third trip down the aisle in a designer gown.
Mere weeks after the upbeat wedding announcement, the pair cancelled plans.
“Regretfully, To Our Friends and Supporters: Will and I have decided we were moving a little too fast, and there were a number of things that had not been thought through thoroughly,” said Franklin in a statement.
“There will be no wedding at this time.”
Nonetheless, Wilkerson remained an important, albeit largely hidden, part of Franklin’s life until the end.
The singer’s biographer David Ritz believes Franklin’s fierce desire to guard her private life had its roots in her tumultuous early years.
“She had a tough childhood,” Ritz told People magazine of his subject, whose first children were born when she was 12 and 14 (Franklin never publicly confirmed the identities of the fathers). “And early on in her career she was hit by the tabloids.”
Regarding her first marriage to Ted White, “There were stories of her being a victim of domestic violence and she didn’t like that,” said Ritz.
“She didn’t like the image of her being a beaten woman. She loved the blues but she didn’t want to be seen as a tragic blues figure.”
Instead, in the years before ill health took its toll, Franklin was happy to be photographed at everything from sporting events to the red carpet—usually with Wilkerson on her arm.
While Franklin was usually content to let their smiles tell the story, in 2007 she shared a little: “Will and I are very close,” she told Jet. “We stayed close and he escorts me on occasion and we’re just cool. We’re real cool.”