The day the music died: A look at funerals of the greats

Published 2:54 pm Friday, August 31, 2018

NEW YORK — Elvis, Whitney, Prince, Biggie and, now, Aretha: The funerals and public memorials of music royalty have been as varied as the work they created, from small family affairs to days of tributes as huge in death as they lived their lives.

One Aretha Franklin fan said it best as she made her way to the front of a Detroit museum Tuesday to pay her respects.

“I know people are sad, but it’s just celebrating — people dancing and singing her music,” said Chicagoan Tammy Gibson, who arrived at 5:30 a.m. “I saw the gold-plated casket — it dawned on me: She’s gone, but her legacy and her music will live on forever.”

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A look at the sometimes elaborate send-offs for some of the industry’s greats:


Death, as in his personal life, was a private affair for Prince Rogers Nelson, but the world mourned after he was found unresponsive in the elevator of his Paisley Park home and studio complex in Chanhassen, Minnesota, on April 21, 2016. He was 57 and an autopsy revealed an accidental drug overdose from fentynal.

Some fans continue to question the circumstances of his death, and he was quickly cremated, but at the time shock and sadness took over around the world.

The U.S. Senate passed a resolution praising his achievements. Vigils and tributes multiplied for days, with cities lighting buildings, bridges and other venues in his trademark purple.

At Paisley Park, fans stood sobbing outside the chain-link fence, leaving flowers, drawings and other tributes.

The funeral was held in Minnetonka, Minnesota, at the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall where he often worshipped. His many collaborators and bandmates over the years, including Sheila E. and Larry Graham, attended.

James Brown

He died Dec. 25, 2006. Along with thousands of fans, Michael Jackson, Little Richard and Stevie Wonder were among dozens of celebrities who attended or performed at various events. There was a public memorial at New York’s Apollo Theater on Dec. 28. Another memorial drew more than 8,000 fans to the James Brown Arena in Augusta, Georgia, on Dec. 30.

A private funeral was held in North Augusta, in Brown’s native South Carolina.

Brown’s body (which underwent three wardrobe changes in Augusta) was placed in a bronze casket polished to a high shine. It was driven through the streets of New York to the Apollo in a white, glass horse-drawn carriage. There was a similar procession in Georgia, where fans screamed when Jackson entered the arena.

And the music? It was ever-present, shown on video screens and performed live, as was the case with the send-offs for many other luminaries in the business.

Jackson spoke briefly in Augusta: “James Brown is my greatest inspiration. … When I saw him move, I was mesmerized.”

Michael Jackson

The sudden death of Jackson himself at age 50 convulsed fans around the globe on June 25, 2009. After a private service, a public memorial on July 7 at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles was broadcast live around the world. The audience has been estimated at more than 1 billion.

Jackson’s bronze casket, similar to Brown’s, was plated with 14-karat gold and lined with blue velvet. Each of Jackson’s brothers wore a single white sequined glove to honor him. The celebrities on hand included Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson.

Queen Latifah read “We Had Him,” a poem written for the service by Maya Angelou. Jackson’s daughter, Paris, only 11 at the time, wept as she spoke of her love for the “best father you could ever imagine.” The ceremony was televised around the world.

Jackson was buried weeks later, on Sept. 3 in Glendale, California at a private burial attended by Elizabeth Taylor among others.

Sam Cooke

The soul and gospel superstar was shot to death at a Los Angeles motel on Dec. 11, 1964. He was just 33. The details of his death have been disputed over the years and accounts of funeral and public memorials vary.

One report had thousands of fans clogging streets for a public viewing in Chicago, where he had lived as a boy and where Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, showed up. The crowd at a church service was so big that Cooke’s wife and two daughters had to be lifted over the people to get inside.

Cooke’s body was on view in Los Angeles for three days, shielded in a plastic case.

A second church service, also in Los Angeles more than a week after his death, included Ray Charles singing “The Angels Keep Watching Over Me.”

The Notorious B.I.G.

Considered one of the greatest rappers of all time, Biggie Smalls was shot to death on a Los Angeles street in a drive-by on March 9, 1997.

On March 18, thousands of fans lined the route of a hearse that carried his body from Manhattan through the streets of Brooklyn, passing his childhood home. People hung out of windows, climbed lampposts and hopped on top of cars for a glimpse.

The procession came after a private, star-studded service at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan. Rap and other music royalty of the time turned out: Queen Latifah, Flava Flav, Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Kim, Lil’ Caesar, Run-DMC, DJ Kool Herc, Busta Rhymes, Salt ‘N  Pepa, and Foxy Brown among them.

Biggie’s body sported a white double-breasted suit and cap, and was in a mahogany coffin, according to one report. His mother, Voletta Wallace, read scripture in a room alive with the scent of roses.

His estranged wife, singer Faith Evans, sang “Walk With Me, Lord.”

Whitney Houston

Her family declined to hold a public service after her sudden death in Los Angeles on Feb. 11, 2012, at age 48, choosing to honor the pop icon with a televised, invitation-only funeral at New Hope Baptist Church in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey.

And what a funeral it was on Feb. 18. It lasted four hours at her childhood church that seated 1,500. Her shining casket was transported by a gold-colored(AP Style 1)  hearse and topped with roses of soft purple and off-white.

Performances by Stevie Wonder, CeCe Winans, Alicia Keys and others were mixed with hymns sung by the church choir. Houston’s musical mentor, record mogul Clive Davis (she died right before she was to attend his pre-Grammy party), and Houston’s cousin, Dionne Warwick, spoke. So did Kevin Costner, her co-star in the 1992 film “The Bodyguard.” And Oprah Winfrey and Diane Sawyer were among the guests.

Elvis Presley

It was a procession fit for a king.

Presley died at Graceland in Memphis on Aug. 16, 1977. The crowds in the aftermath got so thick that then President Jimmy Carter called out 300 National Guard troops to manage things.

After a trip to a funeral home for embalming, the body was returned to Graceland and set up in the foyer for public viewing. More than 30,000 fans were let in, according to one account.

The funeral on Aug. 18 was modest, held in Graceland’s living room. It was attended by celebrities, of course, including his “Viva Las Vegas” co-star Ann Margret, along with James Brown. More impressive was the long line of cars following Presley’s white hearse on the way to Forest Hill Cemetery for burial next to his beloved mother, Gladys Love.

An estimated 80,000 people lined the street with handmade signs to watch the procession.

After a thief tried to snatch his body, the remains of both Elvis and his mother were moved to a garden at Graceland.

Janis Joplin

The bluesy rock queen with the psychedelic Porsche joined the burgeoning 27 club on Oct. 4, 1970, the day she died of a heroin overdose. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered by plane in the Pacific Ocean and along Stinson Beach in Marin County, California.

Her funeral was tiny and very private, but she had one last party left. Her will set aside $2,500 for an all-night bash for her friends, both famous and those behind the scenes, held Oct. 26 of that year at a popular Marin club, The Lion’s Share.

And the Grateful Dead performed.