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Aretha Franklin's main man Willie Wilkerson Jr. dies from covid-19

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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Willie Wilkerson Jr., a "best friend" and onetime fiancé of Aretha Franklin, is among Detroit's victims of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Wilkerson, who was also a retired Detroit firefighter, died April 8 at the age of 72 at Crittenton Hospital in Rochester from complications of covid-19. He was remembered as "a great guy" by Franklin's longtime security chief Hilton Kincaid, who became a close friend of Wilkerson's as well during the latter's 30-plus years with Franklin.

"We had a great little entourage and a great relationship, and Willie was a big part of that," Kincaid says. "Aretha obviously saw his heart, and that allowed her to trust him. Willie was the only other person she had enough faith in him to handle her business and personal issues."

Wilkerson and Franklin met during the mid-80s at Detroit's Riverfront Apartments, where both resided; Wilkerson's broken leg was in a cast at the time, and Franklin signed it. They soon became inseparable, and Wilkerson took on duties such as organizing sheet music for her the musicians in Franklin's orchestras, taking care of side-stage and backstage operations such as outfit changes, having tea ready during breaks and serving as a de facto backup bodyguard. He also made a cameo appearance in Franklin's video for "Jimmy Lee," a single from her 1986 album Aretha.

"She was a very large part of his life, and he was a very large part of hers," Wilkerson's youngest daughter Tequila "Tiki" Wilkerson says. "They loved each other. They were like best friends. They called each other sweetie. She called him all the time. There’s nothing he wouldn't do for her. They had a special relationship."

Raised on Detroit's east side, Wilkerson was a Vietnam War veteran with the U.S. Marines and returned to spend 20 years as a fire engine operator with the Detroit Fire Department. "He was the best that ever did it, and I'm not just saying that," notes David Webster, who's still a captain with the department and referred to Wilkerson as "Uncle Will." "He was one of the first group of people that I met when I came on the job, and he was really helpful and supportive. Our relationship really blossomed."

During his time as a firefighter Wilkerson was also a top seller of tickets for department benefits and leased a small fleet of taxi cabs on the side. "Willie was just a natural salesman type of guy -- a big, infectious smile, and people just loved him," says Kincaid, who once bought a dog from Wilkerson. Another daughter, Tanya Thompson, added that, "He was a convincing man, and a really open and honest kind of guy. If he wanted to do something he wanted to do it the very best he could, from cutting the grass to frying chicken."

Kincaid confirms that Wilkerson proposed to Franklin on previous occasions, but he was surprised when she announced their engagement publicly on Jan. 2, 2012, via the media. "Everybody was calling him saying congratulations.’Congratulations for what?'" Kincaid remembers. "Will told her, 'Re, It would've been nice if you told ME!' We had a good laugh about it." The engagement was called off just two weeks later, however, with Franklin saying in a statement that "we were moving a little too fast, and there were a number of things that had not been thought through thoroughly."

"Willie and Aretha loved each other, but they were not lovers," says Kincaid, whose last contact with Wilkerson was a text message "Got it," referring to covid-19. "But it worked out because they stayed dear, dear, dear friends forever. He was always there. He was a great part of his life."

Tiki Wilkerson adds that during her illness, her father was constantly at Franklin's house. "He cleaned her up, fed her, cooked for her, spent hours over there with her," she remembers.

In addition to his children -- also including a third daughter, Sandra Evangelista, and son Kenny McGovern -- Wilkerson is survived by his second wife, Doris Ogburn, 10 grandchildren, six great grandchildren and a Great Dane named Max.

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