The Motown legend took to the podium at Grace Temple in their shared hometown of Detroit to pay tribute to his childhood friend with a moving speech.
Soon after meeting as children, Robinson said that “from that moment on we’ve been so, so close, and so tight. I didn’t know, especially this soon, that I was going to have to say goodbye to you.”
The pair hail from a Detroit neighborhood that was home to some of world’s brightest stars. “Diana Ross lived four doors down the street,” Robinson, 78, recalled during an interview on Good Morning America on Aug. 24. “The 4 Tops lived two blocks over and the Temptations lived three blocks over.”
During the service on Friday, he reflected on their days growing up together. “We talked about it many times, how we were the two who were left of our neighborhood friends. We were the longest ones. Now my longest friend has gone home, and you’ve gone to be with our Father — like we all will. I know you’re celebrating with your family and our neighborhood friends who are all gone. And you’re going to be a featured voice in the choir of angels.”
In conclusion, the master tunesmith sang several lines from his song “Really Gonna Miss You,” a touching ballad of loss: “We’re going to miss you / It’s really going to be different without you / For the rest of my life I’m gonna be thinking about you / I’ll miss you by buddy, I’ll miss you my friend / I know that my love for you will never end.”
Robinson met Franklin at the age of 8 after her family — including her famous father, Baptist minister and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin — moved to the city from Buffalo, New York. The future Miracles frontman met her elder brother first, who invited him to the Franklin family home.
“I hear music coming from a little room,” Robinson remembered of visiting their house. “I hear piano being played and I hear this little voice singing. I look in and there’s Aretha sitting at the piano singing and playing almost like she sang and played in her adult life. She was probably 5 years old or so and she just had it.”
And up until she lost her battle with pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type on Aug. 16 at the age of 76, the two remained “tight” and bonded until the end. “We had a wonderful, wonderful friendship that lasted throughout her entire life. She was my longest friend on earth. All of my other friends that we grew up with are gone.”
Though the world knew her as the Queen of Soul, Robinson says they never factored fame or fortune into their friendship. In fact, they usually ignored the spotlight completely.
“We always had a relationship that almost had nothing to do with show business,” he says. “There were a lot of us in that neighborhood, and those of us who were blessed enough to get our wish, or our dream, to be in show business — we just always had regular relationships. We very seldom, when we got together, even talked about show business.”
RELATED: Inside the Amazing, Private Life of Aretha Franklin
As a result, he saw a side of the famous diva that few would ever get a glimpse of, one beyond the regal outfits and million-dollar voice.
“Aretha had a great sense of humor. She was a very humorous woman,” he remembers. “She could throw down in the kitchen! She was just a great person. Great cook, great woman.”
Former President Bill Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Cicely Tyson also offered up their long-lasting memories with the Queen of Soul, and icons including Stevie Wonder, Ariana Grande, Faith Hill, Shirley Caesar, Chaka Khan, Jennifer Hudson, Yolanda Adams, Marvin Sapp and Vanessa Bell Armstrong took to the stage to perform some of Franklin’s greatest hits, as well as religious hymns.