By on September 4, 2018

As someone strongly identified with the Motor City, it’s not surprising that the music of Detroit’s Aretha Franklin had some association with cars. While she first gained superstardom in the 1960s, the Queen of Soul roared back into the Top 10 in 1985 with Freeway of Love, featuring the lyric “We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love/In my pink Cadillac.” Franklin, whose voice was likely unmatched in her generation, had a good ear for lyrics. A little known piece of music trivia is that Mack Rice changed Mustang Mama to Mustang Sally at Aretha’s suggestion.

If Detroit is famous for two things, they are indeed music and automobiles. Ms. Franklin’s career combined them both, so for her funeral the Motor City gave its Queen ‘Retha a proper automotive sendoff.

The funeral services themselves were held at Greater Grace Temple in northwest Detroit, site of many of the city’s highest profile funerals. When Detroit Police Dept. officers die in the line of duty, Greater Grace usually hosts their memorial services, with the street in front of the church, Seven Mile Road, lined with police cars.

For Aretha’s funeral, the church invited more than one hundred owners of pink Cadillacs from around the United States and Canada to do the same for her, and also attend her funeral (originally, the service were going to be private, but the church allowed 1,000 regular folks in, too). Fortunately, there already exists a network of people who own pink Cadillacs. It’s called Mary Kay Cosmetics. The multi-level marketing company has for decades rewarded its top sellers with bonuses of new cars, usually painted pink.

DuPont Automotive Coatings (now Axalta*) developed a special pearlized pink paint that General Motors calls “Mary Kay Pink,” which the cars receive a coating of at the factory — where GM also applies Mary Kay badging. At the peak of that perk are the Cadillacs themselves.

Perhaps it helped that Greater Grace’s “First Lady,” Crisette M. Ellis, wife of Bishop Charles Ellis III, who heads the $35 million church and its ministries, is herself a National Sales Director for Mary Kay. She has her own pearl pink Escalade, one of a number of cars she’s been awarded by the cosmetics company. I won’t say that Ms. Ellis was consciously exploiting Franklin’s funeral for financial gain, as the t-shirt sellers and your humble scrivener were doing, but I’m sure the Mary Kay folks weren’t upset with their brand being mentioned in connection to an event covered by the international press.

Speaking of the international press, there was a photographer from Agence France-Presse shooting the pink Cadillacs, which were lined up at the east side of the church campus. It had taken me awhile to find them, as the Detroit police weren’t letting anyone except people representing big media companies go in front of the church. I had parked on the west side of the facility. As I drove around to the other side, I briefly considered going home and grabbing one of my media credentials from an auto show, just to look more official and maybe get a break from the cops. When I finally found the Caddies, I noticed the French photographer had a press credential issued by the NYPD hanging from her neck. I asked her, “You’re from France. You do know that that New York credential means absolutely nothing here in Detroit, don’t you?” She flashed a guilty smile.

Before the DPD finally shooed me away, I counted something like 102 pink Cadillacs. There were some vintage models from 1956 to 1960 but about 95 percent were late-model Mary Kay Escalades, XT5s, and SRXs, with a couple of STS sedans and XLR roadsters in the mix.

The atmosphere was not exactly funereal, so one could be excused if they forgot, for a second, that they were at a funeral and instead were attending a cosmetics convention. During the procession to Woodlawn Cemetery (the eternal home of Edsel Ford, Roy Chapin Sr., and the Dodge Bros, by the way), it occurred to me that I’d never seen so many well put together women in one group in my life. Their makeup was better than that of some brides I’ve seen.

Normally, I wouldn’t joke about a funeral, but the Franklin funeral had a festive, almost carnival-like atmosphere outside the church. People watching the big video screen outside the church cheered when celebrities like President Bill Clinton and Detroit basketball legend Isiah Thomas appeared on the red carpet.

Celebrities and Mary Kay ladies weren’t the only folks who came in for the funeral. A handful of crazies from the Westboro Baptist Church were on the fringe of the crowd, holding signs demeaning Franklin and “lukewarm Christians.” Louis Farrakhan was an invited guest, and sat on the dais next to Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Mr. Clinton. That probably explains the large number of bowtie-wearing Nation of Islam members outside the church handing out copies of The Final Call newspaper. For a few seconds, some of the NOI fellows were interacting, peacefully it seemed (several Detroit Police Dept. officers were standing close by), with the Westboro folks at the corner of Seven Mile and Telegraph Rd. I wondered if they realize their groups are more similar than different.

Franklin had been sick of pancreatic cancer for some time and it wasn’t as though her death was surprise, so perhaps the atmosphere was appropriate. Inside, the funeral was more a celebration of a life than a bemoaning of a death.

It did strike me as a bit ironic that while many of the speakers at the funeral took the occasion to make clear their political differences with President Donald Trump, the vast majority of the owners of those Mary Kay Caddies were upper-middle class business-owning white women, a demographic that did pretty well with The Donald. I have to say, however, that it was heartening to witness the thousands and thousands of mostly black Detroiters who crowded onto the procession route cheering on the mostly white Cadillac owners.

Whatever the ethnicity of the Cadillac owners, they seemed thrilled by the experience, waving to the crowds, and blaring Aretha’s music from their car stereos (which will most likely get my videos on YouTube demonitized for copyright issues).

After the ceremony at the church, the 100- Cadillacs lead Franklin’s family and hearse to Woodlawn. While the pink Cadillacs did not ride on any of Detroit’s freeways, they did take the overpass over M39, the Southfield Freeway. Following all those pink Cadillacs, I almost expected her coffin to be in a Cadillac hearse wrapped in pink for the occasion. However, Aretha’s final ride was not in a pink Cadillac, but rather in a white LaSalle. Detroit’s Swanson funeral home, which has organized the funerals of many of the city’s most prominent residents, has a carved panel 1940 LaSalle hearse —  used in many of those same funerals. Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks was carried to her final rest at Woodlawn in that hearse in 2005, as have been Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, and other Detroit musical luminaries like David Ruffin (The Temptations) and Levi Stubbs (The Four Tops). The Swanson’s have owned the LaSalle for 60 years.

The LaSalle hearse also shuttled Ms. Franklin’s remains to the public viewings at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History and at New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father had a pulpit and where she first sang in public.

[Images: Ronnie Schreiber]

* Has there ever been a worse rebranding? DuPont had billions of dollars worth of brand equity in the car paint business, both OEM and refinish. Axalta sounds like a pharaceutical company, not a firm that makes car paint.

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17 Comments on “Down the Freeway of Love in a Pink Cadillac, Up the Stairway to Heaven in a White LaSalle...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Godspeed. Aretha… but my favorite Cadillac song will always be “Reno Bound” – Southern Pacific.

    Very occasionally I see a “Mary Kay Cadillac” but it has been years, I didn’t know they were still doing it.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    “Westboro Baptist Church were on the fringe of the crowd, holding signs demeaning Franklin and “lukewarm Christians.””

    well, if being an utterly repellent and evil example of a human being is how you be a “real Christian…”

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      My favorite bumpersticker seen recently “WWJH – Who Would Jesus Hate?” to remind his followers that when they are hating they’re not following his message.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    “It did strike me as a bit ironic that while many of the speakers at the funeral took the occasion to make clear their political differences with President Donald Trump…”

    Disrespect sucks and I don’t like seeing it. But the president ain’t exactly setting the bar high in the “give respect / get respect” category, y’know?

    Enjoyed the story, Ronnie. Glad the site had someone on hand to chronicle this.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      “Disrespect sucks and I don’t like seeing it. But the president ain’t exactly setting the bar high in the “give respect / get respect” category, y’know?”

      when he does it, it’s just him “tellin’ it like it is.”

      when his opponents do it, it’s “incivility.”

      it’s really, really sad how absolutist “team over all” thinking has almost completely replaced rational thought. If “my guy” says something, then I will parrot it endlessly without even looking into whether it’s right.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        He’s not the first president to say or do disrespectful things. He’s the first one that seems to relish doing it on a twice-daily basis, though.

        • 0 avatar
          jhefner

          He is also the first president to be relentlessly given negative publicity by the MSM; yes, they had their day with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the Bushes; but not this round-the-clock negative “reporting” (I hesitate to call it that because most of it has little to do with current news events) by CNN and CNBC in particular; and the MSM in general.

          • 0 avatar
            Arthur Dailey

            That is like the Mendendez brothers asking for sympathy because they are orphans.

            If you are going to stage public () hissy-fits, insult public figures, engage in name calling, threatening and bullying, but most importantly engage in lying and making false statements on a daily basis, while challenging the legitimacy and freedom of the judiciary and the legitimacy of the electoral process, then the press has to mention/call you out, on it.

            So any negativity is largely the fault of the POTUS, due to his own behaviour.

            On the rare occasions when he acted ‘presidential’ it was mentioned.

            As to the actions of the press regarding Nixon, they exposed criminal activities in the White House. If they had not persevered, Nixon would have ‘gotten away’ with it. And Nixon had a large number of very vocal defenders right to the end, who were willing to overlook his criminality and denounce the press. Demonstrating how a free press is a vital component of the checks and balances required for a functional democracy.

            On a better topic, love the look of those old Caddys. Very fitting for someone who remained a Detroiter her entire life. Just wish that GM/Cadillac could regain the prestige and aura they had from circa 1946 to the start of the Malaise Era.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            Sorry, jhefner, if you think the press coverage is negative, then blame Trump, not the press. Lord knows he give them enough negative stuff to write about.

          • 0 avatar
            Hummer

            After watching the Kavanaugh hearings there’s no way anyone could make the case that it’s Trump setting a low bar. Dems are going to need all the luck in the world if they want to stand a chance… in 2024. Until then being the anti-Trump party is going to keep pushing them further out of favor with increasingly in touch voters.

            Franklins family were reportedly disgusted by the politics at the funeral, I’m sure the groping ordeal didn’t help. Regardless a lot of very sad people made a mockery of Franklins death. Very sad.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Black Twitter was on fire during the event. I regret that I missed the livestream.

  • avatar
    Igloo

    +1

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    If the funeral staff (or valets) ended up moving the cars to get them into place in the procession (where the owners left their keys/fobs in the car), and didn’t decorate the windows, I’ve gotta think at least a couple SRX owners may have tried to get in the wrong vehicles by mistake! (Even if they HAD the fob with them, the only way to pick theirs out of a sea of identical vehicles would be to use the panic button!)

    Know your license plate!

    Those older ones (‘50s vintage) look immaculate!

  • avatar
    Big Wheel

    Great article, Ronnie. The whole deal was certainly an event here in SE Michigan.

    I agree with the other that those 1950’s Cadillacs are beautiful. Style, power, grace, presence, etc., they had it all back then. I bet even Dead Weight loves them.

    I do have one correction for the article:
    “Franklin, whose voice was unmatched, had a good ear for lyrics.”

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    Gee, our old LaSalle ran great…

  • avatar
    ToddAtlasF1

    It is interesting seeing a 1959 Cadillac seemingly being dwarfed by a recent XTS. The ’59 makes the Impallac seem like a CUV with a trunk.

  • avatar
    RHD

    I don’t think Aretha was singing about a Mary Kay Cadillac in her most famous song.

    (And if you know about the double entendres behind the lyrics, she really wasn’t singing about a car at all.)


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