DETROIT—Some arriving before dawn, scores of Aretha Franklin fans from around the world lined up Tuesday at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit to pay tribute to the Queen of Soul, some emerging from the visitation wobbly with grief, others with wanly contented smiles.
The public viewing on an especially sultry late August day is part of a week of mourning and celebration to honor the city's megastar, who died Aug. 16 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76.
In a manner befitting Detroit royalty, Franklin's body arrived at the museum early Monday in a white 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse. Lying in repose in a gold casket flanked by scores of pale-color roses, a cross-legged Franklin wore a crimson lace-trimmed ruffled suit and matching high-heel shoes.
For a final time, Franklin's soft curls had been coiffed by Carlton Northern, Franklin's hairdresser of 35 years. He managed to get through the session.
"Driving over there, I thought I would break down and cry and all that," he said. "But I'd prayed on it, and God gave me the strength to do it.
"I spent two-and-a-half hours with her, and it was like Carlton and Ree Ree, really. I talked to her and thought about some of the things she would say to me, like 'Don't mess up my makeup, Carlton,' or 'OK, Carlton, let it whip!' She would often fall asleep while I'd be doing her hair, so it seemed to me that this was like that, too."
As it often happens, Northern became Franklin’s main stylist almost by happenstance. While a student at Pershing High School (class of 1972) Northern sang first tenor alto in a singing group similar to The Temptations, he said, performing at nightclubs and local college icebreakers. He had studied classical music, and was a classical singer for a time, too.
While in his late 20s, Northern had a job in the purchasing department of a local health insurer. A childhood friend of his worked at a nearby salon, and used to drop by and tell Northern how much money he was making. That convinced him to enroll in beauty school.
"Pretty soon I entered a school competition and came in second," said Northern, who grew up on Detroit's east side. "Then I entered a statewide competition and came in first. At that point I knew I had a definite talent for cutting hair."
During this time, Northern's friend was Franklin's stylist, and after getting licensed, Northern began apprenticing at his friend's salon.
"The next thing I know, she was calling me," said Northern, who had split with his friend. "I didn't believe it was her at first. She said she wanted her hair to be blonde, and could I do it? I said yes, of course I could."
As it turned out, Northern's bravado was offset by nervousness and excitement.
"When she came in, I put the color in and the tint bottle and sat and sat, but it wasn't doing anything," he said. "Then I realized I'd forgotten to put the developer in. So I had to man up and said, 'Aretha, you're not going to believe this,' and I told her. She said, 'What are you going to do, Carlton?’ I said, 'I'm going to put the developer in.' At that point a level of trust was established. She trusted me from then on."
After that, he occasionally styled the hair of actor Glynn Turman, Franklin's then-husband. Soon, Franklin asked Northern if he'd be interested in going with her to New York City and the cover shoot for her album, Get it Right, released in 1983.
"Here I am, a rookie hairdresser. It was something, the searchlights would come on, and go boom! We were there for hours. I would go in and brush her hair every now and then," said Northern.
In recognition of Northern's contribution, and the growing bond between them, he merited an album credit. "It said, 'He did it until he got it right," Northern said, chuckling at the blonde dye incident. "It was an inside joke."
Soon after, Franklin flew him to Los Angeles for the American Music Awards, where she would perform. There, another crisis was averted.
"She told me she had this hairpiece that she wanted to put on after a couple of songs," Northern said. "I asked her how much time I would have. She said 15 minutes. Well, her being the Queen of Soul, on the way back to the dressing room everybody wanted to speak with her and whatever. So my 15 minutes was down to five. All I could do was slick her hair back and pin the piece on.
"I told her don't turn left and don't turn right. Stay front and center," he said, laughing. "And she went out, and she didn't turn left, and she didn't turn right."
Early on, Franklin was in the habit of making last-minute calls to Northern. Then, she started giving more notice. Once he began working as a cutting specialist at Paul Mitchell The School in nearby Sterling Heights, he needed even more notice.
"But, we got on the same page," said Northern, who always works one day weekly at Grand Luxe Salon in suburban Lathrup Village. "She would give me her calendar for three months out."
Over the years, she occasionally would come to wherever Northern was working. During those times, he'd make sure the salon was otherwise secluded. But mostly, he would go to her home.
"We'd do it old style, over the sink," he said. "It was a little Old School."
Sometimes she'd be playing the piano while he was setting up.
"I'm hearing all these great riffs and stuff like that. Such special moments," he said. "She'd say, 'Call me when you're ready.' Sometimes she'd cook and offer me something to eat. We really had a friendship. Many times she'd call me at night and say, Are you looking at this? Turn on this channel."
In typical Franklin fashion, she always knew exactly how she wanted her hair done. It was up to Northern to deliver. For the video she did with George Michael, for instance, she was pump waves in front. For the "Freeway of Love" video, Franklin preferred something more natural. For Blues Brothers 2000 piece, she wanted gold glitter.
"Occasionally, I would talk her out of something, like blonde on black extensions," he said, chuckling. "But I'd mostly do just she wanted."
Northern said Franklin had two praises. "I'd give her the mirror, and she'd either say, ‘It's whipped, it's whipped,’ or ‘I'm ready for my close up.’"
And if she wasn't entirely happy? "Honestly, there never was really a time when I wasn't able to please her," he said. "Because I listen, and I prepare."
Northern often accompanied Franklin on road trips on her bus—she famously didn't fly—where Franklin enjoyed watching old movies and musicals, or reading books, particularly biographies. Sometimes she'd break out in song.
"Aretha was an amazing individual," he said. "She was a down home girl. It was nothing for us to be on the bus and she'd have the driver to pull over so that she could feed homeless people and give them a couple of hundred dollars. She'd even let them on the bus. She did this several times.
"She was a very giving person, and it was a blessing to work for her and with her. On the road she'd put me up in the five-star hotels with her. There we'd be in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, having high tea and finger sandwiches in the lobby."
Besides being invited to all the "big name" parties, and even the White House several times, Northern also had a hand in Franklin's much-heralded appearance at the Kennedy Center, where she brought down the house with her performance of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." Rendering viewers further slack jawed, Franklin took off her fur coat, letting it fall to the floor. Except, that's not exactly how it was supposed to go, Northern said.
"She told me she was going to take her coat off and throw it to me. But there it was sitting in the middle of the stage," he said. "It was a dilemma. I had to make an executive decision as to whether to go get it or leave it. I left it there and had a stagehand get it. Man!"
Northern did Franklin’s hair three weeks before she died. Although mostly mum about matters concerning her illness, he did disclose that, in her way, during that visit, she asked him to style her one last time.
"She said, ‘You got me?’ I looked at her and said, 'All the way, Aretha.'"
After her family got around to asking him, he told members it would be an honor. After all, he'd promised her.
"It just feels strange knowing I'll never hear from her again," he said, choking up. "She was the best."