DETROIT - Aretha Franklin's former romantic partner and longtime escort Willie Wilkerson died Wednesday of COVID-19 virus.
Wilkerson, 72, died at Ascension Providence Hospital in Rochester (formerly Crittenton). He had been living in Southfield and was admitted to the hospital March 30, family members said.
Wilkerson was a retired Detroit firefighter who met Franklin in the late 1980s when he had a front-row seat at one of her concerts.
He was "hooting and hollering - he's an outgoing guy - and she started a conversation with him," said Reginald Amos, a retired deputy chief with the Detroit Fire Department.
The two chatted further after the show, Amos told the Free Press in 2012, just after the couple had announced they were engaged.
When they met, they learned that both had apartments in Detroit's Riverfront Towers. Soon their relationship blossomed, turning into decades of an off-and-on romance, with Wilkerson also functioning as Franklin's escort and road manager on her cross-country bus tours after she developed a fear of flying.
Their engagement in 2012 was the last of more than one canceled nuptials. A Free Press story at the time described Wilkerson as "a strapping Vietnam War veteran with a love of Cadillacs - Cadillac Willie is a nickname - (and) a sturdy, steady presence at Franklin's side."
After dating for several years, the couple talked about their romance in 1987 for a cover story in Jet magazine.
"She's a very warm, very loving woman," Wilkerson said. Yet, Franklin described them as a "fiery match."
Before meeting Wilkerson, Franklin's two marriages had ended in divorce.
At the time of the 2012 betrothal, Wilkerson was 64 and Franklin was 70. Later that year, Franklin said that they'd decided not to marry, but would remain close friends. And they did. In the months before Franklin died in 2018 of pancreatic cancer, Wilkerson was "still very close to her, visiting her right to the end," said Wilkerson's daughter Tequila Wilkerson of Southfield.
"And they talked all the time on the phone," over the decades of their friendship, Tequila Wilkerson recalled.
"I worked at Art Van in sales. He even brought her there," to the furniture store's branch in Southfield, where Franklin "bought her last things from me," she said. But Wilkerson was equally devoted to his son and three daughters, his children said.
"We lived a mile apart" in Southfield, said Tequila Wilkerson, whose nickname is Tiki. "The type of father that he was, he came over in the middle of the night one time to kill a spider" that was scaring her, she said.
Willie was his legal first name, family members said. Willie Wilkerson Jr. was born in Detroit and graduated from Eastern High School in 1966, then served with the U.S. Marine Corps in the Vietnam War, the family said.
Upon his return, he joined the Detroit Fire Department around 1970 and became an outstanding fire engine operator, said Capt. David Webster, who commands the department's Ladder Co. 27 in northwest Detroit. The two met early in their careers and became lifelong friends, Webster said.
Wilkerson "was the best fire engine operator I ever worked with _ hot quick out of the fire station" and taking pride in all he did.
Regarding his friend's ties to Franklin, Webster said: "He was also kind of elusive, as far as the dynamics of their relationship. I can just say he was affiliated with her."
Wilkerson retired from firefighting in 1995, Webster said. By that time, Wilkerson and Franklin were known as a couple. For decades he was her escort to glamorous events, including the Detroit Auto Show and the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, for which Franklin sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
Wilkerson even made an appearance in the video for her son "Jimmy Lee." Over the years, there were occasional stories or rumors that they had marriage plans, although no wedding occurred. Still, the two traveled together extensively, said another of Wilkerson's daughters, Sandra Evangelista of Wilsonville, Oregon.
"In 2015, I was living in the Bay Area (of San Francisco, California), and he and Aretha came out there" so she could perform, Evangelista said.
"We were hanging out backstage, before the concert, and she took me to the side and said, 'You miss your daddy, don't you?' And she said they would stay an extra day.
So, I got to show my dad all around San Francisco the next day," Evangelista said, adding that "I loved her as much as I loved my dad."
Her father retained his rollicking sense of humor even during his last days with nurses and other hospital staff, said a third daughter, Tanya Wilkerson Thompson of Grand Blanc.
"He was definitely a funny guy. He just had an infectious spirit. He could come to my son's basketball games and he was just that guy that everybody could walk up to and feel like you knew him," she said.
Besides his daughters, Wilkerson is survived by a son, John McGovern of Portland, Oregon, 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He is also survived by his wife Doris Ogburn. The two married in 2019.
The family has not decided whether to hold a funeral due to concerns with the risk of disease transmission and the ban on public gatherings.
Family members said Wilkerson loved dogs, and so they directed that donations in his memory be made to the Michigan Humane Society, 30300 Telegraph Road Suite 220 Bingham Farms, MI 48025; or via www.michiganhumane.org.
This article is written by By Bill Laitner from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.