Friday, July 12, 2024

RIP Willie Wilkerson, Aretha Franklin’s Long Time Love and Road Manager, Former Fireman and Vet, Dies at 72 from CoronaVirus


Willie Wilkerson, one of the best people I’ve ever known, passed away this morning in Detroit at the age of 72. The cause was complications from coronavirus.

Willie was known to just about everyone in the music world as Aretha Franklin’s long time love, and road manager. Since 1987 they were literally velcro’d together. They dated for many years, he was always by her side. I can tell you from personal knowledge they really loved each other. When Aretha was ailing two years ago, Willie was one of the few people right there.

A little over a year ago, Willie– who has lovely grown daughters– was lucky enough to find love again. He married Doris Ogburn and they merged their families. It was a real love story, and the pair had great plans for the future. On March 23rd, Willie called me to see if I was alright in New York, to check in on my family. He was feeling fine, he told me. And then it all went out the window.

Willie served in Vietnam, and then became a Detroit fireman for over 20 years. I don’t think there isĀ  anyone in Detroit who didn’t know him. He was so proud of living there. He took me on quite a tour in July 2018 when I went to say goodbye to Aretha. He was a great friend. He was also such an outgoing, bighearted, gregarious guy. He just loved everything. When I think of him, he’s grinning. He was always smiling, even when the band’s instruments were missing, or the charts were upside down, or Aretha didn’t have something she needed. He handled every crisis with grace and humor.

I know a lot of people in Aretha’s and Willie’s world are going to be in tears this morning, especially “the guys” who worked with him, like his friend Hilton Kincaid. They are went through a lot together.

The great Detroit photographer Linda Solomon sent me some pictures this morning that I’ve included. Willie, I am so mad, and sad. This is not the way it was supposed to be.



Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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