Chynna RogersAretha Franklin’s longtime partner William Wilkerson a.k.a. Willie Wilkerson Jr. has passed. The Vietnam War veteran, who had been a constant companion to the legendary singer before her death in 2018, died on Wednesday, April 8 from the coronavirus, her relatives have confirmed.
Willie was admitted to the hospital for suffering from the COVID-19 symptoms on March 30, according to family members. He died at Ascension Providence Hospital in Rochester (formerly Crittenton). Other details are not available yet.
Following his passing, his daughter Tanya Wilkerson-Thompson posted a tribute on Facebook, “I know most of you were praying for him and our family and I want you to know how much we appreciate you. If you knew him at all or ever met him even once, you know how full of life he was. He was my hero, my father and my friend. I will cherish every memory of him.”
Willie was a retired Detroit firefighter. He met Aretha in the late 1980s after he had a front-row seat at one of her concerts. Their friendship began as they learned that both had apartments in Detroit’s Riverfront Towers. Soon their relationship turned into decades of an off-and-on romance.
Willie had also been Aretha’s escort to multiple events and road manager on her cross-country bus tours after she developed a fear of flying. “She’s a very warm, very loving woman,” Willie said of the soul diva in 1987 for a cover story in Jet magazine. The singer, meanwhile, described them as a “fiery match.”
After several canceled nuptials, they were engaged again in 2012. Later in that year they decided that they would not marry, but would remain close friends. In the months before Aretha died in August 2018 of pancreatic cancer, Willie was “still very close to her, visiting her right to the end,” said his daughter Tequila Wilkerson of Southfield. “And they talked all the time on the phone,” over the decades of their friendship, she added.