aretha franklin-william wilkerson-02

A retha Franklin announced in a statement earlier this week that she was engaged to longtime friend William Wilkerson. The couple are aiming to wed this summer, she’s also scouting locations for the ceremony, which she estimates will include about 250 people. While the Detroit native initially considered Miami Beach, Fla., for the wedding, she’s now leaning toward the Hamptons, where friends have a house with a private beach. “I’m kind of leaning that way because it’s closer to home, and more friends could get there easily,” Aretha said. Aretha, who will turn 70 in March, is contemplating a dress designed by Donna Karan or Vera Wang, with a wedding-singer shortlist that includes Detroit stars Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Karen Clark Sheard.

When word of Aretha Franklin’s engagement emerged early this week, plenty of folks were left asking: Who, exactly, is William Wilkerson? If you were looking closely over the years, you couldn’t have missed him. William Wilkerson, a 64-year-old retired fireman and Detroit native, is described as friendly, funny, personable, outgoing. A strapping Vietnam War veteran with a love of Cadillacs — “Cadillac Willie” is a nickname — William has been a sturdy, steady presence at Aretha’s side, often glimpsed at her annual Christmas parties, birthday bashes and various events. Since meeting in the mid-1980s, the two have enjoyed an enduring friendship amid an on-again-off-again romance.

This isn’t the couple’s first wedding plan: They were briefly engaged in 1987, the same year Jet magazine profiled the couple in a bubbly cover story. “I know who she is and I have all the respect in the world for what she’s accomplished,” William told Jet at the time. “But it’s still the lady that counts.” They met in 1985 at Aretha’s concert at Cobo Arena in Detroit. William was there in the front row and she started a conversation with him during the show. The two of them, it turned out, were already closer than they realized: both had apartments in Detroit’s Riverfront Towers.

William makes an ideal mate for Aretha, friends say: A regular guy with a working-class background, he offers the sort of grounding long craved by the singer behind “A Natural Woman.” But he’s also debonair enough to navigate the highbrow world that comes with the Queen of Soul’s public life.

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