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.