As fans have been lining up by the hundreds to pay their respects to Aretha Franklin before her funeral Friday in Detroit, Carlton Northern, her longtime hairdresser, has been holding tight to his own memories of the Queen of Soul, especially the last two times he styled her — three weeks before her death from pancreatic on Aug. 16 and for her funeral services.
Northern, who’ll be at Friday’s funeral, has worked with the singer since 1983 when he met her as a rookie fresh out of cosmetology school. For the next 35 years, he was her go-to hairdresser.
Over the years, Northern, 64, who lives in Detroit, traveled all over the country with Franklin, from five trips to the White House to photo and video shoots in N.Y.C. to Washington D.C. for the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors where her iconic version of “Natural Woman” brought President Obama to tears.
When the family asked him to do Franklin’s hair one last time, he didn’t hesitate.
“When your really love someone, you love them all the way,” Northern, a teacher at the Paul Mitchell School, shared with PEOPLE in an interview following the singer’s death. “All you need is the strength to do it. God gives you the tools. I prayed on it.”
Northern knew Franklin’s time was very limited as he was called to her home three weeks before she died.
“She wanted me to do her hair. She wasn’t going out much,” he explained. “I knew she was very sick for a while, and we knew it was close to the end. She kind of looked at me and she asked, ‘You got me?’ I said, ‘I got you. I got you all the way.’”
Franklin, the self-taught musical prodigy who first topped the charts in the late ’60s, died Aug. 16 of advance pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, her publicist confirms to PEOPLE. She was 76.
“In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart. We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds,” the family said in a statement.
It’s been an emotional time for Northern, who has shared little publicly about his experiences with Franklin since she died, but he found some peace when he styled her hair at the Swanson Funeral Home last Friday before public viewings in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan began.
“It was very comforting. I talked to her like always. ‘Hey Aretha, I’m here. I’m here to polish your crown.’ I took my time,” he said of the several hours he spent alone with her at the funeral home. “I said certain things that she might say to me, like: ‘Watch my makeup Carlton.’ And she’d say, ‘Do I need to hold my ear?’ when I was curling around her ear. I was always careful with her.”
As for her final hairstyle, Northern said the family let him decide what to do. “They were showing the last album cover we did, the Divas [2014’s Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, her final studio album], and so I just made an executive decision,” he shared, referring to the close cropped cut with a “little spit curl on her forehead.”
When asked how she looked when he first saw her last Friday, he said, “She looked fabulous.”
Northern’s been getting similar compliments from people who’ve seen her since then, noting, “People have been sending me messages saying how amazing she looks.”
For Northern, 64, of Detroit, that praise provides comfort in knowing that he did right by the woman who gave him so much. Meeting Franklin in 1983 changed his life. At the time Northern was an apprentice in a Detroit salon where Franklin and her then-husband, Glynn Turman, got their hair done. While his mentor did Franklin’s hair, Northern did Turman’s.
About a year later, Northern had his license and was on his own.
“The next thing I know, she [Franklin] was calling me. She said: ‘Carlton, this is Aretha. I wanted to know if you could make my hair blonde.’ I was a rookie. I just got my license. I was excited and nervous at the same time,” he said of the day she arrived. “I put the color on her hair and I sat there for fifteen minutes. It didn’t do anything. And it dawned on me that I didn’t put the developer in. I had to man up.”
Northern confessed. Franklin took it in stride.
“She said, ‘What are you going to do Carlton?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to add the developer.’ And I did that and I made her golden blonde. The next thing I know she asked me to go to photo shoot for her [Get It Right] album cover in New York.”
Although Northern had zero experience doing anyone’s hair for a photo shoot, he said he could not say no to the Queen of Soul. From then on, she always treated him like family and acknowledged his work.
“I just loved Aretha because she was a real individual,” he shared. “We could talk about anything. We had a kinship. We talked about books, politics, movies. She was a very down to earth individual who was super talented. Oftentimes I’d be at her house [to do her hair] and she’d be on the piano and breaking out in song.”
Though Franklin occasionally wore wigs, Northern said, “Everything you see with her own hair, I did. It didn’t grow too long but we were able to create a lot of different looks. She wanted her hair in more natural state when she did the tribute to Carole King,” he said of her “Natural Woman” performance at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.
Though he was most content out of the limelight, Northern said he even made it into one of her videos, “Freeway of Love.” “I was in that, play-acting on the xylophone.”
Looking back, he said it’s hard to choose a favorite memory, but he fondly recalled the trips to the White House and many of the big star-studded events — Oprah’s 40th birthday and Franklin’s performances at the Hollywood Bowl, among others.
Mostly he recalled more private times, like the trips she’d take “with her people,” including himself and her security team.
“I’ve got so many memories. It’s amazing the life she gave me,” said Northern. “It’s been a kind of blessing. I’m going to miss doing her hair, just traveling together, the interaction with her fans — just so much. I’m just going to miss her spirit, her whole being.”