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Inside Aretha Franklin's Enduring 30-Year Romance with Longtime Love Willie Wilkerson

Melody Chiu

As Aretha Franklin privately battled pancreatic cancer, she had someone by her side who saw her through many of life’s ups and downs: longtime love Willie Wilkerson.

The handsome former firefighter — whom the late singing legend often referred to as her “forever friend” — reportedly first met Franklin in the ’80s when he asked her to sign a cast on his leg.

After dating for several years, the couple opened up about their romance in a 1987 Jet cover story. “She’s a very warm, very loving woman,” said Wilkerson, while Franklin described them as a “fiery match.”

Willie Wilkerson and Aretha Franklin in 2015

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During a photo shoot with PEOPLE in 2011, Franklin — who died Thursday morning from advance pancreatic cancer at the age of 76 — demurred and blushed when asked about her relationship status.

But less than a year later, the private singer confirmed she and Wilkerson, 70, were ready to walk down the aisle. “We’re looking at June or July for our date and no, I’m not pregnant, LOL!” she quipped in 2012.

Willie Wilkerson and Aretha Franklin in 2008

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Previously wed to Ted White for eight years and then to actor Glynn Turman for six, Franklin never gave up on finding her king. “I love marriage,” she said. “I love the institution.”

Just weeks after announcing their engagement, however, the couple suddenly called off their summer wedding. “Regretfully, To Our Friends and Supporters: Will and I have decided we were moving a little too fast, and there were a number of things that had not been thought through thoroughly,” said Franklin at the time. “There will be no wedding at this time.”

Willie Wilkerson and Aretha Franklin in 2015

Despite never tying the knot, Wilkerson and Franklin remained close until her death, and it’s clear the superstar always had a soft spot for her partner.

“I’m glad that he could make the distinction between the lady and the artist,” she previously told Jet about why she fell for him. “Because a lot of men can’t.”