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The marquee on the Fox Theater shows the word 'Respect' in memory of singer Aretha Franklin in downtown Detroit, Mich., August 16, 2018.REBECCA COOK/Reuters

Tweeted tributes and heartfelt remembrances dominated the social media landscape in the hours following Aretha Franklin’s passing on Thursday. Musicians, politicians and civil rights leaders, grasping the sense of occasion and with an appreciation for a profound collective loss, addressed the significance of an artist whose voice and presence transcended the music business.

Perhaps the most moving tribute came from Stevie Wonder, the Motown legend who spoke of his final meeting with his long-time friend on CBS This Morning: “She wasn’t able to speak back, but her family felt that she could hear me.”

As recently as two months ago, Ms. Franklin and Mr. Wonder talked about doing a new song of his. It was called The Future, and now the United States, embroiled in divisions that cut across racial lines, faces a future without one of its unifying voices.

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, the Georgia congressman and civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis singled out Franklin’s moral power. “She had the capacity and ability to help move us closer to what Dr. King called ‘the beloved community,’ ” Mr. Lewis said. “Where we could lay down the burden of hate and separation and move just a little bit closer.

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A man writes on a portrait of singer Aretha Franklin outside the Apollo Theater, Aug. 16, 2018, in New York.Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press

“If it hadn’t been for Aretha – and others, but particularly Aretha – the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings,” Mr. Lewis said. “She lifted us and she inspired us.”

Ms. Franklin toured America as a teenager with Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesse Jackson. Her 1967 recording of Otis Reddings’s Respect became an anthem for civil rights and feminism.

“The most consistent voice in music for 60 years has been Aretha Franklin’s voice,” Mr. Jackson said in an Associated Press interview. "The world of music has lost a bit of its soul.”

A particularly public testimony for the late singer came from pop singer Ariana Grande, who paid respect by faithfully rendering (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Backed by the show’s house band The Roots, Ms. Grande directed the song’s heartfelt lyrics at Ms. Franklin, singing: “You make me feel so alive” as a swaying, powerful tribute rather than a romantic love song.

Rock music royalty from the top down saluted the late singer. Ms. Franklin had a rich history with the material of the Beatles, inimitably interpreting Let It Be, Eleanor Rigby and The Long and Winding Road. Separately, the sole surviving members of the Fab Four tweeted out kind words. “Let’s all take a moment to give thanks for the beautiful life of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of our souls, who inspired us all for many, many years,” Paul McCartney wrote. Ringo Starr had this to say: “God bless Aretha Franklin the queen of soul and peace and love to her family.”

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Flowers and mementos are left at a growing memorial at Aretha Franklin's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on August 16, 2018 in Los Angeles, Calif.Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

A past American president and the current Oval Office occupier also paid tribute. Barack Obama praised the “Queen of Soul” for her musicianship and for helping define the American experience. “Every time she sang,” he wrote, “we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine.”

Although President Donald Trump praised Franklin on Twitter as “a great woman, with a wonderful gift from God,” his more personal recollection – “She worked for me on numerous occasions” – was poorly received in some circles.

In response to the death of the 18-time Grammy winner, sales of her music climbed the iTunes charts and spiked on streaming services.

Some of the remembrances were more personal than others. David Clayton-Thomas, who sang with Ms. Franklin on a live television broadcast in the 1970s, recalled the experience as being daunting.

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The coffin of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is carried on a wagon followed by thousands of mourners during his funeral procession through Atlanta, April 9, 1968. Aretha Franklin, who sang at Dr. King's funeral, had a voice and career synonymous with the civil rights movement as she passionately advocated for the advancement of African-Americans and women.DON HOGAN CHARLES/The New York Times News Service

“I was terrified,” the former Blood, Sweat & Tears singer told The Globe and Mail.

The two singers were flown into Louisville, Ky., during the Kentucky Derby to promote the upcoming Grammy Awards broadcast. The idea was to announce the Grammy nominations by having the Ms. Franklin and Mr. Clayton-Thomas sing them during the long derby broadcast.

“The nominees and the categories were on the cue cards,” Mr. Clayton-Thomas recalled. “The band struck up a slow blues vamp and Aretha and I just stood there and improvised them over the blues.”

There was no rehearsal. The pair talked over what they would do earlier in the green room. “We both had the basic understanding of the blues,” said the Spinning Wheel singer. “It was a common language.”

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In this April 28, 1993 file photo, Aretha Franklin, performs in the finale of "Aretha Franklin: Duets," an AIDS benefit concert for the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York, as singers Smokey Robinson, background from left, Gloria Estefan, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Raitt and actors Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro look on.Ron Frehm/The Canadian Press

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