"More than once, I've met a hero of mine, but nothing compared to getting to know Aretha Franklin," Don Lemon tearfully said on CNN Thursday night.
The CNN anchor remembered the Queen of Soul as an influencer, icon and friend, tearfully explaining how her "incredible voice" was actually the "soundtrack" to his life.
"People across America -- I am one of them -- have been playing Aretha Franklin's music, celebrating her incredible life and career, and singing along to their favorites," he said during his monologue. "This is one of mine right now. I love this song so much because of the beginning. She's playing the piano here."
Lemon played Franklin's cover of Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" as a slideshow of the late legend took over the screen. As the camera panned back over to Lemon, he was singing along to the hit -- his eyes filled with tears.
"This is very personal for me, as you can probably tell," he said. "One of the greatest blessings of the work that I do is that I get the chance to meet and have conversations with some really incredible people," Lemon said. "More than once, I've met a hero of mine, but nothing compared to getting to know Aretha Franklin -- Ms. Franklin. In a lot of ways, her music and her voice have been a soundtrack to my life -- maybe yours, too."
"For as long as I can remember, I've been listening to and loving Aretha in my house, at picnics, at cookouts, at parties, in the car, on the plane, wherever I could listen to her. And the people who work on this show have heard me sing her songs more than a few times, even on the commercial breaks here in the studio," he continued.
"Sitting down across from her just a few years ago, I was just about speechless," Lemon said before playing a clip of his sit-down with the Queen. Although the interview took place "early," Franklin serenaded Lemon with her hit, "Respect."
"I can go to Heaven right now," he said to her in the clip.
"Do you think your songs were the anthem for the Civil Rights Movement?" he asked.
"'Respect' was a mantra for the Civil Rights Movement. It was." Franklin replied.
When asked if she felt we, as a society, were moving forward, she said, "I think that we have come a very, very long way. We've come to the forefront in many fields across entertainment, sports and so on, but we still have a long way to go."
Lemon first paid his respects on Wednesday night when he called into CNN, audibly distraught, to discuss Franklin's passing.
"I'm sorry, Poppy. I just woke up and got the news. I'm so sorry. I didn't expect to have this reaction," he told host Poppy Harlow through tears. "It's sad, and for the past couple of days, people have been going to see her and reaching out to her. You know, there was information that I knew that I couldn't really say because the family did not want that out."
"You know, for the last couple of days, it has not been good. Truly, we lost a legend. And a good person," he continued. "She said that she wanted to be known as a good mother, but she was a good mother to not only just her four sons, but to so many people around the world, like me."
"She would just text me out of the blue and say, 'I saw something you did on CNN, and I'm so proud of you. You are doing such a great job,'" added Lemon, his voice cracking. "To think that that won't happen anymore is just really awful."
Aretha Franklin died Thursday in her Detroit home after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 76.