The biggest names in entertainment clapped hands, swayed to gospel hymns and sang along with the choir at Whitney Houston’s funeral in the church where the future pop star once wowed the congregation as a young girl.
“We are here today, hearts broken but yet with God’s strength we celebrate the life of Whitney Houston,” Reverend Joe A. Carter told the packed New Hope Baptist Church on Saturday after the choir behind him sang “The Lord is My Shepherd”.
“Whitney, you are the only woman that could bring all of us together. Whitney, today is your day,” he said.
A gospel choir, members dressed in white and gold, opened the funeral with song, and churchgoers were swaying and clapping along. Some stood in the aisles in the full church.
Mourners fell quiet as three police officers escorted Houston’s casket, draped with white roses and purple lilies. White-robed choir members began to fill the pews on the podium. As the band played softly, the choir sang in a hushed voice, “Whitney, Whitney, Whitney.”
Houston’s family had prepared a service where singer Dionne Warwick, Houston’s cousin, music mogul Clive Davis, who shepherded Houston’s career for decades, actor Kevin Costner, her co-star in the film The Bodyguard’, and sister-in-law Patricia Houston, among others, spoke at the service.
Filmmaker Tyler Perry praised Houston’s “grace that kept on carrying her all the way through, the same grace led her all the way to the top of the charts. She sang for presidents”.
“You wait for a voice like that for a lifetime,” Davis said.
Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, R Kelly and gospel stars CeCe and Bebe Winans sang at the service.
Tributes to Houston were both celebratory of her life and mournful. Singer Ray J., who spent time with Houston during her last days, broke down crying. His sister, singer Brandy, put her arm around him. Cissy Houston and Houston’s daughter, 18-year-old Bobbi Kristina, clutched each other in the front of the church.
Toward the end of the service, Bobbi Kristina and Ray J. embraced at length and spoke. Others gathered near the front of the church and hugged each other.
The most powerful moment was reserved for the end. As Houston’s silver casket was carried out, her hit “I Will Always Love You'” played. Bobbi Kristina began crying, and the sobs of Houston’s mother rang throughout the church.
Close family friend Aretha Franklin, whom Houston lovingly called “Aunt Ree”, had been expected to sing at the service, but she was too ill to attend. Franklin said in an email to the Associated Press that she had been up most of the night with leg spasms and sent best wishes to the family.
Singers Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, Roberta Flack, Jordin Sparks and Jennifer Hudson were among those filling pews. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader, and actor Lela Rochon were also gathering as the choir began to sing gospel and the congregation clapped.
Pictures of Houston as a baby, with her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston and daughter, Bobbi Kristina filled the program.
“I never told you that when you were born, the Holy Spirit told me that you would not be with me long,” Cissy Houston wrote her daughter in a letter published in the program. “And I thank God for the beautiful flower he allowed me to raise and cherish for 48 years.”
“Rest, my baby girl in peace,” the letter ends, signed “mommie”.
Houston’s mother was helped by two people on either side of her as she walked in and sat with her granddaughter and other family. Houston’s ex-husband, Bobby Brown, briefly appeared at her funeral, walking to the casket, touching it and walking out.
The service marks one week after the 48-year-old Houston, one of music’s all-time biggest stars, was found dead in a Beverly Hills hotel in California. A cause of death has yet to be determined.
Houston’s death marked the final chapter for the superstar whose fall from grace was years in the making.
Houston had her first No 1 hit by the time she was 22, followed by a flurry of No 1 songs and multi-platinum records.
Her last album, “I Look To You”, debuted on the top of the charts when it was released in 2009 with strong sales, but did not have the staying power of her previous records. A tour the next year was doomed by cancellations because of illness and sub-par performances.
To the world, Houston was the pop queen with the perfect voice, the dazzling diva with regal beauty, a troubled superstar suffering from addiction and, finally, another victim of the dark side of fame.
To her family and friends, she was just “Nipp”, a nickname given to Houston when she was a child. To them, she was a sister, a friend, a daughter, and a mother.
“She always had the edge,” Jackson said outside the church Saturday. “You can tell when some kids have what we call a special anointing. Aretha had that when she was 14; Whitney cultivated that and took it to a very high level.”
Over her career, she sold more than 50 million records in the United States alone. Her voice, an ideal blend of power, grace and beauty, made classics out of songs like “Saving All My Love For You”, “I Will Always Love You”,
“The Greatest Love of All” and “I’m Every Woman”.
Her six Grammys were only a fraction of her many awards. But amid the fame, a turbulent marriage to Brown and her addiction to drugs tarnished her image. She became a woman falling apart in front of the world.
A few fans gathered Saturday morning hours before the service as close as they could get to the church, some from as far away as Washington DC and Miami. Bobby Brooks said he came from Washington “just to be among the rest of the fans”.
“Just to celebrate her life, not just her death,” said Brooks, “just to sing and dance with the people that love her.”
Others were more entrepreneurial, setting up card tables to sell silk-screened T-shirts with Houston’s image and her CDs. But only the invited would get close to the church; streets were closed to the public for blocks in every direction.
But their presence was felt around the church, with a huge shrine of heart-shaped balloons and personal messages that covered the street corner around the church entrance.
Houston was to be buried next to her father, John Houston, in nearby Westfield, New Jersey.