NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Whitney Houston's flower-covered casket arrived Saturday at the church where her powerful voice first wowed the congregation, as the biggest names in entertainment solemnly filed in to remember the pop superstar in her hometown.
Mourners at the New Hope Baptist Church fell quiet as three police officers escorted Houston's silver 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.”
Family prepared a service where singer Dionne Warwick, Houston's cousin, music mogul Clive Davis, who shepherded Houston's career for decades, actor Kevin Costner and sister-in-law Patricia Houston were to speak. Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, R. Kelly and gospel stars CeCe and Bebe Winans were to sing. Houston's voice, a recording of her biggest hit, “I Will Always Love You,” was to close the funeral.
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; “May God bless and keep them all,” she wrote.
Singers Chaka Khan, Brandy, Roberta Flack, Jordin Sparks and Jennifer Hudson were among those filling pews. Brandy comforted her brother, Ray-J, a singer who spent time with Houston during her final days. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and actor Lela Rochon were also gathering as the choir began to sing gospel and the congregation clapped.
A program featuring a picture of Houston looking skyward read “Celebrating the life of Whitney Elizabeth Houston, a child of God.” 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.”
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.
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 “Nippy.” A nickname given to Houston when she was a child, it stuck with her through adulthood and, later, would become the name of one of her companies. To them, she was a sister, a friend, a daughter, and a mother.
“She always had the edge,” Jackson said outside 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.”
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, D.C., 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.
Elton John, Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce and Jay-Z, actor-producer Tyler Perry and “American Idol” musical director Rickey Minor were all expected to attend Saturday's invitation-only service. Her ex-husband Bobby Brown also is expected to attend, along with the couple's only child, Bobbi Kristina.
Houston's death marked the final chapter for the superstar whose fall from grace while shocking 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.
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.
Her last album, “I Look To You,” debuted on the top of the charts when it was released in 2009 with strong sales, but didn't have the staying power of her previous records. A tour the next year was doomed by cancellations because of illness and sub-par performances.
Still, a comeback was ahead: She was to star in the remake of the movie “Sparkle” and was working on new music. Her family, friends and hard-core fans were hopeful.
The funeral is for invited guests only. Houston is to be buried next to her father, John Houston, in nearby Westfield, N.J.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)