FAMILY and friends gathered yesterday to bid farewell to Whitney Houston at the neighbourhood church where the global superstar first displayed her powerful singing talent.
The funeral at the New Hope Baptist Church was an invitation-only event, open to relatives and friends, including some of the biggest names in entertainment.
But that didn’t stop several hundred fans waiting in the cold to pay their respects to the singer, who was found dead a week ago in a hotel in Los Angeles. The road outside the church in Newark, New Jersey, was closed to traffic but admirers, some of whom had travelled from as far afield as Washington and Miami, built a shrine with heart-shaped balloons around the corner from the entrance.
Inside the church the service featured mourners including singer Jennifer Hudson and Houston’s mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, who stood, swayed and clapped along in the aisles. Gospel singers CeCei and BeBe Winans and the Rev Kim Burrell joined with pop stars including Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder and R Kelly in paying tribute to the 48-year-old pop superstar who first began singing in the Newark church.
“You wait for a voice like that for a lifetime,” said music mogul Clive Davis, who shepherded Houston’s career for decades.
Others were more mournful; singer Ray J, who spent time with Houston during her last days, broke down crying. Cissy Houston and Whitney Houston’s daughter, 18-year-old Bobbi Kristina, clutched each other in the front row.
Actor Kevin Costner, her co-star in The Bodyguard, the film that spawned her greatest hit I Will Always Love You, remembered a fledgling movie star who was uncertain of her own fame, who “still wondered, ‘Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Will they like me?’”
“It was the burden that made her great and the part that caused her to stumble in the end,” Costner said.
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.”
Wonder and Oprah Winfrey were among the biggest names gathered to mourn Houston, along with Hudson, Monica, Brandy and Jordin Sparks - representing a generation of big-voiced young singers who grew up emulating her.
Houston’s cousin, singer Dionne Warwick, presided over the funeral, introducing speakers and singers and offering short comments about Houston between them.
Houston’s former husband, Bobby Brown, briefly appeared at her funeral, walking to the casket, touching it and walking out. Aretha Franklin, a close family friend, had been scheduled to sing at the service but was forced to cancel due to ill health.
Inside the church, where Houston sang as a little girl in the gospel choir, a white-robed choir sang softly as mourners filled the pews.
A programme 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 programme.
“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 in a letter to her daughter published in the programme. “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 fans outside were the first to glimpse Houston’s flower-strewn casket as it arrived at the church, escorted by three police officers. The silver coffin, draped with white roses and purple lilies was carried to the centre of the church.
“We are here today, hearts broken but yet with God’s strength we celebrate the life of Whitney Houston,” Rev Joe A. Carter told the packed church 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.”
The congregation heard that 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,” Jesse Jackson said outside church yesterday. “You can tell when some kids have what we call a special anointing.”
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 Number 1 hit by the time she was 22, followed by a flurry of Number 1 songs and multi-platinum records.
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.
In a 2002 interview, television journalist Diane Sawyer asked Houston what was the “biggest devil” among her failings. Houston answered: “Nobody makes me do anything I don’t want to do. So the bigger devil is me, I am either my best friend or my worst enemy.”
Despite her troubles, Houston’s death at age 48 shocked her family, fans and the music industry. She was found underwater in a hotel bath on the eve of the music industry’s Grammy Awards.
A cause of death has yet to be determined. Houston is to be buried next to her father, John Houston, in nearby Westfield, New Jersey.