(Reuters) – Stars, family and friends mourned Whitney Houston in a spirited funeral service at her hometown church today, a week after the sudden death of the singer whose spectacular voice made her one of the biggest pop stars of her era.
A choir had guests swaying to gospel music in the crowded New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where Houston first honed her wide vocal range as a young choir singer with her mother Cissy Houston, a backup singer for Aretha Franklin.
“Whitney returns home today to the place where it all began,” said actor Kevin Costner, who starred opposite Houston in the 1992 hit film, “The Bodyguard.” He urged those around the world to “dry our tears, suspend our sorrow — and perhaps our anger — just long enough, just long enough to remember the sweet miracle of Whitney.”
Houston, who died in a Beverly Hills hotel room last week, recorded stirring love songs and vibrant dance tunes during a 30-year career that peaked with her 1992 signature hit “I Will Always Love You” and paved the way for a generation of singers that followed her.
During the service her cousin and famed soul singer Dionne Warwick introduced a host of soul, gospel and pop music greats from the past and present, including Alicia Keys who said “it was so obvious the way she just crept into everybody’s heart” before performing the song “Prelude to a Kiss.”
Influential Hollywood actor and producer Tyler Perry talked about Houston’s “grace that led her all the way to the top of the charts,” before adding that now, “she is resting, singing with the angels.”
Gospel singers who performed at the service included singer Kim Burrell and Donnie McClurkin who sang a powerful rendition of “Stand” while the choir and church stood and swayed.
Houston was among the greatest singers of the 1980s and 1990s, but her personal life and marriage to singer Bobby Brown was tumultuous. She admitted to heavy use of cocaine, marijuana, alcohol and prescription pills.
Her death at age 48 shocked her family, fans and the music industry. Houston was found underwater in a hotel bathtub on the eve of the music industry’s Grammy Awards. A cause of death has yet to be determined.
Record producer Clive Davis, who discovered and guided Houston throughout her career spoke at the service, which Oprah Winfrey and Mariah Carey also attended.
Houston’s family decided against a public memorial, as was done for pop star Michael Jackson after his 2009 death, but they agreed to allow the service to be broadcast live by television networks and on the Internet.
Many of Houston’s fans in the past several days have left flowers, cards and balloons dedicated to the singer who became a global star with her 1985 debut album that included the hits “Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love Of All.”
There was a heavy police presence outside the funeral and streets were cordoned off. Police have urged fans to stay home and watch the funeral on the Internet or television, but some turned up early outside police checkpoints to get as close as they could to the late singer.
“She meant so much to me. I used to literally sit in my room and sing her songs,” said Wendy Saunders, who drove from Detroit to pay her respects to Houston. Renee Taylor, from Baltimore, held a sign, “You gave us more love than we will ever need.”
GOSPEL AND SOUL
Houston grew up surrounded by gospel and soul music legends like Franklin and Warwick. She later forged new territory for a black female artist who brought R&B and gospel touches into pop music’s mainstream.
After her debut, her popularity grew exponentially with her second album, “Whitney” (1987), with all four singles – “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”, “So Emotional”, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” – hitting No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Her music videos featuring her 1980s style and innocent, fun-loving image made her wildly popular around the world. In the 1992 movie “The Bodyguard,” co-starring Costner, Houston played a character not far removed from her real self: an international singing sensation coping with fame.
She made other films including “The Preacher’s Wife,” but the 15-year period when she was married to singer Brown coincided with a decline in the quality and frequency of her albums. The couple, who have an 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, divorced in 2007.
Houston’s powerful voice suffered in recent years. On her last world tour in 2010, she struggled to hit high notes.
She spoke publicly about her struggles with addiction. In a 2002 interview, TV 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.”