NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - Stars, family and friends mourned Whitney Houston in a spirited Baptist funeral service at her hometown church on Saturday, a week after the death of the singer whose spectacular voice made her one of the biggest pop stars of her era.
Gospel and soul music greats, celebrities and family members swayed to gospel hits and delivered tributes both sung and spoken to the crowded New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, where Houston honed her wide vocal range as a young choral 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.
She was among the greatest singers of the 1980s and 1990s, but later admitted to heavy use of cocaine, marijuana, alcohol and prescription pills. Officials have said prescription drugs were found in the hotel room where she died.
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. Her cause of death has yet to be determined.
She suffered a turbulent personal life and marriage to singer Bobby Brown, who said in a statement he left the service early after being repeatedly asked to move by security, who prevented him from seeing the daughter he shared with Houston, Bobby Kristina Brown, 18.
“This was a day to honor Whitney,” Brown said. “I doubt whether Whitney would have wanted this to occur.”
During the service, her cousin and famed soul singer Dionne Warwick read out a funeral poem and introduced 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 singing an emotional rendition of “Prelude to a Kiss.”
Singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder spoke of once having “a little crush” on Houston before singing a version of his 1982 R&B hit “Ribbon In The Sky,” inserting the lyrics “No more, Whitney, No more, Do you have to cry - You’ll always be a ribbon in the sky.”
Others spoke eloquently of Houston’s passion, strong-willed spirit and once hopeful future, including Clive Davis, the founder of her label Arista Records, who discovered and molded Houston into a global pop phenomenon. He said shortly before she died, Houston had promised she was getting back into shape.
“You wait for a voice like that for a lifetime. You wait for a face like that, a smile like that, a presence like that, for a lifetime. And when one person embodies it all it takes your breath away,” he said. “Music was her passion. Whitney lived music. Whitney loved music.”
R. Kelly performed the 2009 song he wrote for Houston, “I Look To You,” and director Tyler Perry talked about Houston’s “grace that led her all the way to the top of the charts.” The service was dominated by gospel music, by singers Kim Burrell, Donnie McClurkin and others.
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 four-hour service to be broadcast live by television networks and on the Internet.
Many of Houston’s fans left cards and balloons around the church dedicated to the singer, who became a global star with her 1985 debut album, which included the hits “Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know” and “Greatest Love Of All.”
Police urged fans to stay home and watch the funeral on the Internet or television, but some flew and drove from around the country to get as close as they could to the late singer.
“This is history,” said fan Hedwig Berthold, 40, who flew from Miami and watched the broadcast with dozens of others in a nearby cafe. “I bought her records, I saw her concerts, I saw her in the good times. So I wanted to be here for her final farewell.”
Others gathered on the streets, including Wendy Saunders, who drove from Detroit to pay her respects to Houston and said “She meant so much to me,” while Renee Taylor, from Baltimore, held a sign, “You gave us more love than we will ever need.”
Houston grew up surrounded by gospel and soul music legends like Franklin - who fell ill and was unable to attend the service - as well as 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 Bodyguard,” with Costner, Houston played a character not far removed from her real self: an international singing sensation coping with fame.
Costner recalled during his speech that Hollywood executives were hesitant to cast Houston in her first starring role, preferring “somebody white,” but she soon won everyone over. He also spoke of Houston’s immense talent - and insecurities.
“The Whitney that I knew, despite her worldwide success and fame, 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,” he said. “People didn’t just like you, Whitney. They loved you.”
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 the high notes.
But the service ended by focusing on the old, soaring voice she had promised to reclaim. Her inimitable “I Will Always Love You,” rang out as the casket was carried out of the church.
Additional reporting by Patricia Reaney and Gianna Palmer; editing by Anthony Boadle and Todd Eastham