Whitney Houston’s voice soars at hometown funeral

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by Nekesa Numbi Moody
AP Music Writer

NEWARK, N.J. (AP)—After all the testimonials from relatives and friends, the songs from legends and pop stars, the preaching and even laughter, the raw emotion of Whitney Houston’s funeral came down to just one moment: The sound of her own voice.

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FANS SAY GOODBYE—Fans sing Whitney Houston’s songs as they gather a few blocks from the New Hope Baptist Church before the singer’s funeral in Newark, N.J., Feb. 18. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

As the strains of her biggest record, “I Will Always Love You,” filled the New Hope Baptist Church at the end of the nearly four-hour service last Saturday and her silver-and-gold casket was lifted in the air, the weight of the moment was too much for mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, to bear.

As she was held up by two women, she wailed, “My baby! My baby!” as she was led out the church behind her daughter’s body.

A few steps behind her was the pop icon’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, also crying uncontrollably as she was comforted by Houston’s close friend, singer Ray J.

It was the most searing scene on a day with mixed moods as family, friends and A-list celebrities—sometimes one in the same—came to the humble New Hope Baptist Church where she first wowed a congregation to remember one of music’s legends, but also a New Jersey hometown girl.

Houston died Feb. 11 in Beverly Hills, Calif., on the eve of the Grammys at the age of 48. Her death marked the end of a life that was marked by stunning achievements: Blessed with a voice of great power and beauty, Houston became one of pop music’s most successful artists over a career that spanned nearly three decades and segued into film with hits like “The Bodyguard.”

But her struggles with drugs and very public fall from grace during tumultuous times, including a union with ex-husband Bobby Brown, were among the many valleys in her life.

Both sides of Houston were recalled at the service at New Hope, which was filled with about 300 mourners, including Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Diane Sawyer and Houston’s cousin, Dionne Warwick.

“She was someone with a charmed and a beautiful life, sometimes misunderstood, even by herself,” said her sister-in-law and manager, Patricia Houston. “But a life nevertheless that gave joy, happiness, enthusiasm, peace and beautiful music to millions of people around the world.”

Kevin Costner, her co-star in “The Bodyguard,” said for all of Houston’s beauty and success, she was still yearning for approval from the public—and still somewhat insecure, a superstar who “still wondered, ‘Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Will they like me?’”

“It’s a tree we could all hang from—the unexplainable burden that comes with fame,” he said. “Call it doubt. Call it fear. I’ve had mine. And I know the famous in the room have had theirs.”

Many who spoke talked about Houston’s unshakable faith in Jesus Christ, which got her through some of her most difficult times. Perry recalled a conversation where Houston would look sad when reflecting on her troubles, but then would hasten to add that God was taking care of her.

“The other thing I know for sure—and this is more important than anything that she’s done in her life—Whitney Houston loved the Lord,” he said.

Fittingly, music played a major role in the send-off to one of music’s greatest voices.

Stevie Wonder rewrote lyrics to “Ribbon in the Sky” for Houston—“you will always be a ribbon in the sky,” he sang.

So did gospel’s the Rev. Kim Burrell for “A Change is Gonna Come,” which Warwick said was Houston’s favorite song of all time. R. Kelly brought the New Hope Baptist Church to its feet with a stirring version of “I Look to You,” the title of Houston’s final studio album.

And Keys, her voice breaking at times, dedicated her song “Send Me An Angel,” to Houston.

Brown briefly appeared at her funeral, walking to the casket, touching it and walking out. He later said in a statement that he and his children were asked repeatedly to move and he left rather than risk creating a scene.

Close family friend Aretha Franklin, whom Houston lovingly called “Aunt Ree,” had been expected to sing at the service, but said early Saturday she was too ill to attend.

Warwick presided over the funeral, introducing speakers and singers and offering short insights about her cousin; she joked that Houston’s Super Bowl performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” became almost as big as the telephone book.

Hudson, who sang “I Will Always Love You” a night after Houston’s death in a Grammy tribute, mourned Houston along with Monica, Brandy and Jordin Sparks—representing a generation of big-voiced young singers who grew up emulating the star of the ’80s and ’90s. Sparks stars with Houston in the remake of the 1970s film “Sparkle,” due out in August.

As the funeral began, 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.”

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 and daughter 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.”

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.

Fans were kept blocks from the church and the invitation-only funeral, but their presence was felt. A huge shrine of heart-shaped balloons and personal messages that covered the street corner around the church entrance.

Houston’s death marked the final chapter for the superstar. 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.

Houston was buried last Sunday next to her father, John Houston, in nearby Westfield, N.J.

(Contributing to this report were AP Global Entertainment and Lifestyles Editor Alicia Quarles and Entertainment Writer Mesfin Fekadu.)

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