Whitney Houston’s flower-covered casket has arrived at the church where her powerful voice first wowed the congregation, and her family made final preparations to remember the pop superstar in her hometown.
Hundreds of fans gathered nearby to say goodbye.
Mourners at the New Hope Baptist Church, including civil rights leader he Rev Jesse Jackson, fell quiet as three police officers escorted Houston’s silver casket, draped with white roses and purple lilies, a couple of hours before the service.
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; and 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. Among those who arrived for the service were Angie Stone, Jordin Sparks and Monica.
The service marks one week after the 48-year-old, 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 the church. “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 thisy morning hours before the service, some travelling from as far away as Washington DC 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 set 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.
Elton John, Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce and Jay-Z, actor-producer Tyler Perry and American Idol musical director Rickey Minor were all expected to attend the invitation-only service.
Houston’s ex-husband Bobby Brown is also expected to attend, along with the couple’s only child, Bobbi Kristina.
Houston had her first number one hit by the time she was 22, followed by a flurry of number one 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 such as '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.
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.
Houston is to be buried next to her father, John Houston, in nearby Westfield, New Jersey.