Video: Family, fans and friends say farewell to Whitney
Private funeral in hometown church
Published 19/02/2012 | 05:00
AFTER THE tears came the cries of "Hallelujah". The funeral of Whitney Houston yesterday was joyful at times, as some of the greatest names in soul music gathered with her friends and family to say thank you for the life of the 48-year-old singer.
Balloons and flowers were tied to the railings of the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, as if for a party. The massive choir wore white and stood to start the service with an electrifying song called Grateful.
Millions watched on TV through a single camera in the church. Mariah Carey and Stevie Wonder were there, with Oprah Winfrey and Queen Latifah. But as the mood swung from celebration to sorrow, it became clear that this was not a show, it was an intimate Pentecostal service.
The intensity became breathtaking when the singer Kim Burrell personalised a Sam Cooke song to say: "There was a time when she thought she couldn't last, but I know those cares have passed. It's been a long time coming, but I know change has come."
Bringing the congregation to tears, she sang: "A change from mortal to immortal. No more rehearsals, no more tours, no more flying, no more crying, a change has come."
The invitations had called it a homecoming and that was true on many levels. Houston's body had been flown home from California, where she was found dead in the bath at the Beverly Hills Hotel eight days ago.
The coroner found no signs of foul play, but toxicology reports are being awaited amid rumours that she died after a lethal cocktail of prescription drugs and alcohol.
Her body was carried through the streets of Newark in a gold hearse. Then the platinum coffin with gold handles was carried at noon into the red-brick church where little Whitney first sang in public, at the age of 11, in the gospel choir alongside her mother, Cissy.
"She would do the solo," remembered Stephanie Miller, a teenager in the choir at the time. "Every time she hit that special note, the church would be knocked out. The spirit was so heavy, so strong."
Houston went on to become one of the most popular performers of her generation, selling 170 million records and winning six Grammy awards.
Her stunning voice was heard on number one hits such as Saving All My Love For You, The Greatest Love and the song with which she was most associated, I Will Always Love You.
It was the theme song for her hit film The Bodyguard and yesterday her co-star and producer, Kevin Costner, gave an emotional address. He disclosed that studio executives suggested he should hire someone white to star alongside him and that he postponed making the film for a year so that Houston could be in it. He also had to help the singer overcome self-doubt about the part.
Speaking to the gleaming coffin in front of him, Costner said: "Off you go, Whitney, escorted by an army of angels to your heavenly Father. When you sing before him, don't you worry, you'll be good enough."
There had been some debate about whether Houston's former husband, Bobby Brown, was invited, but he did arrive, albeit late.
He was reported to have left within half an hour, after becoming overcome with emotion. Their 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina, was also there.
The police had cordoned off the surrounding area and even had a sniper on the roof of the derelict warehouse next door to the church, but behind the barriers fans were singing their favourite Whitney songs.
The invitations said: "With heartfelt gratitude, the Houston family requests the honour of your presence at the home going service for Whitney Elizabeth Houston."
Such services are traditionally more upbeat than a funeral, because of the sense that whatever troubles they had in life, the person is going home to be with God.
The gospel singer BeBe Winans drew laughter after saying he loved the "crazy Whitney" who had turned up at the height of her fame to sing backing vocals for him and his sister, aware that her enormous pulling power would boost their careers.
"She said, 'You're my brother and sister. We love each other, right? And y'all are broke, right?'"
The Houston family lived in the housing projects of Newark until the riots of 1967, when they moved to a white clapboard house in the suburb of East Orange, New Jersey an hour away -- but they returned to New Hope on Sundays.
As a young girl, Houston was nicknamed Nippy by her father, after a cartoon character, and it stuck. The child was surrounded by some of the great female soul singers: her cousin was Dionne Warwick, her godmothers were Darlene Love and Aretha Franklin, who she called "Auntie Ree".
Franklin was due to perform a tribute yesterday, but was unable to do so because of illness. On the eve of the funeral, she said: "We will always remember her kindness, her grace, her smile and her dynamic performances, but she has moved on up just a little bit higher now."
Houston became a backing singer and a model and in 1983 she was signed by Clive Davis, the head of Arista. Her debut album was released in 1985, when the single Saving All My Love For You went to number one.
It was the first of seven consecutive American number ones for Houston, who went on to win countless awards. Her career was at a peak in 1992 when she married Brown and began a stormy 15-year marriage that would be blamed by many for her descent into addiction."
Houston continued to make albums, tour and win awards, but over the years her voice faltered, her sales dropped and her erratic behaviour increased.
Despite seeming to have it all, she struggled with the pressures of fame, as she told Oprah Winfrey in 2009. "It was too much. So much to try to live up to, to try to be, and I wanted out."
When she died, Houston was a long way from the purity and simplicity of her first TV performance back in 1985. Then, the 21-year-old sang a song called Home with the words, "I wish I was home. I wish I was back there..."
Those who gathered at New Hope Baptist Church had no doubt: Whitney Houston was home now.