Whitney Houston’s casket arrived at the church where her powerful voice first wowed a congregation as family made final preparations to remember the pop superstar in her hometown.
Mourners at the New Hope Baptist Church, including the Rev Jesse Jackson, fell quiet as three police officers escorted Whitney 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”.
Ray J – who was thought to have been dating Whitney Houston when she died – sister Brandy and singer Mary J. Blige were some of the first celebrities to arrive at the church.
Family prepared a service where singer Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston’s cousin, music mogul Clive Davis, who shepherded singer’s career for decades, actor Kevin Costner and sister-in-law Patricia Houston were to speak.
Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, R. Kelly and gospel stars CeCe and Bebe Winans are expected to sing. Whitney Houston’s voice, a recording of her biggest hit, I Will Always Love You, is expected to be played at the end.
Close family friend Aretha Franklin, the singer’s godmother, whom Whitney Houston lovingly called Aunt Ree, was expected to sing at the service, but she is too ill to attend, said a person close to the Houston family who was not authorized to talk about Franklin’s decision and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The service marks exactly one week after the 48-year-old Whitney Houston – 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.
“She always had the edge,” Rev Jesse Jackson said outside the church on Saturday.
“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.
“The memories are so powerful, the music will be with us forever. We have a lot to rejoice about. Today we praise, we preach and we appreciate.
“Whitney had that special something.”
Elton John, Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce and Jay-Z, actor-producer Tyler Perry and American Idol musical director Rickey Minor were all expected to attend Saturday’s invitation-only service.
Whitney Houston’s ex-husband Bobby Brown also is expected to attend, along with the couple’s only child, Bobbi Kristina.
According to the invitation issued to the singer’s friends and family, the ceremony will be seen as a “going home” service rather than a funeral.
The invitation, featuring a picture of the smiling star that appears to date back to the peak of her success in the early 1990’s, states: “With heartfelt gratitude, the Houston family requests the honor of your presence at the going home service for Whitney Elizabeth Houston.”
Pastor Joe Carter, who will read the scripture, said the service will be a musical celebration of Whitney Houston’s life.
Whitney Houston’s South Orange grade-school principal Henry Hamilton said outside the funeral home: “It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining, she’s up there, this is Whitney’s day.”
Traffic cones lined the street outside the church where those attending would be dropped off for the service.
The electronic sign outside the front simply read “Whitney Houston” followed by her date of birth then the words: “We will always love you.”
The streets around the building were closed off for six blocks on either side to ensure the public had no access to the surrounding area.
Most had also apparently followed police instructions not to attend. But small pockets of fans got as close to the church as they possibly could.
Her fans had already covered the front of the church in dozens of balloons, flowers and card that formed a deep 12ft by 6ft blanket by the entrance.
On the streets there was a heavy police presence with mounted officers patrolling around, a police helicopter flying overhead and police cars by barricades.
Whitney Houston’s fans were so desperate to be at the service that some journeyed 500 miles from Canada or slept in their cars overnight by the church to be there.
With no single point of focus, they ended up grouping in bunches of 50-100 at various points around the perimeter of the fenced off zone singing Whitney Houston’s hits like I Will Always Love You and I’m Every Woman.
Vendors sold T-Shirts and posters with Whitney Houston’s name on them whilst one man used a pair of opera glasses to see what was going on. Others had radios they were carrying around with Whitney Houston’s music blaring out of them.
Most of the fans wanted to be there on what they said was a “historic day” but there was also frustration and anger that they had been kept back at least three blocks from the church with one man claiming the star’s mother, Cissy Houston, had “betrayed” them.