Mel Evans, Associated Press
NEWARK, New Jersey — The best voices of a generation all paid tribute to her. But in the end, the most powerful voice at Whitney Houston's funeral was her own.
The first notes of "I Will Always Love You," at the end of a 3 ½-hour remembrance of the pop superstar, played as her casket left the hometown church where she first wowed a congregation.
Her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, walked right behind her, sobbing, "My baby."
Houston's voice — "you wait for a voice like that for a lifetime," her mentor, music mogul Clive Davis said — moved her daughter, mourners like Oprah Winfrey and a packed church to tears after the biggest names in gospel and pop music sang about God, love, lost angels and moving on.
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 cousin Dionne 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.
Wonder and Alicia Keys may have been the most famous singers offering tributes, in a congregation of mourners that included Winfrey, Mariah Carey, Kevin Costner, Roberta Flack and Chaka Khan. But the church choir and performances from the Winans family, the gospel star Rev. Donnie McClurkin and Burrell were equally powerful.
Houston's 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina, sobbed and embraced Houston's close friend, singer Ray J at length, as her mother's voice began to drift through the church. His sister, singer Brandy, put her arm around him throughout the service.
Clapping hands, swaying and singing along with the choir to gospel hymns, some of the biggest names in entertainment joined Houston's family and fans in the New Jersey city where she was first born and found her in voice in the church.
Costner imagined a young Houston using her winning smile to get out of trouble. Her co-star in "The Bodyguard," which spawned her greatest hit "I Will Always Love You," remembered a fledgling movie star who was uncertain of her own fame, who "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," Costner said.
Filmmaker Tyler Perry praised Houston's "grace that kept on carrying her all the way through, the same grace led her all the way to the top of the charts. She sang for presidents."
Warwick presided over the funeral, introducing speakers and singers and offering her own short insights about the singer in between.
Houston's mother was helped by two people on either side of her as she walked in and sat with her granddaughter and other family to begin the service.
Houston's ex-husband, Bobby 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. Franklin said in an email to The Associated Press that she had been up most of the night with leg spasms and sent best wishes to the family
Singers Jennifer 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.
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