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.
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."
The service marks one week after Houston, one of music's all-time biggest stars, was found dead in the bathtub of a Beverly Hills hotel the night before the Grammys. 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," the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader, said outside church 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."
A few fans gathered Saturday morning hours before the service as close as they could get to the church, some from as far away as Washington, D.C., 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 were more entrepreneurial, setting 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. But their presence was felt around the church, with 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 whose fall from grace while shocking was years in the making. 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.
But amid the fame, a turbulent marriage to Brown and her addiction to drugs tarnished her image. She became a woman falling apart in front of the world.
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.
Houston is to be buried next to her father, John Houston, in nearby Westfield, New Jersey.
Contributing to this report were AP Global Entertainment and Lifestyles Editor Alicia Quarles and Entertainment Writer Mesfin Fekadu.1 comment on this story
Nekesa Mumbi Moody is the AP's music editor. Follow her at http://www.twitter.com/nekesamumbi