Stars, family and friends gathered to mourn Whitney Houston at her funeral on Saturday, a week after the sudden death of the singer whose spectacular voice and best-selling albums made her one of biggest pop stars of her era.

Whitney
Whitney Houston's ex-husband, Bobby Brown (L) leaves before the start of the funeral service for the pop singer at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey February 18, 2012.

Houston, who died in a Beverly Hills hotel room last week, recorded stirring love songs and vibrant dance tunes during a 30-year career that peaked with her 1992 signature hit I Will Always Love You and paved the way for a generation of singers that followed her.

Guests crowded into pews at the invitation-only service at the New Hope Baptist Church in a modest neighborhood in her native Newark, New Jersey. Houston honed her powerful voice as a young gospel singer in the church's choir with her mother, Cissy Houston, who was a backup singer for Aretha Franklin.

Her legacy is her powerful music, civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson told reporters outside the red-brick church.

Houston was among the greatest singers of the 1980s and 1990s, but her personal life and marriage to singer Bobby Brown was tumultuous. She admitted to heavy use of cocaine, marijuana, alcohol and prescription pills.

Her death at age 48 shocked her family, fans and the music industry. Houston was found underwater in a hotel bathtub on the eve of the music industry's Grammy Awards. A cause of death has yet to be determined.

There was a heavy police presence outside the funeral and streets were cordoned off. Police have urged fans to stay home and watch the funeral on the Internet or television, but some turned up early outside police checkpoints to get as close as they could to the late singer.

She meant so much to me. I used to literally sit in my room and sing her songs, said Wendy Saunders, who drove from Detroit to pay her respects to Houston. Renee Taylor, from Baltimore, held a sign, You gave us more love than we will ever need.

Soul, gospel and pop music greats were set to sing and speak at a service that was expected to last several hours. They include Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, R. Kelly and Houston's cousin Dionne Warwick. Before the service, the church choir clapped and sang uplifting gospel songs accompanied by a band.

Hollywood stars Kevin Costner and Tyler Perry were scheduled to speak, as well as record producer Clive Davis, who discovered and guided Houston throughout her career. Oprah Winfrey, Elton John and Bill Cosby were also expected to attend the service.

Houston's family decided against a public memorial, as was done for pop star Michael Jackson after his 2009 death, but they agreed to allow the service to be broadcast live by television networks and on the Internet.

Many of Houston's fans in the past several days have left flowers, cards and balloons dedicated to the singer who became a global star with her 1985 debut album that included the hits Saving All My Love For You, How Will I Know and Greatest Love Of All.

SO EMOTIONAL

Houston grew up surrounded by gospel and soul music legends like Franklin and Warwick. She later forged new territory for a black, female artist who brought R&B and gospel touches into pop music's mainstream.

After her debut, her popularity grew exponentially with her second album, Whitney (1987), with all four singles - Didn't We Almost Have It All, So Emotional, Where Do Broken Hearts Go and I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) - hitting No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Her music videos featuring her 1980s style and innocent, fun-loving image made her wildly popular around the world. In the 1992 movie The Bodyguard, co-starring Costner, Houston played a character not far removed from her real self: an international singing sensation coping with fame.

She made other films including The Preacher's Wife, but the 15-year period when she was married to singer Brown coincided with a decline in the quality and frequency of her albums. The couple, who have an 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, divorced in 2007.

Houston's powerful voice suffered in recent years. On her last world tour in 2010, she struggled to hit high notes.

She spoke publicly about her struggles with addiction. In a 2002 interview, TV journalist Diane Sawyer asked Houston what was the biggest devil among her failings. Houston answered: Nobody makes me do anything I don't want to do. So the bigger devil is me, I am either my best friend or my worst enemy.