By Edward McAllister
NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - At the New Jersey church where her singing career first took flight, fans and admirers gathered on Sunday to celebrate the life of Whitney Houston and mourn her passing a day after she died in a Beverly Hills hotel.
Cards and flowers were tied to the railings of the New Hope Baptist Church, and congregants hugged and cried at the entrance. It was in this large but modest looking, red-brick house of worship on a quiet backstreet near downtown Newark where Houston's career began as a soloist in a gospel choir in the 1970s.
One card read: "Newark loves you and will always love you."
"We are all heartbroken," said Jacqueline Kimble, 45, who has been coming to the church all her life and remembers Houston there. "She was our jewel. This is a sad day for Newark and the whole world."
"This is a very sad day," said Cynthia Williams, 47, who attended early morning worship at New Hope, held in memory of Houston. "It is a great loss to Newark."
Houston, whose soaring voice lifted her to the top of the pop music world but whose personal decline was fueled by years of drug use, died on Saturday afternoon in a Beverly Hills hotel room. She was 48.
The pop superstar died on the eve of the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles at the same hotel where her mentor, record mogul Clive Davis, was holding an annual pre-event party featuring scores of music industry celebrities.
A dramatic scene unfolded at the Beverly Hilton hotel as guests arriving for the party expressed shock at her death, while reporters swarmed the hotel, fans gathered outside to light candles in her memory and helicopters hovered overhead.
Beverly Hills police said they were called to the hotel where Houston's body was found in a fourth-floor room. Police said there were no obvious signs of criminal intent.
Los Angeles County coroners removed Houston's body after midnight through a back door to avoid the crush of media set up to cover her death.
Typically, coroners conduct an autopsy within a day or two, at which point they might release some preliminary information about the death. If drugs or alcohol are involved, however, an official cause of death would not be released until after toxicology tests, which could take six to eight weeks.
Tributes poured in from around the world for the singer whose remarkable vocal power and range produced some of the most memorable music of her generation, including her signature hit, "I Will Always Love You."
"I don't have to mask my emotion in front of a room full of so many dear friends," Davis told a somber crowd at his gala dinner and party just hours after Houston's death. "I am personally devastated by the loss of someone who has meant so much to me for so many years."
Jennifer Hudson is expected to sing a tribute to Houston at Sunday night's Grammy Awards.
Over the course of a 30-year career in which she established herself as one of the most-admired and influential singers of her time, Houston won six Grammys, 30 Billboard awards and 22 American Music Awards. She released seven studio albums and sold some 170 million CDs, singles and videos. The soundtrack for a hit movie in which she starred, "The Bodyguard," was among the best-selling soundtracks in movie history.
Her 1985 debut, "Whitney Houston," became the best-selling debut album by a female act at that time, and spawned several hits including "How Will I Know." Her second studio CD, 1987's "Whitney," became the first album by a female artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
She crossed over from music success to TV and movies, appearing in "The Bodyguard" (1992), as well as "Waiting to Exhale" (1995) and "The Preacher's Wife" (1996).
Born in Newark in 1963, Houston was inspired to perform as a child by soul singers in her family, including her mother Cissy Houston and cousins Dionne Warwick and the late Dee Dee Warwick. Her godmother was Aretha Franklin.
By the early 1990s, Houston reigned as the queen of pop, but her critical and commercial success on stage was accompanied by an increasingly troubled personal life. In 1992 she married singer Bobby Brown, who had a bad-boy reputation, and their tumultuous 14 years together were marred by drug abuse and domestic violence.
The last 10 years of Houston's life were dominated by drug use, rumors of relapses and trips to rehab.
(Additional reporting by Mary Slosson, Jill Serjeant, Dan Whitcomb, Piya Sinha-Roy and R.T. Watson; Editing by Dan Burns and Christopher Wilson)