NEW YORK – The funeral service for eight-time Grammy winner Luther Vandross (search) hit just the right notes Friday: soulful, joyful and powerful, an echo of the late singer's unforgettable voice.
Family, friends and fans filled The Riverside Church for a celebration of Vandross' too-short life, a memorial service that morphed into a revival meeting before ending with an all-star rendition of his hit single "Power of Love/Love Power."
Vandross' wide appeal was evident in the first few rows of mourners, where current hit-makers Usher (search) and Alicia Keys (search) shared space with music legends Stevie Wonder (search), Aretha Franklin (search) and Patti LaBelle (search).
"There are no sad faces here today," said longtime friend LaBelle, resplendent in a bright yellow dress with a diamond necklace and earrings. "It's not a mournful service. I'm celebrating because Luther would want us to."
Vandross, 54, died July 1 at a New Jersey hospital, two years after he suffered a debilitating stroke. He sold more than 25 million records in his long career, with hits like "Stop For Love," "Here and Now" and "Dance With My Father."
As Vandross' gold coffin sat at the foot of the altar, LaBelle read a poem written by the R&B icon's mother, Mary Ida, who was seated in the front row. Vandross' other family members, nine nieces and their 11 children, filled in the seats around the family matriarch to remember the man known to them as "Uncle Ronnie."
The altar bore just a single, simple floral arrangement, with white lilies rising from a collection of white and yellow roses.
Mourners lined up for two city blocks in a driving rain before the church opened. Once inside, they were brought to their feet and moved to cheers repeatedly as Vandross favorites Wonder, Franklin and Cissy Houston sang in tribute.
Houston performed the gospel standard "Deep River," while Wonder left the crowd breathless with his version of the gospel song "I Won't Complain."
But it was Franklin, brushing aside a slight sore throat, who sent choir and clergy dancing on the altar with her version of "Amazing Grace." Franklin began to ad-lib at song's end, addressing the Vandross family and congregation as the music swelled and the crowd clapped along.
"There's healing in the name of Jesus!" she sang before returning to her seat, where Franklin raised her hands and waved along with the rest of the church as the organ music pulsated.
Before the funeral service, a hearse carrying the native New Yorker's remains took Vandross on one final tour of Harlem, pausing outside the Apollo Theater before heading west to the church. Before achieving stardom, Vandross had twice finished second at the Harlem theater's famed amateur night.
Singer Gladys Knight, another Vandross friend and admirer, sent along a faxed message that referenced the singer's last hit, "Dance with My Father." Luther Vandross Sr. died when his son was still a child.
"We should be happy for Luther," her message said. "He made a difference in this world, and now he has the extraordinary chance to dance with his father again."