Michael Jackson’s star-studded public memorial strikes a spiritual note

Michael Jackson was eulogized in words and song Tuesday by an all-star list of musicians, athletes and other celebrities during a mournful ceremony in downtown Los Angeles, with the most poignant moment delivered by his sobbing 11-year-old daughter.

Michael Jackson's casket is brought out during the Jackson public memorial service held at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Michael Jackson's casket is brought out during the Jackson public memorial service held at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES — Michael Jackson was eulogized in words and song Tuesday by an all-star list of musicians, athletes and other celebrities during a mournful ceremony in downtown Los Angeles, with the most poignant moment delivered by his sobbing 11-year-old daughter.

“I just want to say ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you can ever imagine. And I just wanted to say I love him so much,” Paris-Michael Jackson said before almost collapsing in the arms of her aunt Janet Jackson.

Watched by millions around the world, the memorial struck a tone more spiritual than spectacular, opening with a church choir serenading his golden casket and continuing with sombre speeches and gospel-infused musical performances.

The Rev. Lucious W. Smith of the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena gave the greeting on the same stage where Jackson had been rehearsing for a concert series in the days before his June 25 death at age 50. Then Mariah Carey sang the opening performance with a sweet rendition of the Jackson 5 ballad “I’ll Be There,” a duet with Trey Lorenz.

“We come together and we remember the time,” said Smith, riffing on one of Jackson’s lyrics. “As long as we remember him, he will always be there to comfort us.”

Millions of fans around the world gathered at odd hours to watch the ceremony, which was broadcast by the major TV networks and cable channels from Tokyo to Paris to New York and streamed everywhere online in one of the biggest celebrity send-offs ever seen.

Among those who saluted Jackson were Motown music mogul Berry Gordy Jr., Brooke Shields, the Rev. Al Sharpton and basketball greats Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant. Jennifer Hudson sang Jackson’s hit “Will You Be There” and John Mayer played guitar on a whisper-light rendition of “Human Nature.”

“This is a moment that I wished I didn’t live to see,” Stevie Wonder said before his performance. Usher broke down in tears after singing “Gone Too Soon.”

Although the event was billed as a celebration, some speakers took the occasion to come to the defence of Jackson, whose life was marked as much by criticism and scorn as scintillating talent.

Gordy said that despite what he called “some sad times and maybe some questionable decisions on his part,” the title King of Pop wasn’t good enough for Jackson. “I think he is simply the greatest entertainer that ever lived,” Gordy said.

Emotions rose when Sharpton delivered a fiery eulogy highlighting all the barriers Jackson broke and the troubles he faced. “Every time he got knocked down, he got back up,” Sharpton said, and the applauding crowd jumped to its feet.

Sharpton rode the moment, building to a crescendo. “There wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy,” he said later, addressing Jackson’s three children in the front row. “It was strange what your daddy had to deal with!” After he left the stage, chants of “Mi-chael! Mi-chael!” filled the arena.

The ceremony wrapped up with group performances of “We Are the World” and “Heal the World” sung by Lionel Richie, Hudson and Jackson family members — including his children — before a backdrop of symbols of religions from around the world. They were joined onstage by children in white and several other people who had participated in the ceremony. Then members of Jackson’s family took the stage to thank the crowd and share their own thoughts, barely able to hide their emotion as they hugged in the ceremony’s final moments.

An estimated 20,000 people were in the Staples Center as Jackson’s flower-draped casket was brought to the venue in a motorcade under law enforcement escort. Those who gathered constituted a visual representation of Jackson’s life: black, white and everything in between, wearing fedoras and African headdresses, sequins and surgical masks.

Fans with a ticket wore gold wristbands and picked up a metallic gold program guide on their way in. Acting as pallbearers, Jackson’s brothers each wore a gold necktie and, in a touch borrowed from their brother, a single spangly white glove and sunglasses.

Brother Jermaine Jackson took the stage and sang the standard “Smile” as he fought back tears.

Jackson’s hearse had been part of a motorcade that smoothly whisked his body 16 kilometres across closed freeways from a private service at a Hollywood Hills cemetery to his public memorial and awaiting fans.

The traffic snarls and logistical nightmares that had been feared by police and city officials did not materialize. Traffic was actually considered by police to be lighter than normal.

“I think people got the message to stay home,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Miguel Luevano.

Deputy Police Chief Sergio Diaz, operations chief for the event, said authorities had expected a crowd of 250,000. Besides reporters and those with tickets to the memorial service, the crowd around the Staples Center perimeter numbered only about 1,000, he said.

Outside the Staples Center, Claudia Hernandez, 29, said she loved Jackson’s music as a girl growing up in Mexico. Now a day-care teaching assistant in Los Angeles, Hernandez said she cried watching TV coverage of his death.

“I’m trying to hold in my emotions,” said Hernandez, wearing a wristband to allow her admittance to the service and holding a framed photograph of Jackson. “I know right now he’s teaching the angels to dance.”

More than 1.6 million people registered for the lottery for free tickets to Jackson’s memorial. A total of 8,750 were chosen to receive two tickets each.

“There are certain people in our popular culture that just capture people’s imaginations. And in death, they become even larger,” President Barack Obama told CBS while in Moscow. “Now, I have to admit that it’s also fed by a 24/7 media that is insatiable.”

The city of Los Angeles set up a website Tuesday to allow fans to contribute money to help the city pay for his Staples Center memorial service. Mayoral spokesman Matt Szabo estimated the service will cost US$1.5 million to $4 million.

It was not clear what will happen to Jackson’s body. The Forest Lawn Memorial Park Hollywood Hills cemetery is the final resting place for such stars as Bette Davis, Andy Gibb, Freddie Prinze, Liberace and recently deceased David Carradine and Ed McMahon.

Jermaine Jackson has expressed a desire to have him buried someday at Neverland, his estate in Southern California.

Midway during the memorial service, police Officer April Harding told the media gathered at the gates of Forest Lawn to disperse. Asked if Jackson’s body was going to be returned to the cemetery after the memorial, she replied: “His body is not going to be returned here.” She did not say where it would be taken.

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