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As the image of a sun-soaked church window filled the large screen at the arena where, just two weeks ago, Jackson was finishing up rehearsals for his planned 50-show run at the O2 Arena in London, the Andrae Crouch gospel choir sang the traditional hymn "Soon and Very soon" as the singer's gold-plated casket was brought to its resting place in a circle of light in front of the stage.
The pallbearers, including Jackson's family members, set the flower-bedecked casket down while wearing the singer's signature single sequined white glove. Applause broke out inside the Staples Center, where the mood was at turns celebratory and somber, and fans shouted "We love you, Michael!" during the pauses in the nearly three-hour long program.
Wearing a flowing black gown, Mariah Carey reprised her famous cover of the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There," joined by her longtime friend and protégé, Trey Lorenz, who sang with her on the 1992 "MTV Unplugged" performance that became a hit single for her.
Among those on hand to remember Jackson was Queen Latifah, who spoke of Jackson's power to bring people together and make them believe in themselves. She recalled buying the Jackson 5's "Dancing Machine" as a child and trying, in vain, to copy his dance moves.
"Michael was the biggest star on earth. He let me know that as an African-American you could travel the world ... there was a world outside America. Other people, all you people who came here to pay respect to someone you felt was one of you, a human being first," she said, her voice cracking.
Latifah then read a new verse called "We Had Him" from the great American poet Maya Angelou, whose words have stirred hearts at presidential inaugurations. "Without notice, our dear love can escape our doting embrace, sing our songs among the stars and walk our dances across the face of the moon," the poem said.
The event opened with Motown legend Smokey Robinson reading a tribute to Jackson from the singer's longtime friend and mentor, Diana Ross, and a note from former South African President Nelson Mandela as the words "In Loving Memory of Michael Jackson King of Pop 1958-2009" were beamed onto the screen behind him.
Accompanied by the gospel choir, Lionel Richie, the co-writer with Jackson of the famine-relief hit "We Are the World," looked grief-stricken at first as he sang the Commodores' spiritual "Jesus Is Love," his powerful voice rising to a crescendo at the end. Next, Motown founder Berry Gordy took the stage to honor Jackson, who he said was like a son to him. "He raised the bar and then broke the bar," Gordy said.
Praising Jackson's great vocal gifts, Gordy spoke of how Michael made history when he took the stage at the Motown 25th anniversary show in 1983 and set the world on fire with the unveiling of his iconic moonwalk step. "Michael Jackson went into orbit and never came down," Gordy said, calling him not just the King of Pop, but the "greatest entertainer that ever lived," a line that drew a huge roar from the crowd.
Los Angeles Laker All-Star Kobe Bryant honored Jackson's charitable acts. Fellow Lakers legend Magic Johnson said he became a greater basketball player by watching the singer's moves onstage and fondly remembered being asked to appear in Jackson's 1992 video for "Remember the Time."
An avowed fan and artist heavily influenced by Jackson, Usher provided an emotional take on "Gone Too Soon," passionately singing the 1993 Jackson single with gritty abandon as he laid his hand on the singer's casket and walked mournfully across the sea of flowers at the foot of the stage while a montage of vintage pictures of a smiling Jackson played behind him. Breaking down in tears at the end, the singer removed his sunglasses, was embraced by the entire Jackson family and made his way to family matriarch Katherine, kneeling down on one knee to kiss her.
Another fellow Motown peer and onetime child star Stevie Wonder said, "This is a moment that I wished that I didn't live to see come." Sitting at a piano and singing his mournfully appropriate 1971 ballad "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer," he pleaded, "Michael, why didn't you stay?" midsong before segueing into another ballad, 1974's "They Won't Go When I Go."
Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, visibly pregnant with her first child, also brought down the house with a funky, syncopated cover of Jackson's 1993 single "Will You Be There," from the "Free Willy" soundtrack and Dangerous album. As a group of dancers formed a circle around her, Hudson paused while Jackson's shaky voiceover from the original boomed out over a dramatic background, pleading, "In our darkest hour/ In my deepest despair/ Will you still care?/ Will you be there?"
In one of the day's most moving tributes, longtime friend and former child star Brooke Shields was in tears remembering the many photo captions over the years that referred to their friendship as "odd."
For the two of them, she said, "It was the most natural and easiest of friendships. ... We had a bond and maybe it was because we both understood what it was like to be in the spotlight from a very, very young age. I used to tease him and say, 'You know I started when I was 11 months old, you're a slacker ... you were, what, 5?'"
They never performed together — although she said he tried to teach her the moonwalk once — but what they did together, she said smiling, was laugh. "His laugh was the sweetest and purest laugh of anyone's I had ever known," Shields recalled.
Still wearing his single white glove, brother Jermaine Jackson then sang a tender version of his brother's favorite song, the Charlie Chaplin-penned "Smile," from the classic film "Modern Times."
It was not hard to see why Jackson, whose life was filled with so much joy mixed with utter sadness, embraced the tender ballad, which he covered on his 1995 HIStory album. "Smile though your heart is aching/ Smile even though it's breaking/ When there are clouds in the sky/ You'll get by," Jermaine sang in his keening falsetto, summing up his brother's eternal quest to push aside his sadness by trying to bring some joy to the world.
Also rousing the crowd was longtime family friend the Reverend Al Sharpton, who repeated the fiery refrain, "Michael never stopped," when talking about Jackson's many accomplishments and resiliency in the face of his many obstacles. "Because he didn't accept limitations, because he refused to let people decide his boundaries, he opened up the whole world," Sharpton thundered. "He put on one glove, pulled his pants up and broke down the color curtain. ... It was Michael Jackson that brought blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos together. It was Michael Jackson that made us sing, 'We Are the World' and feed the hungry."
Speaking to Jackson's three young children, Sharpton said pointedly, "I want his three children to know, wasn't nothin' strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with, but he dealt with it," as the audience rose to their feet and the singer's sons and daughter burst into applause alongside their friends and family.
Other performers included "Britain's Got Talent" sensation Shaheen Jafargholi, reprising his take on "Who's Loving You." Kenny Ortega ("High School Musical"), who was directing Jackson's This Is It stage show, presented what he said was one of the singer's favorite moments from the show that Ortega promised would have been a triumphant comeback.
The performance of "We Are the World" by the members of Jackson's multicultural backing band was accompanied by the lyrics to the song projected, with many letters replaced by the religious icons of the world's faiths. The singers were joined by the day's other performers as well as Jackson's family, including the singer's children, and, finally, a choir of teens who sang along to the peace anthem "Heal the World."
John Mayer, who played the iconic guitar solo on Fall Out Boy's 2008 cover of Jackson's "Beat It," got the audience clapping in time to an instrumental take on "Human Nature," teasing out the song's jazzy tones with an understated performance that featured spare vocals from Jackson's backup singers.
For one day, at least, the focus turned back to Jackson's music.
Earlier in the day, Jackson's family held a private ceremony at the Forest Lawn Cemetery. A motorcade then brought Jackson's casket to the Staples Center, where it took center stage during Tuesday's celebration.
In addition to the 17,000 fans who gathered inside the Staples Center and in a viewing area next door at the Nokia Theater, the global audience for the Jackson memorial was predicted to be more than a billion.
As Jackson was the first celebrity of his magnitude to die in the modern media era, the memorial was covered like no other event in history. Fans and hundreds of international news outlets tweeted and live-blogged the proceedings in real time, bringing the world together in a way that would likely have brought joy to Jackson, whose many charitable efforts were aimed at bridging racial, ethnic and spiritual divides with songs such as "Earth Song."
The day ended with Jackson's brothers paying tribute to their sibling alongside Jackson's daughter, Paris, 11, who tearfully said, "Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just wanted to say I love him so much," collapsing in sobs into aunt Janet Jackson's arms as the ceremony came to a close and the singer's casket was wheeled back out of the Staples Center to the strains of the song that has become his theme in death, "Man in the Mirror."
In all, it was a fittingly regal sendoff for the King of Pop.
For complete coverage of the life, career and passing of the legendary entertainer, visit "Michael Jackson Remembered."
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