* Houston sang in church choir in 1970s
* Family ‘devastated by the loss’
* Daughter taken to hospital for bout with anxiety (Recasts; adds details)
By Steve Gorman and R.T. Watson
LOS ANGELES, Feb 12 (Reuters) - From the New Jersey church where Whitney Houston’s singing career first took flight to the Beverly Hills hotel where her life abruptly ended, family and fans of the pop diva expressed their grief on Sunday with prayer, tears and raw anguish.
Houston’s only child, daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, 18, was taken by paramedics from the hotel to nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Sunday suffering from anxiety, Beverly Hills police and fire officials said.
A fire department spokeswoman declined to disclose any information about the daughter’s medical condition but said she was “awake and talking” at the time she was transported.
Brown, who was reported by celebrity news website TMZ.com to have been enraged at authorities at not being allowed into the hotel room where her mother’s body was found, was treated at the hospital for stress and released, a source close to the family told Reuters. A hospital spokeswoman declined comment.
At the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, Houston’s hometown, fans and admirers gathered to celebrate her life during three Sunday services, portions of which were devoted to the singer and her family.
Cards and flowers were tied to the railings of the church, where congregants hugged and cried at the entrance. Among those paying their respects was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the civil rights activist.
“The suddenness of it all leaves us traumatized,” said Jackson, who watched Houston grow up and sing at New Hope. It was in that red brick church on a quiet backstreet near downtown Newark where Houston’s career began as a soloist in a gospel choir in the 1970s.
“We must lean on our faith. Our hearts are heavy today,” Jackson said.
Houston, whose soaring voice lifted her to the top of the pop music world, but whose personal decline was fueled by years of drug abuse, died on Saturday afternoon in a fourth-floor room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel . She was 48.
Police and the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office were continuing their investigation to determine a cause of death, which came on the eve of the Grammy Awards at the same hotel where Houston’s mentor, record mogul Clive Davis, was holding an annual pre-event party.
Police said there was no immediate sign of foul play.
The Los Angeles Times, citing an unnamed source briefed on the case, reported that investigators were trying to discern whether she might have drowned in a bathtub shortly before she was set to attend the pre-Grammy gala.
The Times said Houston, disheveled, sweaty and smelling of alcohol, was behaving erratically when she stopped by the Hilton two days earlier, accompanied by her daughter, for rehearsals. She was seen flailing her hands frenetically, skipping around the ballroom and wandering aimlessless through the lobby, the newspaper said in its online editions.
Houston’s death was expected to be a central focus of Sunday night’s Grammys, and Jennifer Hudson was scheduled to sing a tribute during the program.
Houston’s family expressed their grief in a brief statement issued on Sunday.
“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved Whitney. This is an unimaginable tragedy and we will miss her terribly,” it said. “We appreciate the outpouring of love and support from her fans and friends.”
EX-HUSBAND ‘DEEPLY SADDENED’
In a separate statement issued through People magazine, Houston’s former husband, R&B singer Bobby Brown, with whom she had shared a long struggle with substance abuse, said, “I am deeply saddened at the passing of my ex-wife, Whitney Houston.”
Brown, who is Bobbi Kristina’s father, was described by an unnamed relative as “beside himself” with grief, according to the magazine.
On the West Coast, the First AME Church of Los Angeles, the city’s oldest African-American congregation, held a special moment of silence in Houston’s memory.
“Many of us were rooting and pulling for her because she has been a blessing to this generation with talent, with a special anointed voice,” Pastor John Hunter told parishioners. “We will miss her. This world will miss her.”
Up to 200 people attended the Newark church’s services, where Denise Dean, 57, recalled once hearing Houston sing. Dean said she still has her faded autograph on an old checkbook.
“We prayed for the family,” Dean said afterward.
Coroners removed Houston’s body from the Beverly Hilton 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.
By late Sunday afternoon, neither police nor coroners officials had offered an update. But TMZ reported that the autopsy had been completed.
Houston’s songs were already dominating Internet music sales early on Sunday. Her album “Whitney Houston - The Greatest Hits” was the top seller in the music category on Amazon.com, and her signature hit, “I Will Always Love You,” was the No. 1 download at iTunes.
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.
The soundtrack for the hit movie in which she starred, “The Bodyguard,” was among the best-selling film soundtracks ever.
By the early 1990s, Houston’s success on stage was accompanied by an increasingly troubled personal life. In 1992 she married singer Bobby Brown 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 R.T. Watson, Mary Slosson, Jill Serjeant, Dan Whitcomb and Piya Sinha-Roy.; Editing by Steve Gorman, Dan Burns and Stacey Joyce)