LOS ANGELES // Michael Jackson's public memorial started out more spiritual than spectacular yesterday, opening with a church choir singing as his golden casket was laid in front of the stage under a shaft of light evoking a cross as Lionel Richie gave a gospel-infused performance. Pastor Lucious W Smith of the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena gave the invocation, followed by Mariah Carey singing the opening performance with a rendition of the Jackson Five 5 ballad I'll Be There in a duet with Trey Lorenz. "We come together and we remember the time," said Pastor Smith, using one of Jackson's lyrics. "As long as we remember him, he will always be there to comfort us." The service began with Smokey Robinson reading comments from Nelson Mandela, Diana Ross and other friends of the King of Pop. Following a long silent period inside the venue, piano music and a gospel choir started with a stained-glass motif in the background. 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 police escort. Fans with a ticket wore gold wristbands and picked up a metallic gold programme on their way in. The pallbearers who placed Jackson's casket in the hearse each wore a gold necktie, a single spangly white glove and sunglasses. Jackson's hearse had been part of a motorcade that smoothly whisked his body 16km across closed freeways from a private service at a Hollywood Hills cemetery to his public memorial and awaiting fans. Some arriving celebrities strolled down a black carpet on their way in. Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes and Barbara Walters were among the celebrities seen at the entrance. Earlier in the morning, Jackson's family members and dozens of friends, led by his parents, Joe and Katherine, were seen entering a building at the cemetery. News reports estimated as many as 20 helicopters circled overhead. The public memorial was televised live around the world and streamed over the internet. Among the celebrities attending were Stevie Wonder, Usher, Kobe Bryant, Jennifer Hudson, John Mayer and Martin Luther King III, son of the assassinated civil rights leader. The Rev Al Sharpton told Michael Jackson's children "there weren't nothing strange about your daddy," in a fiery speech at the memorial service. "It was strange what your daddy had to deal with but he dealt with it," Mr Sharpton said, his voice rising in the rich cadence of a sermon. Mr Sharpton castigated those who "like to dig around" and said Jackson's journey to superstardom was more significant that his occasional stumbles and "mess". "Michael rose to the top. He out-sang and out-danced and out-performed the pessimists. Every time he got knocked down, he got back up. Every time you counted him out, he came back in. Michael never stopped." Mr Sharpton praised Jackson's message of love, his talent and his work breaking down "the colour curtain" and eradicating barriers. "It was Michael Jackson that brought blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos together," Mr Sharpton 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, Ms Hernandez said she cried watching TV coverage of his death. "I'm trying to hold in my emotions," she said, 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." "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." Millions of Jackson's fans worldwide were watching and mourning online. Messages in an array of languages were being fired off to Jackson memorial forums at Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and online haunts where video or news were being shared in an unprecedented global farewell. Nearly half a million Jackson memories were posted at an official Sony Music website in tribute to the King of Pop before the service got underway in the Staples Center. "Rest in peace now Michael ... I'm glad you went out a record breaker, a hero, and a fantastic performer the world will never be the same without," said a message signed with the name James Cleave. "As a kid I used to dance to your music from your 'Bad' album on my parents' LP player and everyone knew me to be one of your biggest fans on the island of Cyprus." Comments, condolences, and memories from Facebook users scrolled rapid-fire in a constantly updated chat box posted next to a CNN Live stream of memorial proceedings. Some postings complained that the video feed was not available in a sign the service may have been overwhelmed by demand. "Getting misty-eyed watching the cars make their way to the Staples Center," wrote Facebook user Jemarion Jones of Washington. "It's real now. Wow." Scant criticism of Jackson or the attention being given his death were quickly shot down by with scolding such as "If you have nothing good to say, stay off the website." Jackson news was the lead topic at hot microblogging service Twitter. "Having our own personal wake at the office," wrote Twitter user Rachael Miller. On a grander scale, a Twitter user with a screen name "rippleintime17" sent a message that the Jackson service was being shown on a colossal outdoor screen in Times Square in New York City. "Tourists are plopped on lawn chairs watching it," the message said. "Kinda cool/living room-esque."
* AP and AFP