The occasion was sad, but the day was marked with a true celebration.
Roughly 19,500 people—not all of them ticket holders—packed Los Angeles' Staples Center to share in a star-studded musical and spoken-word tribute to Michael Jackson, who died suddenly June 25 at age 50, pretty much shocking the world in the process.
Speakers from Magic Johnson to Brooke Shields to Smokey Robinson were in top form, telling stories brimming with humor, adoration and historical significance as they reminisced about Jackson the artist, Jackson the inspiration and Jackson the friend.
But it was Jackson's daughter, Paris, speaking out for the first time ever about her dad, who may have stolen the show from the celebs and music luminaries.
The hearse carrying the late King of Pop arrived at Staples Center about 15 minutes before the tribute event was scheduled to start. Due to some unexplained hindrances, the memorial did not get under way until just after 10:30 a.m. Organizers were said to be handing out passes to some lucky members of the crowd outside to fill empty seats that belonged to ticket winners who weren't able to actually make it to Staples.
Another 5,500 people watched the event live on jumbo TV screens at Nokia Theater across the street. The LAPD estimates that only about 1,000 people showed up the hang around outside the secured area.
While the first few rows in front of the blue-lit, wreath-ringed stage sat empty before the family's arrival, Robinson stepped out to read messages from Diana Ross and former South African President Nelson Mandela.
"I am trying to find closure. I want you to know that even though I am not there at the Staples Center, I am there in my heart," Ross said in absentia. "I have decided to pause and be silent. This feels right for me. Michael was a personal love of mine, a treasured part of my world, part of the fabric of my life in a way that I can't seem to find words to express.
"Michael wanted me to be there for his children," she added, "and I will be there if they ever they need me. I hope today brings closure for all those who loved him."
Wishful thinking, perhaps, but today was certainly a step in the right direction.
After Robinson spoke, silence prevailed in the darkened arena for another 15 minutes as the family—who came straight from a private funeral service at Forest Lawn cemetery in the Hollywood Hills—made their way in and took their seats alongside VIPs such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Jennifer Hudson and Sean "Diddy" Combs. Jackson's brothers each wore matching black suits, yellow ties, sunglasses and a single, sparkly white glove.
At approximately 10:32 a.m., sounds of a piano and a choir singing the gospel "Soon and Very Soon" filled the air as Jackson's flower-covered coffin was wheeled in front of the stage.
"First and foremost, this man was our brother, our son, a father and a friend," began Pastor Lucius Smith, who took the position that Jackson will never really be gone "as long as we remember him."
"Michael Jackson wanted nothing more than to give love to the world, to share of his singular talent and his soul, and perhaps be loved back in return. Through his words, his music and his countless good deeds, Michael did so much to try and heal our world…May this moment of remembrance, a moment of healing, a moment of music and a moment of love, bring comfort to those who loved our friend."
The first performance of the morning was given by Mariah Carey and longtime vocal collaborator Trey Lorenz, who teamed with the diva in 1992—and again today—to redo the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There."
A visibly emotional Queen Latifah spoke next and offered up a poem, "We Had Him," penned by Maya Angelou for the occasion.
The elegy concluded simply, profoundly: "Today in Tokyo, beneath the Eiffel Tower, in Ghana's Blackstar Square, in Johannesburg and Pittsburgh, in Birmingham, Alabama, and Birmingham, England, we are missing Michael Jackson. But we do know we had him, and we are the world."
Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, after recounting tales of discovering the Jackson 5, playing family softball games in California and, time after time, being awestruck by Michael's inimitable talent, ultimately concluded, "The more I talk and think about Michael Jackson, I think 'The King of Pop' is not big enough for him. I simply think he is the greatest entertainer who ever lived."
"We Are the World" cowriter Lionel Richie crooned the Commodores' "Jesus Is Love," and following a taped montage of Jackson moments, magazine covers and music, Stevie Wonder sat behind a piano and spoke out for the first time about his friend's death.
"This is a moment that I wished I didn't live to see come. But as much as I can say that and mean it, I do know that God is good, and I do know that as much as we may feel—and we do—that we need Michael here with us, God must have needed him far more."
The Motown hitmaker, a child star himself at 13, then played "I Never Dreamed You'd Leave in September," singing, "Michael, why didn't you stay?" after the chorus.
Magic Johnson, speaking alongside Kobe Bryant, lightened the mood, bringing the house down with an anecdote about sharing a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with Jackson—"the greatest moment of my life," he teased—who he said made him "a better point guard and a better basketball player" because he got to watch Jackson being "the greatest entertainer ever."
Bryant reminded us that Jackson had made the Guinness Book of Records for most charities supported by a pop star—a fact that fell by the wayside in the later portion of the artist's life as bolder, more salacious headlines took over.
Before some rousing remarks from Sharpton ("It was Michael Jackson who brought blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos together!"), Jennifer Hudson fronted a harmonious performance of "Will You Be There," which featured a minute-long Jackson voice-over.
Brooke Shields offered up healthy servings of tears and laughter as she told stories about growing up with Jackson, "two little kids having fun."
"To us, it was the most natural and easiest of friendships. I was 13 when we met and from that day on our friendship grew. Michael always knew that he could count on me to support him or be his date, and that we would have fun no matter where we were.
"We had a bond," she continued, starting to tear up. "And maybe it was because we both understood what it was like to be in the spotlight from a very young age. I used to tease him and I'd say, 'You know, I started when I was 11 months old. You're a slacker. You were, what, 5?' Both of us needed to be adults very early."
John Mayer played guitar on a rendition of "Human Nature," his mournful solo doing the talking for him, and Usher broke down toward the end of his heart-tugging performance of Jackson's "Gone Too Soon."
Jermaine Jackson sang what was said to be Michael's favorite song, "Smile," provoking plenty of tears in the process.
The remaining speakers—Martin Luther King Jr.'s children, Martin Luther King III and Bernice A. King, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas—focused on Jackson's humanity, philanthropy and what seemed to be an endless concern for others, especially those in need.
Bernice King told about Jackson calling her mother, Coretta Scott King, when she was on her deathbed. "She listened as he said to her he had been praying on his knees every day for her...that, to him, she was America's true royalty."
A medley of "We Are the World" and "Heal the World"—as they were being rehearsed for Jackson's London shows—got people on their feet as the memorial drew to a close, but it turned out the most bittersweet tears were yet to come.
Brothers Jermaine and Marlon thanked the fans for sharing the day with them. Marlon, who openly wept as he spoke, told of the fun he and Michael used to have as kids but also said he was struggling to grasp the loss.
"I stand here trying to find words of comfort, solace, trying to understand why the Lord has taken our brother to return home from such a short visit here on Earth. Michael, when you left us, a part of me went with you, and a part of you will live forever within me, but also a part of you will live forever within all of us," Marlon said.
Then Janet Jackson led Michael's daughter, Paris, to the microphone, and for the first time ever we heard one of Jackson's kids speak.
"Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine," the 11-year-old said, fighting back sobs. "And I just wanted to say, I loved him so much."
(Originally published on July 7, 2009, at 1:25 p.m. PT)