Star-Spangled: Memorable National Anthem Performances
by Kathryn Williams
It’s as much a part of summer as the smell of hot dogs on the grill or a refreshing dip in a cool pool on a hot day: the singing of the American national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” (not “America the Beautiful” or “My Country, ?Tis of Thee,” both of which are often mistaken as the anthem) was written by Francis Scott Key, originally as a poem entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry,” in 1814. Set to the tune of a popular British drinking ditty, the song made its way into military ceremonies and sporting events, but it wasn’t officially adopted as the national anthem until president Herbert Hoover signed a bill in 1931.
Spanning a vocal chord–stretching one and one-fifth octaves, the anthem is a challenging song to sing (as anyone who has sat beside me at a baseball game can attest). Though there are four stanzas, we traditionally sing only the first. Still, a 2004 study showed that almost two out of three Americans don’t know all of the words. For the record:
O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
Since the 1960s, many crooners have attempted to put their singular stamp on the old standby—some with more success than others. Below, some of the most memorable renditions of our national anthem:
The First to Mix It Up: José Feliciano
Puerto Rican singer and guitar virtuoso José Feliciano (best known for his 1970 hit, “Feliz Navidad”) caused a stir at a game of the 1968 World Series in Detroit when he performed an acoustic version of the national anthem infused with rhythms of the blues and Latin jazz. While today the rendition seems tame, in the midst of protests over the Vietnam War, the unconventional performance had traditionalists up in arms. Feliciano experienced a professional backlash, though today he is credited as one of the first singers to personalize the anthem.
Patriotism Goes Rock and Roll: Jimi Hendrix
When Jimi Hendrix improvised a jarring rock-and-roll riff on the national anthem during his final set at 1969’s Woodstock festival, many young Americans felt he’d channeled their feelings on the current state of their country. Hendrix, a former soldier, let the guitar wail, and some compared moments of cacophony and feedback to the sounds of planes flying and “bombs bursting in air” over Vietnam and Cambodia at that time.
The Anthem with Soul: Marvin Gaye
Motown crooner Marvin Gaye was already deep into drug addiction when he opened the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, hosted in Los Angeles. The game’s producers were nervous when the singer was late, but Gaye arrived and blew the arena away with his soulful rendition. Gaye, just coming off the major success of his hit “Sexual Healing,” was shot and killed by his father just over a year later.
In Bad Taste: Roseanne Barr
Whoever booked comedienne and television star Roseanne Barr to sing the national anthem at a baseball game in San Diego in 1990 had to have known viewers were in for a surprise. Barr did a hatchet job on the song, screeching through it before jokingly mimicking baseball players by “adjusting” her crotch and spitting on the ground. Not many found her rendition amusing. Then-president George H.W. Bush called it “disgraceful.”
A Diva Rescues the Anthem: Whitney Houston
If the anthem needed rescuing after Roseanne Barr butchered it, the note-shattering Whitney Houston was the one to do it. In the middle of the Gulf War, at the 1991 Super Bowl, Houston brought soldiers, their families, and the country to tears with her not excessively showy but powerful rendition of the song. She later recorded it for charity, reaching number twenty on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and released it again after the 9/11 attacks, reaching number six. The vocally gymnastic version became the benchmark for all future would-be divas.
An Amateur Flub Goes Viral
Certainly, this poor singer at a 2005 exhibition game between the U.S. and Canadian ice hockey teams was not the first to forget the words to the anthem—Robert Goulet, Michael Bolton, and, more recently, Jesse McCartney have all done it. But her persistence—and lack of balance—made it much funnier to watch. We can only hope the singer (who is Canadian, it’s worth noting) is able to laugh at it now also.