Hello there! This week is the 4th of July, in the first year of our blog. So in honor of this occasion, we will examine various versions of our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner. We will start with a memorable version of Francis Scott Key’s song, one that many consider to be the finest version ever. We will contrast this with five non-traditional attempts at the song, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Let’s start by reviewing the history of our national anthem. In 1814 Francis Scott Key (shown at left) wrote the song, to commemorate the fact that he spied the American flag still waving over Fort McHenry on the day following the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. An interesting factoid – Key’s song was not officially named our ‘national anthem’ for more than a century after its publication:
The song was adopted as the American national anthem, first by an Executive Order from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 (which had little effect beyond requiring military bands to play what became known as the “Service Version”) and then by a Congressional resolution in 1931, signed by President Herbert Hoover.
As our national anthem, Francis Scott Key’s song invokes feelings of patriotism, dedication and loyalty to our country. The ending of the song is quite rousing, which makes it ideal for the start of a sporting competition. So except for Jimi Hendrix’s version, all of the renditions shown in this post were performed at the start of a football, basketball or baseball game.
The attachment of the song to patriotic sentiments is also related to strong feelings regarding the “correct” way to perform the song. As a result, non-standard versions of the Star Spangled Banner can leave the singer open to considerable criticism. The flip side of this is that non-traditional versions can sometimes be quite valuable, as they broaden our appreciation for the song or make it more widely accessible to different groups of Americans.
Let’s face it – the Star Spangled Banner is not easy to sing. It requires a great vocal range, more than an octave and a half, and in particular the final high note on ‘land of the free’ has taken its toll on many singers. Although everyone is convinced that he/she knows the words to the song by heart, it is surprisingly common for a singer to forget or otherwise flub the lyrics. Note to self – if ever asked to sing the national anthem in public, have the lyrics written out on 3×5 index cards!
Whitney Houston’s National Anthem (1991):
Super Bowl XXV was played in Tampa, FL between the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills. The backdrop to this sporting contest was that in February 1991, the U.S. was nearing the end of the first Gulf War in Iraq. As a result, this Super Bowl was telecast to a much bigger worldwide audience than in previous years.
Whitney Houston had an extraordinary career. The daughter of singer Darlene Love and the niece of Dionne Warwick, her debut album was a box-office bombshell. She had a string of major pop hits, and in addition starred in the film The Bodyguard. The album of the soundtrack for that movie, buoyed by Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, became the best-selling album ever released by a woman artist. In all, it is estimated that Whitney Houston has sold nearly 100 million records. Below is a photo of Whitney Houston from August, 1987.
Whitney Houston’s singing of the national anthem prior to the game highlighted the fact that the nation was currently at war; thus, Houston’s stirring performance was all the more riveting. She really gets into the song, and the final word “brave” really resonates with the crowd, as with everyone watching it on television. Whitney gets a spontaneous standing ovation from the Super Bowl crowd.
As you can see from the video of Houston’s performance, there was an emphasis on the military aspects of the song. Close-ups of a white and a black officer are intercut into the song. In addition, there is a flyover of F-16 fighter jets right at the finale. Her performance was so popular that her label Arista records immediately released both a single and a video of the performance, with the proceeds going to charity. The song was later reprised in the domestic release on the Whitney Houston Greatest Hits album.
The song received nearly unanimous critical praise, although apparently the executives in charge of the Super Bowl show were apprehensive that Houston’s performance might be viewed as “too flamboyant for wartime.” Perhaps more serious were revelations that Houston’s microphone had been turned off, and that the audience was listening to a pre-recorded tape of Whitney singing. Officials defended this as standard practice at a live event with this large an audience (wha?).
Despite Whitney Houston’s extraordinary fame and her great vocal gifts, her life took a dramatic turn for the worse after she married R&B singer Bobby Brown. She began not showing up for events, or turning in bizarre, sub-par performances. Allegations of drug use were widespread, and she also appeared to have lost a great deal of weight.
Her personal situation worsened with allegations of domestic abuse by Bobby Brown. In 2004 the Bravo Network aired a reality-show TV program, Being Bobby Brown. The critics were not kind; the Hollywood Reporter called it
“undoubtedly the most disgusting and execrable series ever to ooze its way onto television.”
In February, 2012, Whitney Houston was found dead in the bathtub of the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The cause of death was ruled to be drowning, exacerbated by the effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use; an autopsy found traces of cocaine in her body. Yet another tragic drug-related death of a talented artist.
Jose Feliciano’s National Anthem (1968):
We previously encountered Jose Feliciano in our post on the song Light My Fire. Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico in 1945 and was blind at birth due to congenital glaucoma. He became a talented guitarist through years of constant practice. The greatest influences on his style were classical guitarist Andres Segovia and jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. Both the classical and jazz influences would feature prominently in his later guitar work.
Feliciano’s cover The Doors’ Light My Fire became a major hit, establishing him as a promising young artist. As a result, Jose Feliciano won Grammy Awards in 1969 for both Pop Song of the Year and New Artist of the Year. Below is a photo of Feliciano performing circa 1970.
In October 1968, the organizers of baseball’s World Series decided to provide opportunities for musicians in diverse fields to sing the national anthem. As a result, Motown singer Marvin Gaye performed the Star Spangled Banner before the fourth game of the Series, and Jose Feliciano performed the song prior to the fifth game of the World Series in Detroit.
As was his custom, Feliciano produced a Latin-influenced, stylized version of the national anthem. Today we are accustomed to artists giving their personal interpration of the Star Spangled Banner, but to the best of my knowledge Feliciano’s was the first non-traditional take on the song that was experienced by a nationwide audience (in contrast, Marvin Gaye’s performance on the previous night was a traditional one). Feliciano’s version became highly controversial, with traditionalists deeply criticizing his interpretation of the song.
You can see from the reaction that the crowd at the ball game wasn’t sure quite how to take this novel and (at the time) shocking take on the song. There is very little applause from the crowd at the game. Feliciano is convinced that his subsequent career suffered from the sharp criticism of this performance.
Remember, at this time we were in the midst of the Vietnam War, which engendered deep divisions and strong feelings regarding notions of patriotism. For example, just one week later U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave “black power salutes” and each of them wore one black glove on the medal podium, during the playing of the national anthem following the 200-meter event in Mexico City. This incident is shown in the photo at left.
Given the conditions in the U.S. at this time, and the serious polarization among the American public, it is not surprising that any deviation from the “accepted” version of our national anthem would be the subject of criticism. But I have to say that I find Jose Feliciano’s Star Spangled Banner sincere, respectful, deeply moving and entirely appropriate.
Jimi Hendrix’s National Anthem (1969):
Although Jimi Hendrix had for several years been playing as a session guitarist and trying to make a name for himself, when he finally became a public figure, the reaction was as shocking as if he had alighted from a spaceship. Hendrix was a true musical genius. As Holly George-Warren of Rolling Stone commented,
“Hendrix pioneered the use of the instrument as an electronic sound source. Players before him had experimented with feedback and distortion, but Hendrix turned those effects and others into a controlled, fluid vocabulary every bit as personal as the blues with which he began.”
Below is a photo of Jimi in 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Hendrix first surfaced in London in spring 1966, where he was panned by a few music-industry executives but impressed others. He then began fronting a trio, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and word started to spread about this musical phenom. In November 1966, the Experience gave a performance at the Bag O’Nails club in London, to an audience that included Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, and Mick Jagger.
The audience was stunned by Hendrix’s virtuosity. Left-handed, he simply turned a Fender Stratocaster over and played it upside-down. In addition to a bag of tricks like playing guitar with his teeth or behind his head, Hendrix also employed a number of unique technical feats. His playing emphasized extreme distortion, sharp feedback, and dramatically long sustain. Hendrix was a master of the wah-wah pedal and several other innovations.
But perhaps most amazing was the sound that the trio produced. With Hendrix playing both solo and rhythm parts on his guitar, it was difficult to imagine that a trio – guitar, bass and drums – could possible produce as rich a sound as The Experience.
I am still kicking myself that I passed up the opportunity to see Jimi in London. Immediately after the release of his first album, a friend of mine played it for me and asked if I wanted to see The Experience perform in London. “No, I’ll pass, they’re too weird for me,” I said. Well, Jimi was too weird for many folks at the beginning of his career, but he is now recognized as a musical and technical genius, the greatest guitarist of all time, bar none.
Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the Star Spangled Banner is one of the most iconic performances of the rock era. Following his meteoric rise to fame in the mid-60s and his breakout performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Hendrix was scheduled to be the closing act at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. However, the combination of the unexpectedly huge crowds at the festival (over 400,000 strong), technical snafus and the torrential rains that weekend delayed Hendrix’s scheduled Sunday evening performance until Monday morning.
By this time a good fraction of the Woodstock crowd had already left the venue. Furthermore, Hendrix was at that time between bands; he had closed down the Jimi Hendrix Experience and instead was appearing with a new group, Gypsy Suns and Rainbows. Jimi’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner appeared in the middle of a 30-minute medley of songs that included his hit Purple Haze.
The Jimi Hendrix version of the national anthem is certainly unforgettable. It features Hendrix’s liberal use of feedback and distortion, in order to create an atmosphere that viscerally recalls the “bombs bursting in air” from the War of 1812, referred to by Francis Scott Key. Watch this performance – if you haven’t seen it before, you will never forget it.
I first saw Jimi’s performance at the Woodstock movie. My recollection is that at the time, there was much bitter criticism of the liberties that this hippie rocker had taken with our national anthem, though I have not been able to locate the negative comments over Jimi’s take on the song. I do remember that Jimi’s Star Spangled Banner was voted the most memorable image of Woodstock following the 40th anniversary of that festival. His Wikipedia article states:
Pop critic Al Aronowitz of The New York Post wrote: “It was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the sixties.” Images of the performance showing Hendrix wearing a blue-beaded white leather jacket with fringe, a red head-scarf, and blue jeans are widely regarded as iconic pictures that capture a defining moment of the era.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience had broken up in June, 1969. and by that time Jimi was the world’s highest-paid musician. Following Woodstock, Jimi shuffled through various backing musicians. In fall, 1970 Jimi was in the middle of the European leg of his Cry of Love tour. Alas, on September 18, 1970, his girlfriend was unable to wake him up in the morning. He was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead; the cause of death was listed as asphyxia under the influence of barbiturates.
This was a shocking end to a short but brilliant career. Jimi, who was only 27 at his death, was a true rock pioneer. Rolling Stone magazine lists him #1 among rock guitarists, and it is hard to imagine who would supersede him. What a phenomenal guitarist, innovator and rock legend.
Marvin Gaye’s National Anthem (1983):
Next we will provide you with Marvin Gaye’s soul-inspired version of the Star Spangled Banner. Below is one of my favorite photos of Marvin, taken in 1973.
Following a great career at Motown in the 60s, Marvin Gaye’s life and career had really gone off the rails. His marriage to Berry Gordy’s sister Anna had collapsed amidst a series of recriminations and lawsuits; his duet singing partner Tammy Terrell suffered a brain tumor that eventually proved fatal; and he was constantly fighting with Berry Gordy over his compensation and creative control of his albums. In addition to all of this, the IRS was after him for back taxes and he was dealing with serious addiction issues. Strung out and depressed, Gaye left the U.S. and spent several years in exile in Belgium.
Upon returning to the States, Marvin Gaye was invited to perform the national anthem prior to the February, 1983 NBA All-Star game in Los Angeles. Given his recent history, the organizers weren’t sure that he would show up. Marvin worked out a very simple orchestral backing with a drum machine, and indeed appeared when he was announced.
Upon hearing a funky beat at the beginning of the song, one of the performing athletes reportedly thought, “What the hell – is Marvin going to sing Sexual Healing?” But then Gaye started to sing and you hear his marvelous voice, incredibly clear and deeply moving. The audience really got into it – you can hear them clapping and cheering.
Again, traditionalists blasted Marvin’s performance as a ‘disrespectful’ treatment of our national anthem. NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien was apparently incensed by Marvin’s performance. What the hell was O’Brien thinking? To my mind this is the greatest performance of our national anthem ever. The audience obviously thought it was terrific, and it elicits precisely the message intended by Francis Scott Key. Gaye’s version brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it.
Five weeks after the NBA All-Star Game, organizers for the Motown 25th Anniversary gala had invited Marvin Gaye to perform, but again they weren’t certain he would show up. Marvin did appear, performing a memorable version of What’s Going On. This kicked off a new U.S. tour for Marvin, one that began with high hopes but then foundered as his addiction issues re-surfaced.
Marvin left his U.S. tour in fall 1983 and stayed at his parents’ house in an effort to compose himself. On April 1, 1984 Marvin Gaye intervened in an argument between his parents. Shortly after that incident his father appeared with a gun, shooting Gaye twice at point-blank range and killing him.
What a tragic death for an unbelievable artist. Marvin Gaye had the greatest range and versatility that I have ever seen in a singer; and he more or less single-handedly moved Motown songs into uncharted realms of social and political commentary.
Roseanne Barr’s National Anthem (1990):
Roseanne Barr is a famed comedienne. She began her career as a stand-up performer in the late 70s and early 80s, working the comedy-club circuit and refining her act. This is a tough way to establish yourself. At one point, Roseanne appeared at a comedy club, Bear’s Place, in my hometown of Bloomington, IN. Her act did not go over well; she was heckled so rudely that she still refers to this experience from time to time.
However, eventually Roseanne became famous for her portrayal of a grumpy, dumpy, disaffected housewife who hated to do household chores (“I prefer to be called a ‘domestic goddess’,” was her famous tag-line regarding her status as a housewife). Here is a photo of Roseanne from 1993. She looks nothing like this now – the woman has had a ton of cosmetic surgery.
In 1987 she was given a TV sitcom Roseanne, whose main character was based on Barr’s comedy persona. For a while this became the #1-rated program on network television. Her TV program ran for nine seasons, and she won an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
Roseanne was asked to perform the national anthem at the beginning of a San Diego Padres baseball game in 1990. Her performance engendered great controversy, as will be obvious from the video.
Roseanne Barr’s comedy is by nature controversial and in-your-face, and she does not disappoint here. She does not so much sing the national anthem as shriek it; this led to various critics labeling her performance the ‘Barr Strangled Banner.’ Furthermore (and this is not really visible in this video), at the end of the piece she grabs her crotch and spits on the ground.
I am just guessing, but my assumption is that Roseanne was being deliberately provocative as a means of spoofing over-the-top vocal performances of the Star-Spangled Banner. Presumably the crotch-grabbing and spitting was intended to lampoon the behavior of baseball players in their dugout.
I don’t find this at all funny, but neither did I appreciate Roseanne’s comedy act. However, I never liked any of Roseanne’s TV shows, and at one time she had the highest-rated show on television – so much for my critical acumen. So either Ms. Barr had a tremendous number of fans, or else many folks tuned in to see whatever outrageous activity might appear on a given show.
By the way, some commentators pointed out that Tom Werner, the co-owner and managing partner of the San Diego Padres at that time, was also the executive producer of the TV show Roseanne. This raises the possibility that Roseanne’s controversial performance of the national anthem may have been simply a cynical ploy to increase viewership of Barr’s TV sitcom.
Carl Lewis’ National Anthem (1993):
Carl Lewis was one of the greatest athletes of modern times. He won ten Olympic medals, nine of which were gold medals, in the 100 and 200 meter dash, the 4 x 100 relay and the long jump. In addition, Lewis won ten World Championship medals, of which eight were gold.
As a result of his illustrious career and his success in both the dash and long jump events, Lewis was voted
“World Athlete of the Century” by the International Association of Athletics Federations and “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee., [and] “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated.
Below is a photo of Carl Lewis in the long jump, during a competition in 1988. His jumping technique was memorable: an incredibly fast run-up to the board; an explosive take-off; arms wind-milling through the air; finally, straining for every last centimeter before the landing.
Lewis had a habit of saving his best results for the most prestigious competitions. To me, his most memorable performance was one of the few that he lost, at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. Lewis entered this meet having won the long jump in 65 consecutive meets. Lewis jumped 8.68 m (meters, or 28 feet 5 ¾ inches), then 8.83 m, the 3rd-longest jump in history. However, American team-mate Mike Powell then jumped 8.95 m (29 feet 4 ½ inches), the longest jump in world history, beating the record that Bob Beamon set at high altitude in Mexico City in the 1968 Olympics.
In danger of losing a long jump meet for the first time in a decade, Lewis needed a world record in order to surpass Powell. His next two jumps were 8.87 m and 8.84 m. Although he was unable to surpass Powell’s new world record, in this one meet Lewis and Powell together achieved the three longest low-altitude long jumps ever. Despite the fact that Lewis lost the competition (Powell’s mark remains the world record today), his ability to perform his best jumps under tremendous pressure is simply mind-boggling.
Here Carl gives a shot at the national anthem at the start of a New York Nets – Chicago Bulls basketball game in 1993. I have been unable to find the entire video of the song, just a few seconds from the middle of his attempt at the song. So here is just a very short clip of Lewis’ performance.
Well, you know you are in trouble when the singer breaks in with “uh-oh.” As I mentioned earlier, amateur singers are frequently tripped up by the significant vocal range required by this song, and Carl Lewis shows just how badly one can screw up. It’s hard to imagine that things could go worse than shown in this short clip; however, apparently Lewis also forgot many of the lyrics to the song!
The video above is from the ESPN Sports Center review of the day’s sporting activities. Sports Center anchor Charlie Steiner tries but totally fails to maintain his composure, breaking into uncontrolled laughter over Carl Lewis’ performance. Steiner is just barely able to utter his final crack about the song-writer,“Francis Scott Off-Key.”
Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!