Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969. Marvin Gaye’s slow jam on “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the NBA All-Star Game in 1983. Whitney Houston’s deeply felt performance at the 1991 Super Bowl.
Remarkable versions of the National Anthem can be counted on one hand, while entire web pages are dedicated to failed versions with forgotten lyrics, bum notes, and improvised vocal runs that careened out of control.
When the 14-member chorus from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts sings the National Anthem before the Saints home opener Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, they won’t try any Houston-like vocal acrobatics, according to director Bart Folse.
Student trumpeter John Michael Bradford will play a solo introduction, and the 13 singers, ages 16 to 18, will sing a traditional version accompanied by two pianists.
And they will try to avoid making news the way Roseanne Barr, sprinter Carl Lewis, and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler did — for singing disastrously bad renditions.
Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty, has faced that anxiety.
“There’s a lot of pressure because you don’t want to mess it up,” he says. He plays the version he played for President George W. Bush’s visit to Warren Easton High School in 2006. He got a memo asking him to play it straight, “almost military style,” Andrews said. “I try to get through the song in a traditional sense as much as I can.”
Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin has sung the National Anthem for two Saints home games, the 2005 post-Katrina “home” game in Giants Stadium, a Chicago White Sox game, a Cubs game, and a Hornets game. Being asked to sing is flattering, he says: “Then the fear sets in.”
“I’m not Whitney Houston, the Dixie Chicks or Marvin Gaye,” Griffin said. “I’m not that kind of singer. The only exceptional thing most people can do is screw it up.’”
Anthem singers are asked to be in the Dome hours before the game for a mic check. That’s when they encounter a potentially confusing delay between the instant a singer sings a note and the moments later when he or she hears it through the PA system.
That, combined with the echo of a building that big, can confuse singers and cause them to drift off-key or lose their place.
Irma Thomas uses it to her advantage. “You have to hear the end of a line before you start singing the next one,” she said.
Scott Durbin of the children’s music group The Imagination Movers takes the more common approach: “You have to tune out the amplified sound or you get lost.”
The Movers have sung the National Anthem in the Dome three times, and their solution was to stand in a semi-circle around the mic to hear each other better. Mover Rich Collins played the first notes on his acoustic guitar to help them find the key, which is crucial. Start too high and you can’t reach the high notes.
Thomas sings the song in the car on the way to the game. “I always sing the high part so I can see if my voice is in good stead that day,” she said.
The last time she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a Saints game was Sept. 25, 2006, the night the Saints hosted the Falcons for the Superdome’s reopening. Allen Toussaint accompanied her on piano, and they developed their arrangement during soundcheck.
“He’s worked with me enough to know what keys I can work in,” Thomas said. “Once we’ve gone over it, I know what I’m going to do and he knows what he’s going to do.”
Griffin went blank moments before he was to walk out on the field.
“I turned to the AV guy. ‘Sing it! First verse of the National Anthem.’ Then I went out there and did it,” Griffin said.
Vocalist Robin Barnes had a similar moment when she casually asked the staffer next to her on the field how many people were in the Dome that night. The answer, followed immediately by her introduction, caused her to freeze.
“I was ‘Ohmigod, what’s the first word?’,” she said, laughing.
But the moment on the field is surprisingly peaceful.
“That’s one of the only times that it’s really silent,” Andrews said. “Everything around me shuts down. Sometimes I forget I’m playing a football game. I’m really focused on what I need to do at that moment. Once I hit that last note, I open my eyes.”