by John Gettings
"Oh say, can you see, by the dawn's early night . . ."
Since World War II the Star-Spangled Banner has become a permanent fixture at sports events in the United States. And over the last 30 years artists have gradually made non-traditional renditions of the song commonplace.
Frequency doesn't necessarily breed acceptance, however. While America may seem less surprised by new renditions of the national anthem, it still considers the song's performance a litmus test for patriotism.
Puerto Rican blind singer/guitarist Jose Feliciano stunned the crowd at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, and the rest of America, when he strummed a slow, bluesy rendition of the national anthem before Game 5 of the World Series between Detroit and St. Louis. The 23-year-old's performance was the first nontraditional version seen by mainstream America, and it is generally considered the Lexington and Concord of Star-Spangled Banner controversies. The fiery response from Vietnam-weary America was not surprising, considering the tumultuous year for American patriotism. Good or bad, however, Feliciano's performance opened the door for the countless interpretations of the Star-Spangled Banner we hear today.
It wasn't a sports event, but it was controversial. During the final set of the historic Woodstock music festival Jimi Hendrix let loose with a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner on electric guitar that's been called everything from the most important political rock statement of the 1960s, to an afterthought caught in one of Hendrix's worst performances. It was his first gig since the breakup of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and all but 10% of the festival's 400,000 concert goers stayed for his Monday morning set. But there was no question the performance was controversial. Even today, music scholars can't agree on what message, if any, Hendrix's screaming guitar and ballistic feedback was trying to deliver.
[Note: Hendrix's entire Woodstock set, including the Star-Spangled Banner, can be heard on the 1999 MCA release Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock.]
A little more than a week before Motown legend Marvin Gaye picked up two Grammy Awards for his classic "Sexual Healing," he performed the national anthem before the 1983 NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Accompanied by a drum machine, Gaye's interpretation added elements of soul and funk to the national anthem. Gaye, who, coincidently, also sang the anthem during the same World Series as Jose Feliciano in 1968, was scrutinized for his performance, but the fallout didn't compare to that of Feliciano's rendition. The NBA players were most receptive. Especially Gaye fan Julius Erving, who loved the performance and went on to win game MVP honors.
[Note: Gaye's performance is the first track of the 1996 Polygram compilation NBA at 50: Musical Celebration.]
The poster child for Star-Spangled Banner controversy, Barr (whose last name and reputation were still intact at this time) tried to add her own brand of humor to the singing of the national anthem before a baseball game in San Diego. After screeching through an off-key version of the song she added some clichéd baseball humor by spitting and grabbing her crotch. The popular sit-com comedian immediately became public enemy number one. After hearing a tape of Barr, President George Bush called it "disgusting" and "a disgrace."
Singing on Memorial Day before the start of the Indianapolis 500, Steven Tyler, lead singer of the rock group Aerosmith, angered veterans by changing the last line of the song. Instead of singing "home of the brave," Tyler sings "home of the Indianapolis 500." He apologized the next day, releasing the following statement: "I got in trouble my whole life for having a big mouth. I'm very proud to be an American and live in the home of the brave."
And then there are the unforgettable performances where we watched confident artists painfully struggle with this very difficult song. Here are two examples:
Although he was born in the United States, Robert Goulet moved to Canada when he was 14 years old and had never sang the Star-Spangled Banner in public before May 25, 1965. That night, moments before the much-anticipated rematch of boxing heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, Goulet began, "Oh say, can you see, by the dawn's early night..." The bout lasted less than one round, and the disappointing fight didn't provide a big enough shadow for Goulet's performance to hide behind. Although he's done it without incident hundreds of times since, Goulet says he is always asked about his infamous flub.
There's no question nine-time Olympic track-and-field gold medallist Carl Lewis can carry a baton—as he did many times for U.S. Olympic relay teams—but how about a tune? Before a Chicago Bulls–New Jersey Nets basketball game, in front of a sellout crowd in East Rutherford, N.J., Lewis orchestrated the musical equivalent of a train wreck. Later explaining that he was hoarse from participating in inaugural events at the White House the day before, Lewis faltered during the lyric "rockets red glare," and then mid-song told the fans, "I'll make up for it." He never did.