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The toughest 2 minutes

The national anthem, with its octave-and-a-half range and plethora of similar words, can break the best performers. And then there are some who mess it up on purpose.

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2001


Robert Goulet thinks he got a bad rap.

"I sang one word wrong. I sang, "Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early night' . . . instead of "light.' One word is all I messed up, and everyone built it up from that time on into something else entirely."

Goulet is speaking, of course, of that fateful night in 1965 when he sang The Star-Spangled Banner before a heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine.

To the crooner's eternal regret, he failed to heed the advice of Nat King Cole, who once said, "If you do nothing else in your life, don't ever sing the national anthem at a ball game."

Many others have stumbled over the anthem.

Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane was booed when he forgot the words before a game at Candlestick Park.

Jose Feliciano dismayed traditionalists with his scat-sung version before a World Series game in Detroit.

Johnny Paycheck came up with this improvisation for an Atlanta Falcons game: "Oh, say can you see, it's cloudy at night, what so loudly we sang, at the daylight's last cleaning."

And then there was Roseanne Barr's crotch-grabbing rendition at a San Diego Padres game, which was denounced by no less than President George Bush the elder as "disgusting."

No wonder Steve Wynn, founder of Dream Syndicate, said of his performance of the anthem before a Minnesota Twins game: "I will never play a show that will frighten me one-tenth as much as this two-minute concert."

At the Super Bowl, the Backstreet Boys will sing Francis Scott Key's words, set to a traditional English drinking song. It has been called the most difficult piece of music ever written.

One problem is the range of the anthem, an octave and a half. The first half of the song is in the lower register, but the range moves up rapidly in the second half to the high F of "red glare" and "free."

"When you sing the national anthem, you better make sure you start on the right pitch, because if you start too high, you're doomed," says Broadway star Ron Bohmer, now on tour in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Nor are the lyrics designed to be sung with ease.

"You've got "night,' "light,' "twilight,' "bright' and "fight,' and you've got to make them all go in the proper direction," Goulet says.

Ten years ago, Whitney Houston resorted to lip-synching when she performed the anthem, with the Florida Orchestra, before Super Bowl XXV in Tampa Stadium.

"The orchestra track was recorded at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center earlier in January. Whitney's track was put on in California," says Kathryn Holm McManus, former executive director of the orchestra. "At the game, everyone was playing, and Whitney was singing, but there were no live microphones. Everyone was lip-synching or finger-synching."

Houston's emotional performance struck a chord during the Persian Gulf War, and a recording of it went gold. Royalties from the record sales bailed the orchestra out of a financial jam.

"It was six figures, probably $150,000 or $200,000 in all," McManus says. "It helped us balance the budget that year."

Goulet says he has sung The Star-Spangled Banner flawlessly hundreds of times since that night in Lewiston, but nobody ever asks him about those. He blames it on the fight, which turned out to be a bust when Ali knocked out Liston in the first round.

"I walked into that town and I was a hero. Then the fight lasted a minute and half and I walked out of town and I was a bum," he says.

But for a singer, there's an alluring upside to surviving the anthem.

"It's a huge rush," says Bohmer, who has sung the anthem for the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies. "Especially when you go for that high note -- "the land of the free' -- and the crowd goes crazy."

Previous performers

The Backstreet Boys will sing the national anthem before Super Bowl XXXV. Here are the previous performers.

Super Bowl I: Universities of Arizona and Michigan bands

Super Bowl II: Grambling University Band

Super Bowl III: Anita Bryant

Super Bowl IV: Al Hirt

Super Bowl V: Tommy Loy (trumpeter)

Super Bowl VI: U.S. Air Force Academy Chorale

Super Bowl VII: Little Angels of Holy Angels Church

Super Bowl VIII: Charlie Pride

Super Bowl IX: Grambling University Band

Super Bowl X: Tom Sullivan

Super Bowl XI: Vicki Carr (America the Beautiful)

Super Bowl XII: Phyllis Kelly of NE Louisiana State University

Super Bowl XIII: Colgate University Seven

Super Bowl XIV: Cheryl Ladd

Super Bowl XV: Helen O'Connell

Super Bowl XVI: Diana Ross

Super Bowl XVII: Leslie Esterbrook

Super Bowl XVIII: Barry Manilow

Super Bowl XIX: Children's Choir of San Francisco

Super Bowl XX: Wynton Marsalis

Super Bowl XXI: Neil Diamond

Super Bowl XXII: Herb Alpert

Super Bowl XXIII: Billy Joel

Super Bowl XXIV: Aaron Neville

Super Bowl XXV: Whitney Houston

Super Bowl XXVI: Harry Connick Jr.

Super Bowl XXVII: Garth Brooks

Super Bowl XXVIII: Natalie Cole

Super Bowl XXIX: Kathie Lee Gifford

Super Bowl XXX: Vanessa Williams

Super Bowl XXXI: Luther Vandross

Super Bowl XXXII: Jewel

Super Bowl XXXIII: Cher

Super Bowl XXXIV: Faith Hill

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