Monday, February 7, 2011

Top 10 Pregame National Anthems... and Bottom 10

Robert Merrill at Yankee Stadium, 1996 World Series

Can I possibly let Xtina off the hook? Nope. But since it's only about 25 hours old as I type this, her version hasn't "stood the test of time," so I'll give her a slight break. Besides... She wasn't trying to disgrace her country or its National Anthem. She just blew it. It's a misdemeanor. Read... and move on.

Bottom 10

All of these are what somebody (I forget who) named "Star-Mangled Banners."

10. Christina Aguilera, Super Bowl XLV, Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas, February 6, 2011. It's not just that she goofed the words, it's that she decided to "style" it. Come on, Christina, we know you can sing like that, but it's the National Anthem, in front of the biggest TV audience you'll ever have. Unless you sing at the World Cup, and both Shakira and Alicia Keys managed to get that right. (Of course, neither actually sang a national anthem at that time.)

9. Frank Drebin, regular-season baseball game, Anaheim Stadium (now Angel Stadium), Anaheim, California, sometime in 1988. I could use the excuse that he's not a professional singer. I could use the excuse that he was actually trying to impersonate an umpire, rather than the opera singer he was introduced as. I could use the excuse that the actor who played him, Leslie Nielsen, was Canadian -- although the character was all-American. Instead, I'll use the excuse that it was only a movie, The Naked Gun.

Very funny movie, except... O.J. Simpson played a cop, and Reggie Jackson played a "Manchurian Candidate"-type killer. Remember? "I... must kill... the Queen." Fortunately, Drebin stopped Mr. October from making the Prince of Wales become King Charles III far too early.

All that was missing was for the actress playing Elizabeth II to say, "Ricardo Montalban brainwashed Reggie Jackson to kill me? Lieutenant Drebin, surely, you can't be serious?" "I am serious, and, please, Your Majesty, don't call me 'Shirley.'"

Note that both Reggie and Jay Johnstone, who came to bat for the Seattle Mariners during the movie, were already retired at the time.

8. Jesse McCartney, Pepsi 500, Auto Club Speedway, Fontana, California, October 11, 2009. For the purpose of this post, I'm counting auto racing as a "sport." (May George Carlin, if he turned out to be wrong and God let him into Heaven, forgive me.) He skipped the "what so proudly we hailed" part. Let's just say that Jesse isn't related to Paul McCartney, not by blood or by talent.

7. Scott Stapp, Ford 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Homestead, Florida, November 20, 2005. On 2 occasions (the 1995 World Series in Atlanta, and a Monday Night Football game in Charlotte), I heard South Carolina native (thus "near" both cities) Darius Rucker, the lead singer of Hootie & the Blowfish, sing the anthem. It sounded, well, like Hootie & the Blowfish singing the National Anthem.

Not as much as the Creed singer did, though. Even the NASCAR drivers were wincing. And... "As the twilight's last gleaming"? Idiot. I don't think he'll be welcomed with arms wide open into another such event.

6. R. Kelly, Middleweight Championship fight, Bernard Hopkins vs. Jermain Taylor II, Las Vegas, Nevada, December 3, 2005. A man then under indictment on child pornography charges is singing the National Anthem before a sporting event? Well, it's not like it was a high school girls' basketball game...

"By the twilight's last gleaming"? If that was the only thing wrong with it, he probably would have gotten away with it -- pun intended. But it got worse from there. R. Kelly tried to sound like Marvin Gaye, and ended up sounding like a damn fool. Scoop Jackson of ESPN said, "It was enough to make Jeff Kent turn black. Or John Chaney turn white." This version should have stayed... wait for it... "trapped in the closet."

5. Caroline Marcel, Canada vs. U.S. junior hockey game, Le Colisee, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, April 24, 2005. To be fair, she had to sing 2 anthems, 1 of a country not her own, and that anthem in her 2nd language. Still, she should have known the words to "The Banner."

But she mixed it up early, said, "I'm sorry," turned, and went back into the tunnel to find the lyrics. She got booed. Mind you, this was in Quebec, so this wasn't Americans booing the botching of their anthem, this was French-Canadians, her own people.

She came back, and... she fell. Okay, it was on ice, and she wasn't wearing skates. Still... That had to be the most embarrassing Anthem ever. At least, for a professional singer. At least, for one not named Michael Bolton.

4. Michael Bolton, American League Championship Series Game 4, Fenway Park, Boston, Massachusetts, October 13, 2003. Not the most disgraceful thing that's ever happened at Fenway, not even that week. (Game 3 was when Pedro Martinez tried to kill Don Zimmer and Karim Garcia, and threatened to kill Jorge Posada. Still hasn't even been arrested, much less prosecuted, for that.)

But after "o'er the ramparts we watched," he looked at his hand! He had crib notes for the National Anthem! That's worse than Sarah Palin's crib notes for one of her political speeches. That's even worse than George's "crib notes for sex" in the Seinfeld episode "The Move"!

The Red Sox fans booed the hell out of him. For once, I agree with them! Besides... it's Michael Bolton.

3. Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock Music & Art Festival, Yasgur's Farm, Bethel, New York, August 18, 1969. I know this one has become iconic, but I hate it. I don't know what point Jimi was trying to make with it, but I really, really hate it.

Yet when Brian May, the guitarist for Queen (as fate would have it), played "God Save the Queen" at Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee (marking 50 years on the throne) in 2002, it was electric, and it was rock, but it was very respectful, and it got a tremendous ovation.

2. Roseanne Barr -- or Roseanne Arnold, or just "Roseanne," or whatever she was calling herself at that point -- regular-season baseball game, Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego, California, July 25, 1990. It was the screeching. It was the gestures. It was the crotch-grab and the spit at the end.

San Diego is a city noted as a major homeport for the U.S. Navy. She pushed a lot of buttons, and pushed a lot of envelopes. That day, she really pushed her luck.

1. Carl Lewis, regular-season NBA game, Brendan Byrne Arena, East Rutherford, New Jersey, December 25, 1993. Merry Christmas, everyone, here's your present: The worst "Star-Spangled Banner" ever! What makes this the worst one is that he was really, really, trying to get it right, but... His voice cracked at "And the rockets'... red glare! Uh-oh!" Unless you're Buddy Holly or Jimmie Rodgers, you should not include the words "Uh-oh!" in a song.

He may have been the greatest track & field performer ever, and he may be a New Jersey native (although from Willingboro, the Phillies/Eagles/76ers/Flyers side, not the Yankees/Giants-Jets/Nets/Devils side), but that doesn't give him a pass for this.

Top 10

You'll notice Whitney Houston's rendition before Super Bowl XXV is not on this list. That's because she was lip-synching. Automatic disqualification.

10. Lucy Lawless, regular-season NHL game, Arrowhead Pond (now Honda Center), Anaheim, California, October 22, 1997. She really can sing, and does a mean version of "Total Eclipse of the Heart." And, as a native of New Zealand, she almost certainly didn't grow up knowing the words to The Banner.

But that's not what made this one memorable. She sang it wearing an Uncle Sam top hat (well, if you're going to wear a hat during the National Anthem, which you're not supposed to do... ), and a star-spangled bustier that would have made Wonder Woman blush. (By the way, Lynda Carter is an amazing singer, too.)

At the end of the song, Lucy had what would later be called "a wardrobe malfunction." She finished the song with one of her "Xena" yells. Whether she was already aware of the malfunction when she did that yell is not clear. But then, who's going to tell the Warrior Princess that she futzed up the National Anthem? Not me. Especially now that she's also been a Cylon on the new Battlestar Galactica.

9. Kelsey Grammer, MLB All-Star Game, Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 9, 1996. Kelsey Grammer? Frasier Crane? I know NBC wanted to promote its shows, but... Kelsey Grammer? "Hey, baby, I hear the blues a-callin', tossed salads and scrambled eggs, quite stylish." Kelsey Grammer to sing the anthem? Are you freakin' kiddin' me?

No, they weren't: He was great! He really can sing. (And play the piano, although he sang a cappella on this occasion.) It really put Fox's later show-promotions to shame, including Lea Michele of Glee doing "America the Beautiful" at the Super Bowl just passed.

8. Faith Hill, MLB All-Star Game, Coors Field, Denver, Colorado, July 7, 1998. She wore a jersey of the host team, the Colorado Rockies. A maternity jersey, the 1st time I'd ever seen that. I'd also never heard a visibly pregnant woman sing the Anthem before. Is that fair, adding your baby's vocal power to your own? Faith didn't need it. Her daughter Maggie was born later that year.

Faith is married to another country music superstar, Tim McGraw, the son of a baseball legend, Tug McGraw. Although I've never heard Tim sing the Anthem. (No video of him singing it appears to be on YouTube.) Together, Faith and Tim now have 3 children.

7. Carrie Underwood, Super Bowl XLIV, Sun Life Stadium, Miami Lakes, Florida, February 7, 2010. The American Idol voters don't always get it right, but they sure got it right when they chose her. The people selecting Anthem singers must agree, because they've chosen her many times, including for the 2006 MLB All-Star Game in Detroit and the 2007 World Series in Denver.

The original Idol, Kelly Clarkson, also does very well with it. She sang the Anthem at the 1st game at the new Yankee Stadium, which puzzled me: I knew they couldn't get Robert Merrill, who died in 2004, but I figured they'd go with a New York native, and Kelly is from Texas. Her performance was excellent; I certainly can't complain about its quality. 

But I would have preferred a New Yorker such as Alicia Keys, who did come to the Stadium in the World Series to sing "Empire State of Mind" with Jay-Z.

6. Marvin Gaye, NBA All-Star Game, The Forum, Inglewood, California, February 13, 1983. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is listed in some hymn books, but Marvin turned it into a gospel song. And, unlike R. Kelly, he made it sound both funky and respectful. This is a lot of people's choice as the best Anthem ever.

Because he was so loved and, at least publicly, had such a classy image, Marvin had been invited to sing the Anthem many times before, including at Game 4 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit, a good choice since he was signed to that city's Motown Records, but, on that occasion, he sang it totally straight. And he was great. But the next day, the Anthem was sung in a way that, like Hendrix' version a year later, would change it forever.

5. Jose Feliciano, World Series Game 5, Tiger Stadium, Detroit, Michigan, October 7, 1968. He sang it in a way no one had heard before. He sang it while wearing dark glasses. (He is blind.) He sang it while wearing long hair. (In America, it was 1968; in "Baseball America," take whatever the actual year is and subtract 10 years.) And he sang it while a scary-looking German shepherd was by his side. (His seeing-eye dog.)

People were furious. They thought this little Puerto Rican kid was un-American. Never mind that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.

As Gaye was the day before, and as Detroit native Margaret Whiting was before Game 3, he was selected for the performance by Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who was a a published songwriter, an ordained minister, and a Marine Corps veteran of World War II. You gonna question his patriotism? Or his taste in music?

Ernie knew what he was doing, and, for the rest of his life, he stuck up for Jose, whose career was hurt by this for years, until he was asked to sing the theme song for the NBC sitcom Chico and the Man in 1974, starting a comeback that has made him a much-admired performer ever since.

When Ernie died in 2010, Jose was invited back to sing the anthem at Comerica Park, the Tigers' new home, at their next home game. He sang it the same way, his voice still clear after 42 years, and he got a massive ovation. As well he should have back in 1968. But America was just too on edge that year for something so American, yet so different.

4. Julie Anthony, Opening Ceremony, Olympic Games, Stadium Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, September 15, 2000. This was the Australian anthem, "Advance Australia Fair." She had previously been selected to sing it at the country's Bicentennial celebration on January 1, 1988.

I'd never heard "Advance Australia Fair" before that Opening Ceremony, and it was wonderful. Maybe it was her talent, maybe it was the similarity of the name, but she reminded me of Julie Andrews.

3. Beyoncé Knowles, Super Bowl XXXVIII, Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas, February 1, 2004. Maybe it was because she was in her hometown. Or maybe she wanted to show Janet Jackson who was the best singer in the stadium that night. Or maybe she's just great. But she knocked it out of the park. (If you don't mind me mixing my sports metaphors.)

Of course, in order to remember this one, you'll have to put Janet's own performance at that game's halftime show out of your mind. Not easy.

2. Robert Merrill, Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York, 1969 to 2003. For a generation of Yankee Fans, my generation, he was the singer of "The Star-Spangled Banner." And he always played it straight, even on Old-Timers' Day, when he wore a Yankee uniform with the Number 1 1/2 on it.

Cleveland Indian fans may speak up for Rocco Scotti, and people who remember the Brooklyn Dodgers may mention Gladys Gooding, singing and playing the Ebbets Field organ, but Robert Merrill was the best regular anthem-singer of them all.

In this country, anyway.

1. Roger Doucet, Montreal Forum and Olympic Stadium, Montreal, Quebec, 1970 to 1981. He sang the anthems at Canadiens and Expos games. When he sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," he didn't sound so good. In fact, to me, he sounded drunk. Then again, we took the music for our anthem from "To Anacreon In Heaven," an English drinking song. So maybe it's not so inappropriate.

But when he sang "O, Canada," I've never heard an anthem sung better. He would begin by singing in French, facing the east stands of the Forum, since the East End of Montreal is the more French, more "Quebec nationalist" side of town. In mid-song, he would turn and face the west stands, since the West End is the more English, pro-stay-in-Canada side.
Roger Doucet, rehearsing at the Montreal Forum

He died of cancer in 1981, but his version was so revered that a clip of it was played at the Canadiens' last game at the Forum in 1996. The Yankees didn't even do that for Robert Merrill.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Carl Lewis deserves the #1 slot. Nobody did it like Carl.

Robert Merrill deserves a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He sang the Star Spangled Banner the way it was supposed to be sung. Unfortunately today, it's not about the song, it's about the singer.