Oh say, CAN you sing?

Some of the people who have sung the national anthem - with mixed results

Photos from wires, illustration by ALI OCHAL
Published: Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 29, 2008 at 8:54 p.m.

Francis Scott Key may have gotten his inspiration in 1814 from rockets and bombs to pen the song that would eventually become the national anthem.


"The Star-Spangled Banner"

  • Poem was set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, written for a London social club.

  • With a range of one and a half octaves, it is known for being difficult to sing.

  • In March 2005, a government-sponsored program was launched after a poll showed that many adults didn't know the lyrics or history.

  • The tradition of performing the national anthem before every baseball game began during World War II.

  • The first pop performance of the song was by Puerto Rican singer/guitarist Jose Feliciano.

  • Song is composed of four stanzas, but most people only know one.

  • Became official national anthem, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Herbert Hoover, on March 3, 1931.

But one wonders how the sound of the various renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner would affect the patriot songwriter if he were alive today.

The Star-Spangled Banner made its debut at a baseball game in 1918, four years after it officially became the National Anthem. Since then the spirited tune has served as the kick-off to the country's pastimes.

Since then, the song has been interpreted by a variety of people (musicians and non), from Jimi Hendrix and his explosive guitar rendition to Whitney Houston's soulful version, making it one of the most recognizable musical pieces today.

"Each performer has embraced the song, making it their own," said Brenda Smith, an associate voice professor at the University of Florida School of Music. "It's a song that can be stretched by every artist to fit a variety of religions, creeds and belief systems in our society."

It is also one of the hardest, if not THE hardest song for any singer, seasoned or novice, to interpret, she said.

"When I've talked to people about the worst experiences they've had with performance anxiety, time after time, they say that they were singing the national anthem," she said. "Not only does it have a wide vocal range, but everyone knows the words." At least, they know when it's being sung wrong.

"We have a flag and this is our song," she said. "They're both unifying elements to our country. We get an extra heart beat simply because it's being played."

Although some versions have stirred the hearts of listeners, other interpretations have caused spectators to grit their teeth and cover their ears. Below are some of the most moving renditions as well as some of the ones many wish they could forget.


Whitney Houston let her powerful voice ring out over the audience at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. At the time, with the country in the midst of the Persian Gulf War and Americans anxious over the conflict's outcome, Houston's performance spoke straight to the aura of patriotism surrounding the country.

"It's a very sincere, very emotional performance," Smith said. "She was singing her soul to the soldiers out on the battlefield."

Marvin Gaye's 1983 NBA All-Star Game rendition took the anthem to a new level, surpassing the straightforward, traditional versions.

The Motown singer added a fresh and soulful character that, in many people's opinion, has never been replicated.

"It's very different, very creative." She said. "It's hard to compare that one to any other one because it's such a different take on the same melody."

Jimi Hendrix, considered one of the greatest and most influential artists in rock music history, made music history with his classic Woodstock performance of the anthem in 1969.

Dressed in his iconic flamboyant clothing, each chord he strummed on the guitar was met with cheers from those present at the festival.

The unconventional rock variation is culturally significant, exemplifying the counterculture of the hippies and the unrest created by the Vietnam War.


Roseanne Barr performed her own take on the anthem, screeching and screaming out the notes to the song before a Cincinnati Reds-San Diego Padres baseball game in 1990.

In the days following, many considered her performance disrespectful of the age-old hymn, but Barr claimed she had been encouraged by baseball officials to sing the song with humor. And bring humor she did, although it is debatable whether it was actually singing.

"I don't know what that was, but it's definitely not something we can call singing," Smith said.

Michael Bolton didn't seem to have the best memory during his performance of the anthem at Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park in 2003.

It was all going well until Bolton stuttered and paused, forgetting the rest of the lyrics following "and the rocket's red glare."

Fans would have been forgiving had that been the end of the debacle, but Boltonwas reduced to referring to the lyrics written on his palm to finish out the song.

Bolton left the mound to the boos and jeers of Sox and Yankee fans alike.

"I don't hold that against him too much," she said. "It happens to a lot of people. There's a lot of pressure and a lot of people watching, so it can happen to the best of us."

Hillary Clinton's Jan. 27 open-mic snafu of the anthem quickly became a top video on YouTube, one of those unguarded moments candidates and their handlers dread.

The video depicts Clinton singing her own patriotic, albeit off-key, rendition of the anthem, unaware that her microphone was on during the entire song.

Smith said Clinton can be placed in a different category since she was caught without her knowing her tune would be carried over the airways.

"Bless her heart though," she said. "It really is awful."


The strongest performance goes to Houston, said Smith, because of its evocative quality.

"The reason her performance is so emotional is because of the nature singing has in her life," she said. "Every time she sings, it comes from deep inside her."

The most memorable of the worst versions, goes to Barr.

"Not only is she just straight out yelling, but she is making a mockery of the song," Smith said. "She is by far the worst I've ever heard."

THE BEST: Whitney Houston at 1991 Super Bowl Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969 Marvin Gaye at 1983 NBA All Star Game THE WORST: Roseanne Barr at 1990 Cincinnati Reds - San Diego Padres game Michael Bolton at Game 4 of the 2003 American League Championship Series at Fenway Park Hillary Clinton sings in Iowa on Jan. 27, 2007

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