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Erin Tomlinson sings the national anthem at Parkview Field. More than 100 people audition to sing each season.

A banner performance

National anthem has hits, misses, myriad variations

Photos by Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Lyrics on the video screen help fans sing along. The national anthem has been performed since it was penned in 1814.

– Seated near home plate, his acoustic guitar across his lap on a bright October day in Detroit, 23-year-old, blind Puerto Rican singer Jose Feliciano performed the national anthem at Tiger Stadium.

It was a soft, yet jazzy rendition; soulful, but respectful. Although the lyrics were the same that Francis Scott Key penned in 1814, the melody was unconventional, even for the tumultuous year of 1968.

The backlash to the nationally-televised performance was nearly immediate. Most of the country hated it. And it would be years before a Feliciano song would hit the American charts again.

What those 99 seconds accomplished, however, was that Feliciano opened the door for other artists to defiantly march through so they could offer their own, unique flair to the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

In a Monday morning variation at Woodstock in 1969, Jimi Hendrix did nearly a four-minute, imaginative, riff-reverberating guitar solo in which the recording, before there was all-night radio programming, was used to open and close rock stations for the broadcast day.

Following a torturous version at a 1990 baseball game in San Diego, comedienne Roseanne Barr spit, then grabbed her crotch. Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler screeched the national anthem so poorly at the 2001 Indianapolis 500, he later apologized. And Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis even uttered “Uh oh” in the middle of his fingernails-on-chalkboard attempt prior to a 1993 NBA game.

But then there are the inspirational moments: Whitney Houston’s stirring rendition at the 1991 Super Bowl, or Portland NBA head coach Maurice Cheeks coming to the aid and singing with a shaken 13-year-old girl who forgot the words, or the band outside Buckingham Palace playing it after 9/11.

Considering it is sung or played on a daily basis at the majority of high school, college and professional sporting events in every state, it is hands down our country’s most-performed song.

And today, July 4, the anthem traditionally holds more meaning.

Key’s lyrics, a recollection of him witnessing British ships bomb Fort McHenry, was originally a four-stanza poem set to the melody of a popular British tune, “The Anacreontic Song,” which was also a favorite in America. The song’s popularity grew in the 19th century, and bands played it at community events. By 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that the song be played at military functions. Two years later it was played at the World Series, and by 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a law that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem of the United States.

And at ballgames and county fairs and civic gatherings, we’ve been singing it ever since – some better than others.

Far beyond Parkview Field’s green center field, a haze settles over the Fort Wayne skyline prior to a rare noon TinCaps home baseball game. American flags from the tops of distant buildings flutter left to right, as does Old Glory in right center field. And as the TinCaps’ starting players are poised at their infield and outfield positions, Vivian Wolf, her children Isaac, 9, to the left and Joy, 7, at her right, flawlessly sings the national anthem.

She has performed the anthem before, but this particular afternoon was special because it was her 40th birthday.

“A lot of people have a hard time singing it, but I don’t,” says Wolf, an alto. “I sing it a cappella for a reason. I sing it much lower. Because I don’t sing it in the original key it was written in, I’m able to do it.”

Along the way, Wolf passed the audition the TinCaps require each February and March.

“We usually have over 120 or so people come out and audition each year, and we have 70 home games,” says Abby Naas, TinCaps assistant director of marketing.

Heidi Busch, vice president-operations of the NBA Development League’s Mad Ants, isn’t as particular in seeking out anthem singers.

If a school buys a large block of tickets and wants to have its choir sing before the game, go to it. Three season-ticket holders always get a crack. And even former player, Chris Hunter, took the mic one night.

“It doesn’t bother me to have somebody not be great,” Busch says. “They’re singing the right words; the message is getting across. It’s only a minute and a half of the opening ceremonies. I don’t think anybody in the crowd is offended by a poor singer.”

But even the good singers can offend.

Getting his start when he was asked to perform the anthem at his cousin’s gymnastic meets at North Side High School in the early-1980s, City Council President Tom Didier, R-3rd, is also Fort Wayne’s “Mr. National Anthem.”

If there has been an event in town in which “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been sung, chances are Didier has done it, from TinCaps baseball to University of Saint Francis football to a trip into the lion’s den at a Democratic gathering.

“I’ve done it thousands and thousands of times,” says Didier, who has sung the national anthem at Fort Wayne Komets hockey games for the past 23 years. “The most intimidating time was when Muhammad Ali came to the Coliseum, and I was like a foot from him and he was walking out on the ice and right there next to me. I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”

With a baritone voice that can venture into the upper reaches, Didier would often end the anthem with an escalating scale – not to flaunt the pipes, but for effect.

“At the beginning, the first two or three years, I would jazz it up a little bit,” Didier says. “The first year I was doing the little trills, and I had a veteran come up to me. And he says, ‘You know, Tom, could you just sing it the way it was written, to give dignity and honor to our servicemen in the country?’ He says, ‘I would appreciate it as a veteran.’

“So I don’t add any jazz to it; I sing it the way it was written, and it seems to have worked for the past 23 years.”

But it can be a challenge, even for the most accomplished singer.

Long before Mike Nutter became president of the TinCaps, he spent time with the minor league baseball team in Nashville, Tenn., a place where there’s a singer for every corner; or is it the other way around?

During his stay in Nashville, Nutter begins listing celebrities at a charity softball game: Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Shania Twain. But before the game, somewhere between “O, say can you see” and “home of the brave,” country legend Winona Judd lost her place.

“And she stopped, and she says, ‘I would like to apologize, if you guys don’t mind,’ ” Nutter says. “And she came back, right then, and nailed it.

“We reached out to some performers we had connections to, and a lot of them would say, ‘I’ll come to the game to throw a first pitch,’ or ‘I’ll come out and sign autographs. I’ll wear your jersey. But I’ll go ahead and pass on the anthem because I’m comfortable singing my stuff. It’s not an easy thing to do.’ ”