Television made sports championships, such as the Super Bowl and World Series, into international entertainment extravaganzas and the role of music in sports has grown alongside. Musicians had long helped entertain, excite (and control) sports crowds since at least the time of the U.S. Civil War, when “The Star-Spangled Banner” first lofted across a baseball diamond.
Singing the Banner not only celebrates the pride of America in the games it invented, but it offers a ritual that unites opposing fans in song, emphasizing the ideals of community and sportsmanship as two teams prepare to lay everything on the line in a passionate struggle to be crowned best of the best—that is, before they try to destroy one another. The Banner is the calm before combat.
Pop superstars are typically chosen to perform the Banner at championships. Their appearances offer international exposure and catastrophic career danger. Forgetting or mixing up the words as Christina Aguilera did before 2011’s Super Bowl XLV can drag the artist’s reputation through the dirt. A triumph, however, inspires lifetime adoration and can sell millions of records. For pro sports leagues, pop superstars attract potential new fans to the game and, praised or attacked, their performances inspire conversation among fans for weeks, if not for years through YouTube views.
The list here presents my persona favorite Banner performances from the worlds of football and baseball. Suggest your own favorites below…
Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, Florida (1991)
Whitney’s performance may be the most beloved of all time. Performed with full orchestral accompaniment and punctuated by an F-16 flyover, her rendition galvanized a nation that had been suddenly (and as it turned out triumphantly) brought into war in Iraq only weeks before. Her expressive arrangement makes use of an extra beat in each measure, giving the anthem a more spiritual feel.
Faith Hill at Super Bowl XXXIV (2000)
Hill’s personal joy and the devotion evident in her voice brought universal praise for this performance, which features bagpipe accompaniment.
Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All Star Game
Gaye at first confuses the crowd with a soulful performance against only an electronic drum beat. He substitutes a melody of his own invention, yet his patriotic, almost religious, intensity recruits the crowd and by the end they clap along with the beat and scream in appreciation.
José Feliciano at 1968 World Series in Detroit
A year before Hendrix performed the Banner at Woodstock, Feliciano stirred national controversy with his bluesy tribute to the nation at the 1968 World Series in Detroit. The Puerto Rican chart superstar intended the rendition with its new melody as a thank you to his country. Some viewers wondered how a “foreigner” could be featured at such an emblematic American event and the controversy, according to Feliciano himself, damaged his career in terms of record sales and radio play for years. (I’m wondering if this is one of the first 4/4 time renditions in sports?)
Jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval at the 2009 Orange Bowl
Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, a U.S. citizen who had successfully sought asylum in escaping the Castro regime in Cuba to pursue his jazz career, offers a crowd stirring tribute to his adoptive home at the 2009 Orange Bowl with his signature stratospheric high notes for the final phrase.
Sixth Man Jerry Stackhouse at 2007 Dallas Mavericks Game
Stackhouse wins the award for best player performance with his rendition that seems a combination of the original tune and Gaye’s soulful stylings.
U.S. Navy / Air Force / Military / Coast Guard Academy Choirs and U.S. Army Herald Trumpets at Super Bowl XXXIX (2005)
Having the men and women of America’s military present this especially sonorous rendition is particularly fitting and escapes the commercialism of using a popular superstar. The herald trumpets join after the lyric of the first verse is complete to echo the final lyric with brass and drum fireworks. Ironically, this echo of the final “chorus” harks back to the anthem’s original 1814 arrangement.
Suggest links to your own favorites in the comment section below!