Encore

Oh Say, Can You Sing?

''The Star-Spangled Banner'' is a pop hit -- A look at the history of our national anthem

Every so often, a singer comes along and reclaims ''The Star-Spangled Banner.'' Now, with her stirring Super Bowl rendition, it's Whitney Houston's turn. Her timing couldn't be better: patriotism, thanks to the Iraqi war, is high, and Francis Scott Key's 1814 ode to the flag is about to celebrate its 60th anniversary as our national anthem.

The Gulf war fervor has turned Houston's performance into an unlikely, overnight pop hit. Arista Records will soon release it as both a cassette single and a video, and radio stations are already giving this ''Banner'' heavy airplay. In fact, Houston could catapult the anthem into the Top 40, but she wouldn't be the first to do that: Woodrow Wilson's daughter Margaret hit No. 7 with it in 1915 (when charts were based on sheet-music sales), and two years later, Irish tenor John McCormack made the tune No. 1. ''They say the national anthem is one of the hardest songs to sing,'' Houston said after the Super Bowl, ''but it gets a whole lot easier to use those notes when you think about the many men and women risking their lives in the Middle East.''

Plenty of performers have bungled the ''Banner,'' though — most recently, Roseanne Barr with her crotch-grabbing performance last summer. In 1984 Jefferson Starship vocalist Marty Balin got booed off the field at San Francisco's Candlestick Park when he forgot the words. Robert Goulet blanked out after ''Oh say, can you see...'' at the Muhammed Ali-Sonny Liston fight in Lewiston, Maine, in 1965 and wound up humming the rest. THe most unforgettable version of all: country warbler Johnny Paycheck singing about ''the daylight's last cleaning'' to a flock of Atlanta Falcon's fans.

But audiences have also heard some fabulous anthems. Jose Feliciano's 1968 World Series version gave the ''Banner'' a Latin sound, though viewers awarded the singer decidedly mixed reviews. A year later, Jimi Hendrix buzzed Woodstock with his electrified rendition at dawn. And Marvin Gaye's soulful treatment at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game left the fans screaming for more.

Hard to memorize, next to impossible to sing, ''The Star-Spangled Banner'' didn't have an easy passage to become the national anthem. President Wilson asked Congress to give the song the nod — a father's pride? — but the legislators took 15 years to comply. However, if Rep. Andrew Jacobs (D-Ind.) gets his way, ''America the Beautiful'' will replace it. Jacobs, who plans to reintroduce a bill to that effect, frets because the ''Banner'' melody is borrowed from a British drinking ditty called ''To Anacreon in Heaven.'' Anacreon is ''the god of wine and, shall we say, fooling around,'' Jacobs says. Fair enough, but who can remember a hit version of ''America the Beautiful''?


TIME CAPSULE: Feb. 15-21, 1931
Bela Lugosi's Dracula puts the bite on movie audiences while Charlie Chaplin brightens the Depression with his new comedy, City Lights. The best-selling novel is Vicki Baum's dark Grand Hotel; and Amos 'n' Andy rules the radio.

Originally posted Feb 15, 1991 Published in issue #53 Feb 15, 1991 Order article reprints
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