- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

It’s one thing to try your voice against a tune that’s punked everyone from Macy Gray to Robert Goulet. And another to do it in a cavernous, echo-inducing concrete pit. And something else still to perform before thousands of noisy schoolchildren, plus a couple of camera crews and a few dozen fidgeting professional basketball players.

But to belt out a stirring rendition of the national anthem and manage all of the above while pretty much your entire office looks on?

Now that’s pressure.

“There’s a lot more pressure because you’ve got to go show up to work with them the next day,” Sharelle Smith said with a laugh. “If you bomb, the silence will probably kill you.”

Death by the water cooler? Smith is willing to risk it. A part-time singer and Washington Mystics receptionist, she jumped at the chance to croon the anthem before last week’s Washington-Charlotte game at MCI Center — even though an unusual 11:30 a.m. tip-off ensured a not-ready-for-prime-time audience of camp kids and co-workers.

The former, of course, more forgiving than the latter.

“Susan O’Malley was kidding me all morning, giving me the choke sign,” Smith said of the Washington Sports and Entertainment president, who also happens to be Smith’s boss. “She kept asking everyone, ‘Are you nervous? Are you nervous? I’m not nervous about it.’

“And I’m like, sure. You’re not nervous. Because you’re not doing it.”

When it comes to pregame performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” nerves are par for the course. With good reason. From the dawn’s early, er, night to the home of the, um, Braves (and Cubs, Astros, Marlins …), singing the anthem is harder than it looks. And sounds. In fact, it might be the toughest task in sports. Well, besides hitting a Randy Johnson fastball. Or snagging one of those CO2-propelled T-shirts.

After all, no song — with the possible exception of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” — has spawned a greater number of cringe-worthy covers, patriotic pomp giving way to deep and lasting embarrassment.

Think garbled lyrics. Botched vocals. Hambone improvs. Baffling blankouts.

Oh, and don’t bother with a hand over the heart. Settle for a spot just below the belt buckle (but more on Roseanne later).

“Some people think that because they can sing in the shower, they can give it a shot,” said former Florida Panthers presentation coordinator Angela Carrasco, who spent the last five years choosing anthem singers for the team. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Star-Mangled Banner

Tell that to track and field legend Carl Lewis. Famed poet and presidential gift inspiration Walt Whitman once wrote, “I hear America singing.” Had the bearded bard lived to take in Lewis’ tortured take on the anthem, he surely would have mused on the subsequent sounds of glass breaking, dogs baying and, in all likelihood, baby Jesus softly weeping.

At a 1993 Chicago Bulls-New Jersey Nets game, Lewis warbled his way to “rockets red glare” before his voice cracked in the manner of a pubescent burger-flipper over a drive-thru intercom. With a bewildered sellout crowd looking on and players on both benches struggling to keep straight faces, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist yelped “uh oh” — and then, inexplicably, continued to sing.

Adding insult to aural injury, Lewis promised fans “I’ll make up for it, now” before launching into a final stanza that saw him stumble over “spangled,” “banner,” “the” and “o’er” (twice). He later blamed the fiasco on a sore throat.

“Even the best will butcher this song,” Smith said.

Indeed, Lewis has plenty of Star-Mangled peers. Some of them accomplished vocalists. Unlike, say, Lewis. Before the 1965 Ali-Liston heavyweight title fight, for instance, Goulet contributed the now-immortal slip-up “by the dawn’s early night.”

At last year’s MLB All-Star Game, pop singer Anastacia did Goulet one better, belting “gave truth through the night” and “rocket’s great glare.” She later told radio host Howard Stern that she “totally knew” the words to the song, proving: a) she didn’t; and b) she doesn’t know the meaning of the word “totally,” either.

Singing at an Atlanta Falcons game, country crooner Johnny Paycheck took the anthem and, well, shoved it. Making up lyrics out of red-white-and-blue cloth, he sang, “Oh say, can you see, it’s cloudy at night, what so loudly we sang, at the daylight’s last cleaning.”

In his defense, the now-deceased Paycheck, a former cocaine user, may have been high at the time. Which, come to think of it, still doesn’t explain “daylight’s last cleaning.”

“Because we take it for granted and sing it by rote, the anthem is harder to remember than a song you’ve actually sat down and learned,” said Georga Osborne, a New York-based singer who has performed the anthem at a number of Cincinnati Reds games. “If you’re put on the spot, nervous, distracted by your surroundings, the first thing that’s going to go is your words.”

Words weren’t the problem during actress/comedienne Roseanne Barr’s 1990 performance at a San Diego Padres game. Just everything else. Offering up an anthem answer to William Shatner’s transcendently awful spoken-word take on the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” Barr butchered the tune with an off-key wail, then spit on the ground while grabbing her crotch.

Even former President Bush — a former baseball player and thus undoubtedly familiar with the occasional jockstrap tug — labeled Barr’s performance “disgraceful.”

“I’m an American, and that is my song, too,” Roseanne wrote in a 1994 book. “What you gotta be — Pavarotti [who sometimes lip-syncs, by the way], or Liza or Barbra to sing the national anthem?”

Choral grief

What makes “The Star-Spangled Banner” so difficult to sing, even for the likes of Liza and Barbra?

Better question: What doesn’t?

“It’s a terrible piece of music,” singer Frank Sinatra once said. “If you took a poll among singers, it would lose a hundred to nothing.”

Start with the song itself — which, in reality, is more or less a poem. And as such, perhaps better suited to the spoken-word likes of Shatner. Well, not really. But still.

Written by Georgetown poet and lawyer Francis Scott Key during the British bombing of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in 1814, the anthem is rife with tricky phrasing and stumble-worthy words.

“Perilous,” Smith said with a laugh. “Try saying that three times, let alone singing it. ‘Through the perilous fight’ is supposed to be one phrase. But it’s very hard to do.”

The music doesn’t help. Based on an old English drinking song, it spans a vocal range of an octave and a half. Which, in layman’s terms, is about as wide as the Grand Canyon.

The result? Many singers can’t hit both the high and the low notes. And even those who can sometimes struggle to find the right key.

“It’s difficult to place it in your voice and start off on the correct note,” said Marilyn Paige, a Philadelphia-based singer who has performed the anthem at sports events. “You want to start on a note that won’t make the low notes too low to hit or your high notes so shrill you give the people in the nosebleed section a hemorrhage.”

Given a chance to sing the anthem before President Clinton at a 1998 Democratic fund-raiser, Paige chose “America the Beautiful” instead. For his part, Clinton sang along.

“The anthem is so hideous to sing,” she said in an e-mail interview. “It’s no one’s favorite.”

Stadiums and arenas offer an additional measure of choral grief. Beyond a distracting echo effect — block it out or you’re doomed to Lewisian ignominy — there’s the stomach-churning pressure of singing before thousands of fans.

Flub a French art song during a recital, and maybe five people know the difference. Blow the anthem, on the other hand, and the whole building knows — along with the rest of the planet, thanks to the next edition of “SportsCenter.”

“It’s a daunting experience,” said Michael Goldberg, a Florida-based marketing executive who sang the anthem at a Panthers game. “There are 15,000 people staring only at you. You’re fearful of forgetting the words or of taking those bad liberties with the song.”

Like Goldberg, Panthers anthem singer Jill Minor had reason to fear. For her safety, that is. Three seasons ago, she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Florida’s opening night. Alongside an actual panther.

When the club set off indoor fireworks during “rockets’ red glare,” the big cat panicked.

“The panther jumped at her,” Carrasco said. “You saw the [animals] trainer come out and tackle the panther. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I almost killed our anthem singer.’ ”

Remarkably, Minor finished the song. More remarkably, she didn’t miss a note.

“We did get a little hate mail for that,” Carrasco said.

Star search

According to Lisa Mixon, the only thing tougher than singing the anthem is finding a credible anthem singer. Particularly if you’re not tone deaf. And hope to stay that way.

An intern last fall with a minor league hockey team in Redding, Pa., Mixon was the only person on staff with a background in choir. As such, she was asked to select anthem singers. Which meant listening to audition tapes — as many as 30 in a single week.

On the floor of her supervisor’s office, Mixon made three piles: Yes, maybe and absolutely not. The last two were larger than the first.

“It’s kind of like ‘American Idol,’ ” she said. “Some people think that they can sing. And they can’t. My boss would be like, ‘Turn that one off. It’s awful.’ Simon Cowell would have walked out the room. I’m surprised I didn’t lose my hearing.”

Damian Bass doesn’t have it much easier. The assistant director of game operations for the Mystics and Wizards is charged with booking more than 50 singers between the two teams, a process than begins as soon as league schedules are released.

“There are a lot of people who love their country, love the song and feel like that’s enough,” Bass said. “But if we get 10 tapes in a week, we consider maybe two.”

Sometimes, Bass gets lucky. One of the Wizards’ cheerleaders submitted an audition last season — and was good enough to be selected. Smith did the same and pinch-hit for a sick singer at the Mystics’ preseason opener. A handful of the team’s season-ticket holders also are anthem regulars.

Record companies occasionally offer the services of up-and-coming vocalists, the better to promote them. Over the last four years, pop stars Mya, Jessica Simpson and Destiny’s Child all have sung the anthem at MCI Center.

“The record labels were like, ‘Take a listen to Destiny’s Child, they’re going to be huge,’ ” Bass said. “And we’re like, ‘Yeah, right, we hear that from everybody.’ We just needed an anthem singer. It’s funny how that works out.”

Of course, professional talent doesn’t always produce professional results. In 2001, Gray was booed and heckled in her hometown of Canton, Ohio, after fumbling her way through the anthem before an NFL preseason game. Performing at the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day of the same year, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler angered veterans by changing the last line of the song to “the home of the Indianapolis 500.”

Tyler, a generally unapologetic fellow, quickly issued a public mea culpa.

“Fans don’t like too much change when it comes to the national anthem,” Bass said. “If you have a new concept or vision for the song, we don’t want this to be your stage.”

Athletes aren’t any different. Singing the anthem at the 1985 game that saw Cincinnati’s Pete Rose break Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record, Osborne noticed a strange expression on Rose’s face.

“I held my high note for a really long time,” said Osborne, who was a University of Cincinnati music graduate student at the time. “Pete was standing right there. He gave me this look.”

Osborne laughed.

“Either he was really impressed with it, or he wanted me to hurry up,” she added. “So he could get his free car.”

Given the perils of mixing sports and “The Star-Spangled Banner” — tough tune, tougher stage, a better-than-average-shot at public embarrassment — it’s no surprise that pop diva Whitney Houston lip-synced her much-loved rendition at the 1991 Super Bowl. Or that velvet-voiced singer Nat King Cole once advised, “If you do nothing else in your life, don’t ever sing the national anthem at a ball game.”

Nevertheless, Smith said, the reward of a pitch-perfect performance is well worth the risk.

“I just love the majesty of it,” said Smith, whose father and brothers served in the Air Force. “I get goose bumps. It makes me proud to be an American. It means a lot to me to sing that song.”

Back at MCI Center last week, that much was evident. Following her anthem performance, a beaming Smith made her way through the bowels of the arena, embracing everyone in sight — a well-wisher, a reporter, even the Mystics’ fur-covered mascot, Charm the Magic Rabbit.

And the best part about it? Not a choke sign in sight.

“Once you’re done, it’s like this whoosh of relief,” Smith said. “It’s like, ‘Thank you, God. I got through another one.’ ”

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