The Ten Greatest National Anthem Performances of All Time
The Star Spangled Banner deserves to be sung, not faked.
Lip syncing the National Anthem is grossly disrespectful. It’s fraudulent. It’s a mockery. Any performer who refuses to actually sing the anthem live should be debunked and the invitation should be withdrawn.
Unfortunately, lip syncing has become increasingly common at big events. Even more baffling, some people even find faking the anthem to be acceptable.
I strongly disagree.
Our National Anthem deserves better.
At the very least, The Star Spangled Banner deserves to be honored with authenticity.
* * *
When I was in college, I dated the daughter of famed Dallas trumpeter and jazz musician Tommy Loy. He was famous for performing the National Anthem at all the Dallas Cowboys home games played from 1966-1989. Once, Loy was even given the extraordinary honor of performing The Star Spangled Banner as a soloist, just prior to the start of Super Bowl V, played in Miami.
Loy’s renditions of the anthem were always timeless masterpieces. Prior to each game — at the Cotton Bowl and later at Texas Stadium — Loy would be introduced to the crowd. As fans stood and removed their hats, he walked alone out onto the field. He always had his shiny silver cornet tucked beneath his arm. Then, when the crowd fell silent, he blasted away with a perfectly pitched and timed anthem. He never missed a note. Loy performed 22 years of trumpet solos at Dallas home games. I witnessed a great many of them.
I only met Tommy Loy once, but I think knowing his daughter and being at their home in University Park a few times gave me a greater appreciation for what the National Anthem means to those who are given the rare honor of performing it. That honor should be recompensed appropriately with real voices and instruments.
Imagine how ridiculous Tommy Loy would have looked pretending to blow into his brass cornet. Not that such a travesty would ever have happened. Loy had way too much self-respect and class to fake his musical ability.
* * *
The most recent Presidential Inauguration included a moment of absolute disgrace.
Beyonce, the chosen “singer” for the historic occasion, lip synced her way through the entire performance, and then resorted to some lame-ass excuses for faking her singing and misleading tens of millions who saw it.
Had I attended the Presidential Inauguration and known the performer was lip syncing, I would have refused to stand. It doesn’t merit my respect.
NO LIP SYNCED VERSION OF THE NATIONAL ANTHEM SHOULD BE DIGNIFIED BY STANDING.
Have a look at the video clips posted on this page. If a four-year-old child can sing the National Anthem for real, then a Grammy Award winning artist should be able to, as well. If a blind man can write and sing a thoroughly original version as you will see as one of my very favorite selections, then a performer who has sold 100 million records worldwide should be able to do the same. If countless other performers — including many amateurs — can sing without musical accompaniment or rehearsals, everyone given the honor should make the same effort.
Otherwise, get off the field. Remove yourself from the stage. Stay in the recording studio where you belong.
* * *
To say the least, The Star Spangled Banner is challenging to sing. There’s plenty of proof of this. Over the years, some of our popular singers have forgotten the lyrics. They’ve crashed and burned trying to hit elusive high notes. Some have even butchered the anthem beyond recognition.
But quite a few performers have raised the bar higher than ever before. A select few have even been so bold as to interpret the song in their own unique way, and performed the anthem as it’s never been done before (or since).
What follows are my top ten choices for the very best renditions of the National Anthem. Each performance is accompanied by a video link.
In order to make the cut, my criteria was the performance had to include something special. The rendition had to be original in some way. Obviously, each of these performances required extraordinary talent.
And so — here’s my top ten of all time:
Important Note: Unless you have decent earphones or can turn up the volume quite loud, don’t even bother clicking the video links. Each of these renditions deserves to be heard as it was originally performed live and anything less than total concentration on the music is a waste of time.
10. Frank Pizarro (2010) — Major League Baseball American League Championship Series (Game 2) in New York, NY
Immediately following the 9/11 tragedy, New York sports franchises began celebrating the extraordinary dedication and sacrifices of the city’s policemen and firefighters by offering them frequent opportunities to sing the National Anthem prior to ballgames. Over the years, many remarkable renditions have been performed — many of the very best done at Yankees and Mets home games. One of the most memorable ever was by Frank Pizarro, with the FDNY. Everything about this performance is authentic — from the uniform, to the sweat on his brow, to the love and devotion of country, to the crowd’s appreciation for this man’s line of work. As this shows, one need not be a celebrity or a professional singer to deliver a great performance.
9. Whitney Houston (1991) — Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, FL
Many fans like this version of the National Anthem far more than I do. Some even select it as the best performance ever. I won’t debate the pros and cons. But given so many people list this as their top choice, I’ll include it in my Top Ten. Before she ventured down the path of self-destruction which ultimately led to her own death, Houston was one of the world’s most popular singers and performers. This rendition was done just prior to the 1991 Super Bowl between Buffalo and the N.Y. Giants. The electricity of the moment was bolstered by the game being delayed by one week, due to the start of a war and the events known as Desert Storm. America was certainly in a patriotic mood that day and Houston lived up to her star billing and delivered what was expected. Note: There are reports this version was lip-synced. If so, it would be dashed from the list.
8. Steven Tyler (2001) — Indianapolis 500
Not everyone will agree with this choice. You either love this or hate it. Tyler has performed several versions of the National Anthem over the years, but this was his very first — performed in front of nearly 200,000 race fans in Indianapolis. To Tyler’s credit, he does this completely on his own and doesn’t seem to mind the risks of offending a more conservative audience (race fans) than he’s accustomed to seeing at Aerosmith rock concerts. I’m including this rendition because its risky and somewhat risque, as well.
7. Patti LaBelle (2007) — U.S. Open Tennis at Forest Hills, NY
I love Patti LaBelle. She’s everything a singer should be — completely willing to lay it all on the line whenever she takes center stage. This performance at the 2007 U.S. Open (Tennis) was typical of her musical career as flamboyant, over-the-top performer with an amazing vocal range. Does she miss a few notes? Yeah? Is every line perfectly crafted? No. Is this among the most “human” performances you will ever witness? Yes. What’s truly memorably here is, when listening, you’re not quite sure what’s coming next. Every note seems to carry some suspense. Traditionalists won’t like this scratchy “screaming” rendition similar to Seven Tyler’s, but I think the artist’s personality comes through in the song just as it should, in addition to her obvious love for the song and intensity while onstage. LaBelle has performed the National Anthem countless times in arenas all over the country. She clearly deserves a spot on this list.
Note: The U.S. Open footage is unavailable, so I’ve taken a similar performance by LaBelle from a boxing mach instead, which can be seen above.
6. Four-Year-Old Jillian Harris (2010) — NBA Indiana Pacers Home Opener
There’s something magical about hearing a child’s voice. But add the weight of the National Anthem and a live rendition at the Indiana Pacer’s season opener, and the moment becomes even more memorable. This adorable little girl is only four-years-old. But she manages to nail it. Notice who quiet the crowd is during the song until the very end, when he gets a huge ovation. Jillian Harris demonstrates that the National Anthem knows no boundaries, at least when it comes to age. Hopefully this moment might instill in other children that the anthem is not just a song, but a symbol. It’s reassuring to see someone so young honor the song as it deserves.
I can’t resist taking one more shot — if a four-year-old child can sing live without any rehearsals, shouldn’t Beyonce be able to do the same?
5. NHL All-Star Game (1991) — Chicago, IL
Traditionalists will love this rarely-seen rendition of the National Anthem. Emotions were particularly high during early 1991 when the Gulf War had just begun. I suspect that many Americans felt just a little bit guilty attending a sporting event while the United States was about to engage in the uncertainties of war (now, it’s pretty much taken for granted). So, the anthem allowed everyone to be part of the fight — even if it was just symbolic and lasted two minutes. This special moment took place at the old Chicago Stadium, which was the site of the NHL All-Star Game. What’s truly memorable is the crowd’s reaction to the anthem. The 20,000 or so in attendance cheer from start to finish — making this one of the most highly unusual anthems ever witnessed.
4. Various Artists (Instrumentals)
I couldn’t make up my mind which of several instrumental versions belong on this list. Quite a few solos are worthy of re-watching. What impresses me about each of these rare renditions is they’re unorthodox, and even a bit risky. Have a glance at some of the anthem’s better instrumentals over the years:
Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers) — Performs a highly-unusual drum solo at an NBA Detroit Pistons game.
The great guitarist Slash (Guns and Roses) — Performs a Hendrix-like solo at an NHL Los Angeles Kings game.
Legendary jazz trumpeter Al Hirt at a New Orleans Saints game during the 1970’s:
Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley performs an electric guitar solo prior to a 2009 Kansas City Chiefs game. For insufferable Chiefs fans, this was probably the highlight of the day.
3. Lady Antebellum (2011) — 9/11 Ten Year Anniversary….Dallas at NY Jets NFL Game played at The Meadowlands, NJ
This video clip runs a bit longer than usual, because it includes the entire televised opening which leads up to the National Anthem. Emotions were especially high on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Everyone knew New Yorkers would honor this occasion and do something in a big way. But I’m not sure anyone could have expected such a marvelous five-minute opening to the 2011 NFL season, combined with such a fitting tribute to 9/11 and what that date means to our nation. From the opening monologue with Robert De Niro, to Taps, to the bagpipes blasting Amazing Grace, to country artists Lady Antebellum giving their final touches, this is among The Star Spangled Banner’s most beautiful moments ever.
2. Jose Feliciano (1968) — World Series of Baseball (Game 5) at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, MI
This is an extraordinary moment in history. Many people mistakenly believe that legendary guitarist Jimmy Hendrix’s memorable hard-rock version of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969 (which took place nine months after this performance) was the first “alternative” version of the anthem. But during the 1968 baseball World Series played in Detroit, a new and relatively unknown singer named Jose Feliciano performed the National Anthem as a folksy ballad. Hearing this now, it might seem tame. But keep in mind how traditional the anthem had always been up to this point. Doing it any other way was sacrilege. Afterward, Feliciano was tarnished somewhat by this performance. In fact, he wasn’t asked to sing the anthem again anywhere for another 35 years. Towards the end of the song which was broadcast live on NBC, listen to the crowd’s reaction — which is a mix of anger and confusion. Feliciano was undoubtedly way ahead of his time with this wonderful re-working of the song. I think it’s performed beautifully. It embodies the true essence of freedom — not only as a symbol of patriotism but the means of expression for an artist with a new idea as to how to perform an old song. Brave, bold, beautiful, and memorable.
RAW LINK TO B/W VERSION OF FELICIANO’S RENDITION HERE
Note: Oddly enough, the artist who performed the National Anthem in Detroit the day before was none other than Marvin Gaye, who chose to do a traditional version of the song. Fifteen years later, he would make history with his own classic rendition.
1. Marvin Gaye (1983) — NBA All-Star Game at The Forum, Inglewood, CA
I was attending college living in a small apartment when the 1983 NBA All-Star Game came on television. I had the set tuned in to the game. The jazzy backbeat began slowly. I actually remember stopping dead in my tracks and my jaw hitting the floor when I heard this performance. It was the most astounding version of National Anthem in history, performed by one of the coolest musicians on the planet at the height of his career. Even now, thirty years later, this version stands the test of time. Not only is the rendition highly unusual, it’s has the quintessential Marvin Gaye style and delivery. When the fans at the Los Angeles Forum spontaneously start clapping in complete unison towards the very end of the song and then let out an enormous cheer as Gaye hit the final note, everyone watching knows we’ve all just seen something that probably won’t ever be topped. This is the best of the best.
Note: Link above may require double clicking.
Marc Anthony at the NBA Finals in Miami (2006)
Guitarist Marty Cintron (No Mercy) performing acoustic guitar solo at Orange Bowl in Miami (2006)
Mariah Carey at NASCAR (2001)
Carrie Underwood at Baseball All-Star Game in Philadelphia (2006)
Nsync at Shea Stadium at Baseball World Series in Queens, NY (2000)
A Final Note: The magnificent Alica Keys is scheduled to sing the National Anthem during Sunday’s Super Bowl. I expect this performance might make a future updated list, based on her excellent 2004 rendition.
nothing other than Marvin Gaye could ever be #1 in this category…still gives me chills
Marvin Gaye was the best singer I ever had heard beatulful voice which he could change tones as well heavenly voice my favorite singer all time
I thought Smokey Robinson’s performance at Fenway in 1986 was really inspiring – he intertwined the Star Spangled Banner with the much more beautiful, poetic and aspirational America The Beautiful. His voice was beautiful, and the whole performance really moving!
This list omits the Dixie Chicks at the 2003 Super Bowl.
NOLAN REPLIES: I went and listened to this on YouTube. You’re right. It belongs. Might have to ammend this in 2014.
Nothing the Dixie Chicks have done deserves to be on a Best Ever List…. ever.
what about leann Rimes or Carrie underwood?
I recently read something that said that Whitney Houston’s performance was lip synced. :-/
NOLAN RELIES: Yet another reason I don’t like Whitney Houston.
It was, which is why I’m surprised it made this list. Her “people” tried to smooth it over by saying she is singing live, but her mic was turned off. In any case, what was heard that day at was a recording. So, if in the literal sense, they’re saying it wasn’t a lip synch performance, well it wasn’t exactly a live performance, either – just a live appearance.
Personally, I don’t believe she sang live into a dead mic, either, because if she had, at some points we would have heard a doubled vocal (example of a doubled vocal: Diana Ross’ lead vocal on the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”)
The applause during the national anthem for Blackhawks games continue to today. See this from the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals or the next home game from the United Center.
NOLAN REPLIES: I didn’t know this was a tradition in Chicago. Thanks.
You made me cry, Nolan. I won’t tell you which one.
It did not go unnoticed that you referred to the World Series as the “World Series of Baseball,” much as when I wrote for the Harvard Crimson as an undergraduate we used “President of the United States” to avoid confusion with President Derek C. Bok.
NOLAN REPLIES: I’m not a fan of baseball, particularly the way it’s structured and run. It’s far behind football in popularity and continues to decline. My usually refer to the World Series of Baseball as a stab at the game, as well as to differentiate from the WSOP, which is what many of my readers might think of when I simply write “World Series.”
My guess is the Jose Feliciano story brought a tear to your eye. It did to mine.
NOLAN REPLIES: List appllies to sporting events only.
Nolan, nowadays the extreme audience participation during the National Anthem takes place at ALL Chicago sporting events. The tradition began, I believe, with Chicago Blackhawks games back when they played in the now demolished Chicago Stadium. It was a notoriously loud building to begin with, and the building literally shook during the National Anthem. I remember my first time there. I thought the stadium was going to collapse. The sound was deafening. No way you could hear the person next to you.
Currently the tradition continues at Cubs games and Bears games. Even though these are outdoors, you would be amazed at how loud it actually gets.
Someone else (Russ Fox, I think) mentioned this as well. Strange that Chicago would be the lone city (that I’m aware of) that pracices this tradition. That said, I do think the night sseemed a little more special 20 years ago, with all the signs and banners, etc.
Thanks for the clarification.
I’m not a big fan of lip syncing performances in general, but I don’t have nearly as strong a reaction to it as you do. Let me ask you a question. When I played high school sports, we never had a live singer and rarely had a school band to play. All the national anthems were recordings, as they are at the Olympics and, by default, at events such as minor league sports. Is this wrong? Is this really that different than lip syncing? Would it have been offensive to have Whitney Houston’s recorded performance play at a sporting event if she weren’t standing on stage? Personally, I think lip-syncing and auto-tune have really damaged live musical performance, but I don’t think it’s, to use the most “Nolan” of words, a “disgrace”. It’s just my preference. Some people think the dancing is important. I don’t.
You ask about recorded anthems at smaller events (high school, small colleges, etc.). Of course, I have no objection to this at all. I take issue with extraordinarily special occasions — such as a Super Bowl or Presidential Inauguration where being asked to sing the anthem is a great honor. It would be ludicrous for anyone to expect the same high standards for more common and casual events.
I’ve made my point already about this (I hope), but the National Anthem and the public deserves better. It’s as simple as that. Moreover (your favorite word), to be subjected to outright fraud and fakery is indeed a DISGRACE.
If I ever find an anthem is being faked, I will NOT stand. I will also heckle the faud “singer” and encourage outright rebellion.
Beautiful performances! I also like the national anthem performed by the band Hanson on the NBA for the OKC Thunder game:HANSON National Anthem
Simple, with their good harmonies.
I think there is another notable one that should be on this list.. Destiny Child’s performed an outstanding version for the NBA… here is a youtube link.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1MGs5jGJRg
When I first read your article I thought you were too much the purist but when I saw your choices I more fully understand your point. If you want it live then you must put up with occasional errors, and accept them as part of the joy and excitement of live music which by your choices you so obviously do. Everyone thinks they are Simon Cowell these days and are much to hard on live performers. Also audiences act like they will stone a singer for forgetting the words. Singers are caught between those who insist it be sung live and others who will mob them if they make an error. It bothers me when people insist that it can only be sung one way because that would limit who could sing it and I want to hear that song sung in many different voices. Most red blooded Americans want to hear the song belted and not everyone can belt or should try. I absolutely loved Steve Tyler’s version. That was the first time I ever heard it. I don’t understand how anyone could “hate” it and love being an American. It made me cry too because I believed him. That was from his heart. I don’t want the song to become so sacrosanct that only the talented few can sing and only a certain way. I appreciate your purist thinking more than the other kinds of purist.
I think refusing to stand goes too far though. We are standing for the Anthem and for each other as Americans, not for the singer and certainly not for his performance. Many people won’t understand why you are not standing and it could cause pain. If National Anthem or the Hallelujah Chorus are played publicly either live, lip sync, in or out of tune or even on a tinny recording- I will stand. I hope you reconsider that pledge. You can always tear the singer apart later in print.
Yes. The anthem is very, very difficult to sing. Most people cannot sing through the words without forgetting them or messing them up. They are not colloquial speech and are not easy to remember. Lip-synching respects the anthem in the desire to perform it well. With all of the voice modification that is used in performing and recording, lip-synching is hardly fraud. It is completely disrespectful of your country to behave immaturely during its anthem.
13 YO Natalie Gilbert, looses it, words don’t come out and Mo Cheeks, then coach of the NBA Portland trail Blazers gets by far the best assist of his career. No it isn’t sung the greatest and forgeting the words probably takes this out of consideration but still ought to be an honorable mention.
Incredible that MY number 1 choice isn’t even on the list! Kristin Dawn Chenoweth at a Giants’ Game, with an unbeatable range!
The original video of the Cactus Cuties ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKCVS57j284 ) still gives me goose bumps.
But for the most tears and cheers, I give the nod to Ray Charles’ version of “America The Beautiful”, music by church organist Samuel A. Ward and lyrics by poet Catherine Lee Bates.
Thanks for including Jumbo in your list. I concur.
Does anybody have copy of one tommy Loy’s Super Bowl trumpet rendtions or of him playing an at cowboy stadium for22 years
You realize the fans ALWAYS cheer the whole way through the National Anthem in Chicago for hockey games, right? Nothing “unusual” about it as you called it.
Sandi Party gave an awesome live performance in 1986 of TSSB!!
MOST starts sing the national anthem WRONG… there are only 3 notes in the CORRECT melody of the word “banner” (as in “ban-ner-er yet wave”) but so many singers add an extra note (“ba-a-ner-er yet wave”) and it drives me nuts because it is wrong and they should know better!!! C’mon, stars, sing it RIGHT!!!!
Lillian Garcia’s version on 9/13/11 is my favorite of all time. She sang it 2 days after 9/11 happened with tears in her eyes and she nailed it. Yes it was a pro wrestling event, not technically a sport, but her version meant so much more then a way to kick off an event.
I always liked Huey Lewis and the News at the World Series Giants vs. A’s the earthquake series. Four part harmony, very original.