HALFTIME: Ranking the Best “Star Spangled Banner” Performances

Halftime is a recurring column by Christopher Kratzer ( professional wordsmith, amateur soccer player, and an enthusiast of unnecessarily complex music) that covers the intersection of pop culture and sports. Comments and suggestions for future topics are always welcome (unless they’re bad).

What do Colin Kaepernick and I have in common?

Neither of us can throw a back-shoulder fade and we both have issues with the national anthem.

As we approach Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to remind everyone that “The Star Spangled Banner” is actually a terrible song. Its difficult to sing (The range is an octave and a half), the text-setting is all wrong, it’s a waltz and the tune is derived from an English drinking song. Should we celebrate the tyranny of taxation and English rule by using their tune?

But maybe you’re into that sort of thing.

That being said, this post is not about how “America the Beautiful” should be our national anthem (it should); it’s about people who are making the best out of a terrible situation. In honor of Memorial Day, baseball, mediocre song writing and freedom, 4Down is proud to present its selections for the 5 best Star Spangled Banner performances of all time.

5: Marvin Gaye – 1983 NBA All-Star Game

Marvin Gaye may be the coolest artist of all time. The man oozes charisma. Accompanied only by a drum track, Gaye shows us that you can totally re-set “The Star Spangled Banner” and still successfully perform it without destroying the melody. R. Kelly could probably learn a thing or two from Gaye’s arrangement of the tune.

4: Dixie Chicks – Super Bowl XXXVII

I think the Dixie Chicks are wholly mediocre, but they nailed this version of our country’s national anthem. Many times, group renditions of the song fall flat but the Dixie Chicks put on a masterclass here, featuring tight harmonies and a restrained performance.

3: Gaither Vocal Band – The Internet

While this hasn’t been performed at any major sporting events, this version is too good to leave off the list. The Gaither’s are a guilty pleasure of mine. David Phelps’ unbelievably high tenor and Bill Gaither’s octave slide at the end of the song really set this version apart.

2: Chris Botti – Monday Night Football

While Jimi Hendrix’s performance may be the most famous instrumental rendition of the song, Botti’s virtuosic performance brings an emotion and beauty that offers a beautiful counterpoint to the common bombastic performances of the tune. Plus, it makes Reggie Wayne cry.

Also of note, Botti ends his performance on the third of the final chord. To my knowledge, he is the only performer to make that inspired choice.

1: Whitney Houston – Super Bowl XXV

Yeah, Yeah… I know. Everybody picks this performance, but few realize how revolutionary it was. Houston’s musical director Rickey Minor (Jay Leno’s Band Leader during his second stint as host of “The Tonight Show”) suggested changing the songs time signature from 3/4 to 4/4. This change, coupled with the arrangement’s jazz chords and gospel feel, set the tone for almost every popular rendition that’s been performed since.

NFL officials wanted her to alter the arrangement. “They thought the harmonies were too different, that it was sacrilegious,” Minor said.

Despite the league’s reservation, Bob Best, the producer of Super Bowl XXV’s pregame show, defended the rendition. “Their hang-up was that it wasn’t easy to sing to,” Best said. “I disagreed wholeheartedly.” What resulted was the most iconic performance in history. The recording of the rendition went platinum and reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100.

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