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The Word Is Beware When Singing Lyrics to National Anthem

June 25, 1988|PATRICIA GERBER | Times Staff Writer

Many audition, but few are chosen to sing the national anthem at Anaheim Stadium.

And for good reason. A surprising number of singers, to varying degrees, bungle the words.

And anything less than perfect is considered a strikeout by Corky Lippert, the assistant director of marketing who books anthem singers for Angels games. That could mean seesawing on banner or hitting anything but the traditionally accepted notes.

Perfectionism aside, a sampling of audition tapes turns up interesting interpretations of a song that was drummed into most of us in childhood.

One young lady introduced herself as a tour director, tooted on a pitch pipe, then proceeded to get lost on some of the words as she plodded through the song. "O'er the ramparts we watch'd" became "For the round part we watch." And "Gave proof through the night" turned into "to the night," followed by the grand finale, "Oh say thus that star-spangled banner."

One man didn't quite understand the audition concept. Or perhaps he was hoping he would be discovered, and his debut at Anaheim would lead to professional gigs--a nice dream that to anyone's knowledge hasn't come true for any of the amateurs who sing there. His audition tape started with an interminably long, slow version of "How Great Thou Art." After praising the Lord, he sang a juiced-up country song about "the prettiest girl in the whole wide world, the one who walked out on me."

But he never did get around to singing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

A baritone from a Whittier church had bombs "busting in air." A tenor, who sounded as if he had recorded his audition in a tunnel, had "the star-spangled banner yet weigh." And more than one warbler turned Oh say into Hooozay.

Many singers can't seem to resist playing around with the melody, rolling in and out of wave and brave or kicking into higher notes on free. And many don't realize that hail'd and watch'd are past tense.

Others must think that the more glitzy the accompaniment, the better their chances. One operatic female voice was introduced by no less than a 30-second drum roll, followed by clashing symbols and a marching band.

These anthem amateurs may mess up the words and take ample liberties with interpretation. But pity the poor professional--and there have been many--who trip up during a performance. Just ask Lippert, who was working at Capitol Records during the late 1950s and early '60s when the late Nat King Cole was recording there. Lippert remembers him coming into the office after appearing at a Dodgers World Series game.

"If you do nothing else in your life, don't ever sing the national anthem at a ballgame," Cole told her. In front of a packed stadium, he had forgotten the words.

Marty Balin, founder of the 1960s heavy-hitting rock band Jefferson Airplane, which evolved into Jefferson Starship, was booed off the Candlestick Park field in 1984 after forgetting the words before a San Francisco Giants game.

Before the 1964 Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay heavyweight title fight, Robert Goulet blanked out after "Oh say, can you see."

Wearing a black T-shirt, running shoes and his signature red-kerchief headband, country music star Willie Nelson sang an edited version of the anthem at the 1980 Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden. He left out "rockets' red glare," avoided the high notes and twisted a few phrases. Most of the delegates, especially those from Nelson's home state of Texas, didn't seem to mind, however.

One professional who used to sing the anthem before Golden State Warriors basketball games figured out how to beat the most difficult challenge in pregame sports and never be embarrassed by forgetting those famous words. He simply skipped the first stanza and sang the lesser-known second and third.

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