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STYLE & CULTURE | HAS COMPANION BOX/GRAPHIC ET-BAKERBOX30
Bob's suggested head: Oh, say can you sing

Oh, say can you sing?

The national anthem has defeated the best, but that doesn't deter wannabes at a Clippers tryout.

November 04, 2002|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

"If you do nothing else in your life, don't ever sing the national anthem at a ballgame."

-- Nat King Cole, after a flawed attempt

"As we sta-and here waiting / For the game to be-gin....

-- Albert Brooks' opening lyric in

"Rewriting the National Anthem"

Sonia and Sabrina Millen have prepared all their lives for a chance to slay this beast. The 16-year-old twins have been harmonizing since they were 3 months old. They've taken on the beast at lesser venues -- minor league baseball and basketball games in their native New Jersey. But this is the big time. This is why their parents moved the family to L.A. in June, to get the sisters a shot in the spotlight.

They're about to try to slay the beast of public performance challenges in front of 10,672 L.A. Clipper fans in Staples Center.

First, though, let's go back 2 1/2 weeks, to a public audition at which the Clippers searched for that rarest of human beings: someone who can sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" without messing up.

If you've ever wondered just why it is so hard to master Francis Scott Key's poem of battle, written during the War of 1812, and its melody, taken from a traditional English drinking song, this audition is the place to be. One by one, more than 80 contestants compile a textbook of all the elements that have to jell -- and almost never do -- if a singer is to conquer the national anthem. They struggle to achieve the right pitch (start low because you have to climb a 1 1/2-octave mountain), diction (you've got "night," "light," "twilight," "bright" and "fight"), timing, pace, harmony and memory. (Robert Goulet is still mocked for singing "by the dawn's early night" at a title fight in '65.)

The Millen twins, and most of the others who attended the open-air audition on a recent Saturday at 10 a.m., fantasized that they would be discovered at a Clipper game by a season ticket-holding record industry exec.

"It's an appeal to the gatekeepers," says Angela Moore Hodge, a physician's assistant and occasional performer under the name Angela Denise, who is the first contestant to arrive -- at 5 a.m. She is confident about her chances. "All you gotta do is feel it. And I'm an American." Jessica Leyva, 15, is there because her mother went out and got the sheet music and CD the night before. A.J. Harwin, a recent law school graduate, is there because he did some singing in college. Patrick Minner is there because he'd sung the anthem at a Portland Trailblazers game.

Most national anthems are booked through professional connections, but Laura Martin, the Clippers' promotion and events coordinator, figures that, in a town dripping with talent and wannabes, she can pluck a few talented wannabes out of a crowd and garner a little goodwill for L.A.'s longest-suffering sports franchise at the same time.

Martin, an anthem traditionalist (she minored in music at East Texas Baptist University), instructs contestants to finish their a cappella versions within 90 seconds, a workmanlike pace. Many fail this test because they are inclined to soulfully stretch a handful of key syllables. Their stubbornness reflects the lasting effect of Whitney Houston's dramatic gospel-influenced performance at Super Bowl XXV in 1991, sung during the Gulf War and re-released as a single after Sept. 11, 2001. It is also a reminder of how different Houston's vocal range is from everyone else's.

Some contestants are too operatic. Some swallow a crucial word. Some change keys during the song (usually at "and the rockets' red glare"), unable to follow the challenging range. Or they're too shrill. Or their voices crack. Or they call the stars (instead of the stripes) "broad." Or they groan, "Woooa'hhh, say does that star-spangled banner" instead of the proper phrase, "Oh, say...." Or they sing "for" the land of the free instead of "o'er." Or they slow the pace so drastically -- one woman sings it in 2:03 -- that no virtue can compensate.

(There have been longer versions, and one is arguably the most flamboyant national anthem ever sung: At the 1983 National Basketball Assn. all-star game at the Forum, Marvin Gaye turned the crowd into swaying, hand-clapping churchgoers with a 2:35 arrangement modeled on his idiosyncratically languid R&B style, with only the slightest hint of the song's true rhythm.)

These flaws make the rare complete version even more powerful to the audition audience, which consists of the contestants and a handful of friends and family.

They are awed by the eighth contestant, a grade-school girl whose command of the song brings applause the moment after she cuts loose on "the land of the freeee...." The 22nd candidate, a young man in a yellow University of Michigan football jersey and baggy jeans, draws shouts and screams too, for his precision. The Millen twins go 37th, dressed in matching red sweaters, trading solo lyrics, then bonding on the back end of the song, nailing the ending as if it were an Olympic gymnastic routine.

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