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National anthem singers are in a league of their own

The Dodgers go for star power and a constantly shifting lineup. The Angels field mostly unknown, family-oriented acts.

October 17, 2009|Reed Johnson

O say can you see . . . a rock god plucking away at "The Star-Spangled Banner" on electric guitar? Or, farther down the 5 Freeway, a 12-year-old girl belting out Francis Scott Key's greatest hit?

The Major League Baseball championship series is underway, which means that for the Dodgers and Angels it's time to pack your starting rotation with aces. But we're not talking pitchers, we're talking national anthem performers.

Taste in how the national anthem is performed, as in hot dogs, tends to vary from ballpark to ballpark. The Dodgers like to go for star power, varying the lineup constantly and surprising their fans by keeping the names of performers under wraps until they take the field.

"As an organization we tend to perform a more traditional version of the anthem, although we understand that sometimes artists like to add a little twist to that," said Josh Rawitch, the Dodgers' vice president of communications. "As long as it's in good taste."

Before Game 1 between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, country star Billy Ray Cyrus (Miley's dad) regaled the Chavez Ravine faithful with his achy breaky rendition of the tune.

During their first-round playoff matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Dodgers brought in saxophonist Michael Lington and guitar hero Slash, who earned his heavy-metal bona fides playing for the likes of Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver. Slash served up an electrified blues-wail, but otherwise faithful, solo interpretation.

The Angels generally opt for family-oriented acts over celebrity. Young artists have proved to be especially popular at the Orange County ballpark.

"There's something about a kid singing with incredible voice quality, with the range and with the ability to perform it," said Peter Bull, manager of entertainment and production for the Angels.

Youthful fan favorites Taylor Longbrake, 12, and Tori Kelly, 16, have been asked to do the honors for the team's American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees.

When the series moves from the Bronx to Anaheim, Taylor is slated to perform Monday and Tori on Tuesday. The girls, whose families are Angels fans, performed several times during the regular season and during the teams' opening-round playoff series against the Boston Red Sox.

"We won both of those games and so we're thinking, 'Let's try the same rotation,' " Bull said.

"They're part of the team," Heather Capizzi, the Angels' entertainment supervisor, said of the girls, "so I think their passion comes through when they sing."

Several finalists from "American Idol" have sung for the ball club, which finds about 75% of its young performers through Southern California voice trainer Billy Purnell, Capizzi said. The team relies on a core group of about 20 to 25 performers for its regular-season games.

By contrast, the Dodgers and other teams try to book a different artist for each of their 80-plus home games every season.

Both L.A.-area teams employ senior in-house entertainment supervisors to pick most performers and review unsolicited audition tapes from the public. Among those who have scored an invitation from the Dodgers over the years was former Times Publisher David Hiller.

The Angels annually receive about 200 submissions, which they require to be sung a cappella and in a traditional manner, and at no longer than 1 1/2 minutes. One of the more unusual submissions came a few years ago from a Neil Diamond impersonator.

"We're very conservative," said Bull, who estimated that "99%" of the time, the anthems at Angels games are sung without accompaniment. "We don't like a stylized version because for us a stylized version becomes more about the singer than the song itself, and the song deserves respect."

Bull said that Angels performers aren't paid, but they do receive four premium game tickets, a special discount at the club's team store and a $20 gift certificate. There are no additional perks, Bull wrote in an e-mail, "except the honor of performing our national anthem."

Rawitch said that sometimes famous performers approach the Dodgers about singing the anthem. Solicitations from celebrities tend to increase for postseason play, Rawitch said, but there tends to be a natural-selection process because of the song's notorious trickiness.

"There aren't a lot of people who are willing to risk their career by coming out to sing the national anthem," he said.

Indeed, sports lore is filled with examples of both famous and infamous, classic and unconventional renderings of the national anthem. The late Marvin Gaye unleashed a gospel-tinged version at various sporting events in the 1970s and '80s that some listeners found stirring, others showy and interminable.

In one performance that will live in national-pastime infamy, Roseanne Barr squawked her way through the anthem at a 1990 San Diego Padres game, accompanied by fusillades of boos. At the end Barr grabbed her crotch and spat on the ground as if to spite the hecklers.

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