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National anthem can be a perilous fight for singers

ColumnSportsPro BasketballLos Angeles LakersMusic IndustryNBAKelly Clarkson
The anthem is a battle between singers and their voices to honor the nation while not embarrassing themselves

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light…

That light painfully dawns on a screeching rock star attempting to recapture lost glory, a scruffy folk singer torturously immortalizing his mandolin, a hip quartet desperately trying to create a rocket's red boogie.

"You know, the song is not really not supposed to be about you," said Jeffrey Osborne with a chuckle. "It's supposed to be about your country."

What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming…

Some actually try to stretch the song out until that twilight's last gleaming. Others try to croon just enough to be proudly hailed. Few of them actually wear a watch.

"I hear people dragging out every note, every word, every syllable, like it's their moment, their time to shine," Osborne said. "That's not what it's about."

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight…

It is a perilous fight indeed, one occurring every day prior to athletic events in this country, a battle between singers and their voices to honor their nation while not embarrassing themselves, a solitary duel whose gallant victories are often overshadowed by its spectacular defeats.

This Fourth of July weekend is perhaps the perfect time to honor this most imperfect ritual, the occasionally ugly, sometimes glorious, always dramatic fight that is the pregame singing of our national anthem.

It's the best worst job in sports, so much that even here in Hollywood, most regular-season anthems are performed by regular folks who win the spot with audition audiotapes. The truly big stars around town won't do the anthem for regular-season sports events, when the song is not nationally televised, because the risk is just not worth the reward.

"The song is really hard, and the melody is not that great, but this is bigger than all that," Osborne said. "It's a song about respect."

Besides, when else do Americans have a chance to sing it?

O'er the ramparts we watch'd were so gallantly streaming? …

Few have gallantly streamed this song in Los Angeles like Osborne, the city's version of Old Glory. The longtime R&B musician, singer and songwriter has sung the national anthem before the Lakers' home opener for more than 30 years while also singing before countless Lakers playoff games.

He is considered such a part of the organization, he has six championship rings. A couple of years ago, he was even brought in by Magic Johnson to sing the anthem before the first Dodgers home game of the Guggenheim era. And, of course, during his long anthem career, he has steadfastly refused invitations to sing for the Boston Celtics or the Clippers.

"For decades now, Jeffrey has been synonymous with opening night, and is loved by both our fans and our organization," said Lakers spokesman John Black. "He's part of the Lakers family, and we feel very lucky to have him be so."

Osborne is beloved because his anthems are soulful yet respectful, a two-minute midcourt burst of sincere emotion that still bring chills. He walks to midcourt, begins pouring out the words with no accompanying music, and by the time he is halfway through the song, listeners find themselves ignoring him and looking for the flag.

"It's a prideful moment, and you want to make the fans feel it," Osborne said. "You're not singing it to them, you're singing it for them."

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air…

There have been many brilliant rockets glaring during these anthems, from the Super Bowls of Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson to the Stanley Cups of crooner Pia Toscano, the former "American Idol" star who in the last three years has sung before every big Kings hockey game at Staples Center, including both Cup-clinching wins.

"Just seeing Pia sets the tones for our fans, they know it's a big night if she's here," said Kings spokesman Mike Altieri. "She has truly become part of our Kings family."

But then there have been the bombs bursting in air, and lasting forever, like former track star Carl Lewis at an NBA game in 1993, where he sang an anthem so bad that fans booed and players laughed and Charley Steiner, then with ESPN, announced it was written by "Francis Scott Off-Key." The standard for lousy anthems was set by spitting, crotch-grabbing Roseanne Barr at a 1990 San Diego Padres game, but every year there are folks who try too hard or don't try hard enough — witness Christina Aguilera actually botching the lines at a recent Super Bowl.

"You kind of have to do the song legitimately or it just doesn't work," Osborne said.

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there…

The tradition of playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at sports events actually began in the seventh inning of a World Series game in 1918, and the song wasn't even officially America's national anthem until 1931, so there's nothing sacred about the idea of singing that particular song before every game. Why not play an easier, more melodic song? What's wrong with "America the Beautiful"? In fact, James Taylor accidentally began one of last fall's World Series anthems with words from "America the Beautiful," and it sounded right.

"I actually really like 'America the Beautiful,' but it's not our anthem, and the whole point is to sing our anthem," Osborne said. "People want to pay respects to the most heralded song ever written, and it might be tough, but the singer needs to allow them to do that."

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

According to Osborne, the "land of the free" is truly the home of the brave because the soaring "free" is the most difficult note in the song. "Free" is where many singers crash. "Free," however, is also where many soar.

"That's such a challenging note, many people start the song too high and then just can't get up there at the end," he said.

But when they do? It's a long, painful road that's worth the effort. As any fans who have ever used those two minutes to reflect or sing or just close their eyes and appreciate America can attest, the pregame singing of the national anthem may be an eternal battle, but it's one worth fighting.

"I know it's not the greatest of songs," said Osborne, stating the pledge of allegiance for all national anthem singers. "But it's our song."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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ColumnSportsPro BasketballLos Angeles LakersMusic IndustryNBAKelly Clarkson
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