Oh Say, Can't You Sing: Celebs Who Tortured the National Anthem

From Rosanne to Jimi Hendrix, 'The Star Spangled Banner' Sometimes Gets Mangled


May 2, 2006 —  The way some people have performed "The Star Spangled Banner," you might wonder if the national anthem begins, "Oh Say, Can't You Sing?"

With the controversy over "Nuestro Himno," a Spanish version of the anthem that debuted last week, it's worth noting some of the many times that "The Star Spangled Banner" has been reinterpreted — and sometimes hideously mangled — with traditionalists rushing to the song's defense, and innovators welcoming the change.

Perhaps no other rendition has been more derided than Roseanne Barr's hideous caterwauling at a San Diego Padres game in 1990. Sung deliberately off-key for laughs, she topped off this failed stab at humor by scratching her crotch and pretending to spit, like a ballplayer who needed to be sent to the minors.

The reaction was a national outcry. "The Fat Lady Sings (Poorly)" the San Diego Union declared in a front page headline.

Even President Bush's father, who was then commander in chief, chimed in on the issue. "It was disgraceful," Bush told White House reporters on Air Force One. "I think a lot of the San Diego fans said the same thing."

Twilight's Last Gleaming for Carl Lewis' Singing

Tom Arnold, Roseanne's former husband, was one of the few who came to her defense. "Most people can't sing the song," he told The Associated Press. "She represented those people. She sang her heart out."

Arnold does have a point. Singers will point out that the song requires considerable range to be sung properly. To be crooned properly, you must raise the pitch of your voice an octave and a fifth by the time you get to "… and the rocket's red glare."

Still, Roseanne wasn't even trying to sing on key. She was trying to do comedy. We might have a little more pity for Olympic sprinting champ Carl Lewis at a 1993 basketball game between the New York Nets and Chicago Bulls. Lewis seemed to struggle harder trying to reach the high notes that day than he did in winning his nine gold medals.

Midway through, Lewis paused to apologize to the crowd, saying, "I'm going to make up for it." But it got no better, and when the TV camera panned to Michael Jordan, he was laughing derisively.

You might just add the Olympian to the endless list of celebrities — especially actors — who fancy themselves vocalists. One can only imagine what sounds might come from William Shatner if he were to offer his interpretation. The Toronto Blue Jays were wise last year when they limited "American Idol" reject William Hung to a chorus of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Athletes might just want to stay away from the microphone. In 2004, Dallas Mavericks star Jerry Stackhouse received a rousing ovation when he did the honors at one game. But the good feeling ended when the game began — he was ejected on two technical fouls for arguing with officials. At least his team beat the Celtics.

Bombs (and Botched Lyrics) Bursting in Mid Air

Even when the singing is left to the pros, Francis Scott Key's lyrics seem especially challenging, and many renowned singers have been humbled.

At the 1965 Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston bout, Robert Goulet famously sang "the dawn's early night" instead of "dawn's early light," leading some boxing fans to conclude that Goulet was actually predicting Ali's first-round knockout of the former champ.

Another lyrically challenged singer, Macy Gray, kicked off her version at the 2001 Pro Football Hall of Fame game by singing, "Oh say, can you see, by the twilight's gleaming."

It wasn't' too far off from Leslie Nielsen's version as Detective Frank Dreben in "The Naked Gun" when he sang " … and the rocket's red glare, lots of bombs in the air," while impersonating an opera singer asked to do the honors at a ballpark.

Certainly, anything can go wrong in a live, televised performance with tens of thousand of people watching. In one of the most notorious incidents, former "Xena: Warrior Princess" star Lucy Lawless performed the National Anthem at a 1997 Detroit Red Wings game wearing an ultratight bustier. When she spread her arms to belt out that big final note, the land of the brave became the home of the free show.

Just last year, at a Canada-U.S. hockey game in Quebec, Caroline Marcil, a Canadian singer in her early 20s, forgot the words of "The Star Spangled Banner" — not once, but twice — and with fans booing, she left the ice to get the lyrics, only to fall on her butt. She later sang the song on "Good Morning America" without a hitch.

Then there are those stars who have deliberately changed the words, thinking they could stylize the national anthem as if it were any song. When Aerosmith's Steven Tyler performed the honors at the 2001 Indianapolis 500, he thought the crowd would welcome it when he finished with " … and the home of the Indianapolis 500." Perhaps Tyler thought the flag he was saluting was checkered.

Of course, many sports fans think the last line of "The Star Spangled Banner" is "Play Ball!" … with the possible exception of Atlanta's baseball fans, who seem to think the song ends "… and the home of the Braves!"

Hendrix Guitar Salute Now Gallantly Streaming

To be sure, many stars have done the song honor. Marvin Gaye lent his sexy voice to the NBA's 1983 All-Star game, which was re-released in 1996. Whitney Houston's rendition at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, became a big hit.

But deviate too far from the traditional stars-and-stripes tribute, and disaster looms. At the fifth game of the 1968 World Series, Jose Feliciano, a blind folk singer from Puerto Rico, strummed a bluesy "Star Spangled Banner" on acoustic guitar. Critics would one day hail the performance, but the Tiger Stadium crowd booed Feliciano and his guide dog off the field.

A year later, Jimi Hendrix would open Woodstock with an ear-splitting salute to the flag. His blistering guitar version of "The Star Spangled Banner" went on to become one of the great countercultural moments of the 1960s.

At the time, Hendrix' "Star Spangled Banner" was an affront to mainstream America. But 35 years later, John Popper of Blues Traveler would copy the Hendrix version, in all its thunderous splendor, and would be invited to perform it for before President Bush at the 2005 Black Tie and Boots Inaugural Ball, where nobody found it the least bit controversial.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.