Irma Thomas, Trombone Shorty, Kevin Griffin and others discuss performing the National Anthem before Saints games.

NOCCA choir photo
The NOCCA Choir that will sing the National Anthem Sunday in the Superdome.

[In today's New Orleans Advocate, I have a story about the experience of singing the National Anthem before a Saints game in the Superdome. The draft I was happiest with was twice the space allotted, so they've run a tight version and allowed me to run longer edit here. You can see the more concise version of the story here.]

Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969. Marvin Gaye’s slow-jammed version at the NBA All-Star Game in 1983. Whitney Houston’s deeply felt performance at the 1991 Super Bowl. The number of remarkable performances of the National Anthem can be counted on one hand, while webpages are dedicated to failed versions with forgotten lyrics, bum notes, and improvised vocal runs that careened out of control. 

When the NOCCA Chorus sings the National Anthem before the Saints home opener Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, its members won't try any Houston-like vocal acrobatics. Trumpeter John Michael Bradford will play a solo introduction and embellishments, but the 13 singers aged 16 to 18 will sing a traditional version accompanied by two pianists. They will try to avoid making news the way Roseanne Barr, sprinter Carl Lewis, and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler did—for singing disastrously bad renditions.

Trombone Shorty has faced that anxiety. He has played the National Anthem before a New York Giants game in 2012 and the Saints season opener last year. “There’s a lot of pressure because you don’t want to mess it up,” he says. He plays the version he played for President George W. Bush’s visit to Warren Easton High School in 2006. He got a memo asking him to play it straight, “almost military style,” Shorty says, and he has kept it that way since. “On the last possible note, I may play something. I try to get through the song in a traditional sense as much as I can.” Still, he does put his stamp on the song. When he performed before the Giants game, officials asked him to play solo but he brought the other horn players from his band, Orleans Avenue. 

“I was looking at it like we were a three-man choir, playing the notes that were there without rearranging anything,” he said. It was an arrangement they whipped up in about 10 minutes that morning while waiting to go on.

Irma Thomas appreciates Whitney Houston and Marvin Gaye’s versions, but in general, “I don’t think it was meant to be sung with all those additional changes to it,” she said. “It should be sung straightforward with as much feeling as you can put into it.”

Singer Robin Barnes has sung melodically adventurous versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the past, but singers have to fit their versions in television commercial breaks. That time constraint prompted her to take a more conventional approach when when she sang it before a Saints preseason game last season. “I like to make it feel like a story,” Barnes said. “I like to make it sound like it’s my own without having it go all over the place.” 

Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin has sung the National Anthem for two Saints home games, the 2005 post-Katrina “home” game in Giants Stadium, a Chicago White Sox game, a Cubs game, and a Hornets game. He remembers being flattered to be asked to sing the National Anthem and excited at the prospect of going to the game and taking friends. “Then the fear sets in,” he said. “I’m not Whitney Houston, The Dixie Chicks or Marvin Gaye. I’m not that kind of singer. The really only exceptional thing most people can do is screw it up. In other cities, I’d be a highlight reel on ESPN’s Sportscenter. But if I screw up in New Orleans, even your best friends are going to say, ‘Dude, we need to take some time apart.’”

Anthem singers are asked to be in the dome hours before the game for a mic check. That’s when they encounter a potentially confusing delay between the instant a singer sings a note and the moments later when he or she hears it through the PA system. That, combined with the echo of a building that big, can confuse singers and cause them to drift off-key or lose their place. Thomas, on the other hand, uses it to her advantage. “Timing is everything. You have to hear the end of a line before you start singing the next one.”

Scott Durbin of children’s music group The Imagination Movers takes the more common approach: “You have to tune out the amplified sound or you get lost.” 

The Movers have sung the National Anthem three times, and their solution was to sing in a semi-circle around the mic to hear each other better. Mover Rich Collins played the first couple of notes on his acoustic guitar to help them find the key. 

The key is crucial. Start too high and you can’t reach the high notes. Irma Thomas sings the song in the car on the way to the game to see where her voice is at. “I always sing the high part so I can see if my voice is in good stead that day,” she said, laughing. “I can sing it in a couple of different keys.” The last time she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a Saints game was September 25, 2006, the night the Saints hosted the Falcons for the Superdome’s reopening. For the occasion, Allen Toussaint accompanied her on piano. They went over the song during soundcheck and that was it. “He’s worked with me enough to know what keys I can work in,” Thomas said. “We’ve worked with each other enough over the years that once we’ve gone over it, I know what I’m going to do and he knows what he’s going to do.”

The musicians are led on the field a half-hour to 45 minutes before the game, and that’s when the jitters begin. Trombone Shorty doesn’t get nervous exactly. “I get anxious to play it and get it over with,” he said. 

Before one game, Kevin Griffin went blank moments before he had to walk out on the field. “I turned to the AV guy. ‘Sing it! First verse of the National Anthem.’ Then I went out there and did it,” Griffin said.

Robin Barnes had a similar moment when she asked the staffer next to her how many people were in the dome that night. The answer, followed immediately by her introduction, caused her to freeze. “I was ‘Ohmigod, what’s the first word?’,” she said, laughing. She looked up and saw her parents pointing out their smiles, reminding to not look stunned as she pulled it together.

The moment the performer’s on the field is surprisingly peaceful. The distance from the crowd and the walls that echo sound help, as does the respect the crowd gives the moment. “That’s one of the only times that it’s really silent,” Short said. “I hear me and the other horns.” While performing, he focuses on the valves of his trumpet. “Everything around me shuts down. Sometimes I forget I’m playing a football game. I’m really focused on what I need to do at that moment. Once I hit that last note, I open my eyes.” Barnes closed her eyes to block out the audience closest to her—the Saints players, and particularly Jimmy Graham, who she laughingly admits she has a crush on.

Griffin sings with a “thousand yard stare,” but Irma Thomas is fully engaged when she looks at the crowd. 

“I try to sing to my audience,” she said. “Not at them; to them. We tune into what’s going on together. When you make the connection with your audience, they’re singing along with you.”

The song itself doesn’t pose any special challenges. “It’s definitely a song you have to practice,” Scott Durbin said, but it doesn’t make special demands of singers.

“It’s like a roller coaster, Griffin said. “The first half, you’re nervous, you’re building up to a climax, and if you’re going to screw up the lyrics, that’s where you’re going to do it. Then you get to the top, the midway point in the song and bam, the loops, the high notes, and you’re kind of home free.”

The Imagination Movers wore Saints jerseys each time they performed, and in the moments between the end of the anthem and the start of the game, they got to be fans for a second. When Durbin wore Malcolm Jenkins’ jersey, Jenkins posed with him for a quick photo. “Smitty [Mover Scott Smith] wore Will Smith’s number, and when he came off the field Will Smith gave him a high five,” Durbin said.

Later, they were told a former Saints quarterback coach that during the pre-game coin toss, Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck raved to Drew Brees about how cool it was that The Imagination Movers sang the National Anthem. 

The trick for the NOCCA Choir is to not let the moment get in their heads. “Like most things, your mind can be your own worst enemy,” Kevin Griffin said.

A successful version can be a remarkable experience. Irma Thomas remembers how powerful the Anthem felt that first night back in the dome. 

“You knew you were home, but it was an uncanny feeling,” she said. “This was a special moment. A lot of us did cry. Even guys took out their handkerchiefs to wipe their eyes and nobody cared. We were back home. I felt like I was getting a great big hug in the middle of the dome.”