Houston's Super Bowl anthem still untouchable

Before Super Bowl XXV kicked off in front of 73,813 people on Jan. 27, 1991, Whitney Houston sang one of the most memorable renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This is the story of how Houston’s performance came together amid Super Bowl hype 30 years ago in Tampa, Florida, as told by those who were part of the production, select players and coaches and those who witnessed it as football fans.

Ten days before the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills played at Tampa Stadium, Operation Desert Storm began. Tensions and worries were high in the United States, with a nation facing the realities of war in the Persian Gulf.

(To prevent surprises from happening while at the Super Bowl, Houston pre-recorded the anthem in Los Angeles.)

In two minutes and 15 seconds, Houston captured the nation with her performance. It was later released as a single with Arista Records, where Houston donated the profits to the American Red Cross Gulf Crisis Fund.

Thirty years later, the Super Bowl is again in Tampa. With the country grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, Houston’s legacy lives on.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
Whitney Houston's stirring national anthem played out as the Gulf War in the Middle East dominated America. (Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

Rickey Minor (Whitney Houston’s music director): We had a very full calendar already. She was embarking on a world tour and she also had a new album and an HBO special coming out. On top of that, there were corporate jobs, TV appearances and this was added last minute. I got the call somewhere in November, and it had to be recorded by the beginning of the new year. It was another thing added to the list.

John Clayton (composer of Houston’s “Star-Spangled Banner”): Whitney got the call to do it and heard that it was going to be with a symphony orchestra. Rickey knew that I was a jazz guy who also loved orchestras and had written for both.

He called me and said, “We got this opportunity. We want you to just do your thing. The only two requests we have are that it be 4/4 time. And No. 2, that it has some kind of a rhythmic groove to it.”

I started with a rhythmic thing, within the orchestra by the percussion section, and just went on from there.

Minor: We talked about it on a call about how she should do it and she brought up how she loved what Marvin Gaye did for the NBA All-Star Game. He took his time and paid attention to how quickly the lyrics should come out. He just lingered on as much as he felt at the moment.

I said we can’t really do that because we have a time limit. But he did it in a 4/4 meter and the national anthem is a 3/4 meter like a waltz. We added a peak to the song and that gave her a little more time to say each lyric and let it linger there.

Musical director Rickey Minor attends "Meet The Oscars Creative Team" at Hollywood & Highland, in Hollywood, California, on February 5, 2020. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP) (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)
Musical director Rickey Minor attends "Meet The Oscars Creative Team" at Hollywood & Highland, in Hollywood, California, on Feb. 5, 2020. (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

Clayton: It’s your job as an arranger to direct the ear. You have to help the ear go where you want it to go. In this case, we wanted it to go to Whitney. I can’t go crazy with the orchestra, doing all kinds of crazy stuff, and the next thing you know, you forget about Whitney. But when I get ready to write a composition arrangement, I actually first think about the mood or moods. And the mood for this was very patriotic. Very chest up and out, chin held high, all that kind of stuff. The second thing is how I can direct the ear to the voice. The mood and focusing on the voice, everything I do, services those two important things.

The other thing that we arrangers and composers always think about is contrast. We've got the first big part that I want to contrast with something mellow, contemplative and introvertive. That makes the end part where it gets really big again, even bigger. It’s a little manipulative.

Jahja Ling (conductor of Florida Symphony Orchestra during the Super Bowl): I got a call a few months before they said that there's a consideration that they want to have an orchestra company for the national anthem in the Super Bowl. I didn't know at that time who was going to sing because they didn't announce it yet. When I was notified that they got Whitney Houston to sing in the Super Bowl, we were very excited. She is one of the greatest singers with God-given talent. Nobody has a voice like that.

Bills, Giants fans prepare for a trip of a lifetime

Sheff Webb (Bills fan in attendance): I grew up in a town [East Aurora] south of Buffalo, New York. My first memory of the Bills was in 1969 when I was 10 years old. I just became hooked.

Ken Thimmel (President of Pay it Forward Auction, Giants fan in attendance): Born and raised a New York Giants fan. My dad was a die-hard Giant fan. My dad was a truck driver so we never had the money to go to a game. We'd sit and watch as a family on TV. We're one of those families where you shut up, you don't talk, and you watch the Giants. That's it.

Michael Murdoch (Giants fan in attendance): I started watching the Giants the year the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl. I remember watching with my mom and dad when the Giants won the Super Bowl over the Denver Broncos in [the] 1986 [season]. We moved around a lot so 30 years later, it still sticks with me that I’m still a Giants fan.

Webb: A group of three of us from high school went to all of the Bills’ playoff games. My buddy of mine who is a program director at QFM 97 in Buffalo, got us Super Bowl tickets. The ticket I remember was $150, compared to $4,000 today. The roundtrip airfare to Tampa was $150. I was 31 at that time. I was like, “OK, this is my one chance to go. I probably won't go again. Let's do it.”

Thimmel: One of my clients was a huge New York Yankees fan and his favorite player of all time was Mickey Rivers. He had tickets to the Super Bowl and I said, “Look, I'll get you one of these pieces [of Rivers] in artist proof which is a rare, rare edition, and I'll take you for a couple of tickets.’ He really loved the idea. And that's how I got tickets for the Super Bowl.

Murdoch: We lived in Orlando and my dad was vice president of his company. He talked to somebody that he worked with who was a huge Los Angeles Raiders fan. They were going to see the Raiders if they beat the Bills in the AFC championship game. That didn’t happen so my dad talked to him and got two Super Bowl tickets.

Ottis Anderson (New York Giants running back, Super Bowl MVP): It definitely doesn’t feel like 30 years. Even though when you're around Giant fans, they constantly remind you of the game that was played down there, and they're constantly thanking you for playing and for winning it. Our Giant fans are just unbelievable and their love for the Giant players is incredible.

Marv Levy (Buffalo Bills head coach): I just remember how excited you are and what a long path it is to get there. And finally, you win the AFC championship game. We're excited but we know we still have a big task ahead. By being participants, your thoughts and your focus are different from all the fans. I was just so immersed in it at the time that I was getting ready, preparing for an opponent.

The Florida Symphony Orchestra helped provide the sound behind Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium in 1991. (Photo by Gin Ellis/Getty Images)
The Florida Symphony Orchestra helped provide the sound behind Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium in 1991. (Photo by Gin Ellis/Getty Images)

Artistic tension over whether Whitney should be more ‘traditional’

Clayton: Even with all the time invested in creating this arrangement, it's not a given that it's going to work or going to sound the way you want it to sound for a bunch of reasons.

Minor: Whitney was coming to Los Angeles to record the safety vocal. I pulled into the parking lot of the studio. I couldn't wait to go out and see what she thought about the arrangement.

I said, “Hey, did you listen to it?”

And she said, “No, I just came from a screen test with Kevin Costner to do this movie called ‘The Bodyguard.’”

I asked, “How did it go?”

She said, “It went pretty good.”

“So, you didn't listen to it yet?” I asked again. And she said, “No, it'll be fine.”

We go into the studio, and I turn it on. She listens to it and said, “OK, I got it.”

She went into the booth and what you hear is 90-95%, first take. She’s always been a one-take singer. It was so good I actually didn't need her to do it again.

Clayton: Rickey flew to Florida to be at the rehearsal with the orchestra. I'm in L.A., waiting to hear how it all went, dreading that I can't be there to help guide them if they need it.

That evening, there's a message on my answering machine that says, “Mr. Clayton, this is the Florida Symphony Orchestra. We just played your arrangement for Whitney Houston, and we have some concerns and some questions about what you’ve done. To be honest, we're really thinking about maybe resorting to the more traditional arrangement of the piece.”

Minor: I look at these kinds of situations as a teachable moment where you learn. There are two types of moments in life: There are those incredible moments where you can't believe that this is your life and this is your great fortune to be alive and to get these experiences, whether it's your first day of school, your first job or getting accepted into college.

The others are teachable. There's something to learn, so my lesson there was to be able to articulate my thoughts in a way that is heard.

Clayton: Rickey said, “Don't worry, buddy. It's going to be fine. It sounds good. We're going to make it work. Don't worry.” So, I left it in their hands.

Minor: It wasn't about the arrangement. It was about giving Whitney the space where she could soar. Something that she could spring on and really fit into and be able to really sing from a deeper place than, “This is another gig.”

You need to have something that is your own. It had to be special for her to be able to reach deeper down or otherwise you’re singing in the exact way that everyone sings it. It can be good but I don't think it has the potential to be great. With this, you have something to hold on to that you feel is your blanket. I looked at it that she needed her own blanket so that she could be able to pull that off and let her voice soar. She did just that.

The buildup to Super Bowl game day and kickoff

Anderson: We saw a lot of separation by the armed forces at hand trying to make sure everything was secure in the stadium where we practiced at. They were making sure that there were no surprises.

Levy: We tell our players to keep their eyes on the target and what you're trying to do. Being in the Super Bowl game is a whole lot different than being a fan or even a member of the media. It was a matter of keeping the focus on the preparation. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

Webb: We stuck to the hotel on Saturday. It was actually the Bills’ hotel. Bills general manager Bill Polian walked in the lobby, and my buddy started to chant, “Thank you, Bill.” Within seconds, the entire lobby and bar area was shouting, “Thank you, Bill.” That was a great memory.

Minor: They start usually around Thursday rehearsing the national anthem. You can’t rehearse the thunderous sound of the crowd for a singer. And you can’t rehearse the flyover, which is like a temporary sonic boom.

Ling: We had a dress rehearsal to make sure we can set up things, to get our instruments in and out with great professionalism.

Webb: We got to the stadium early. Part of the energy and enthusiasm might have been dampened a little bit because of the Gulf War and just the highest level of security issues that were going on. We were at the upper deck, probably at the 30-, 35-yard line. But we had a good angle on the midfield. It was awesome because the Bills were coming toward us.

Murdoch: My dad and I drove to Tampa the morning of the Super Bowl. I remember the energy and the excitement in the parking lot. People were throwing the football around, playing catch. We bought shirts and a Super Bowl XXV silver anniversary pin from a vendor, both items I still have. Our seats were at the 50-yard line, three rows in front of MC Hammer.

Ling: We wore tuxedo tails and white tie. I remember in the morning, I still had to iron out my shirt, so I will look sharp. Our executive director picked me up. We had a little lunch before that and then we drove up to the stadium. And then we waited in the stadium until the event.

Levy: It was tremendously exciting and noisy. There were fans strongly for us, others strongly for the Giants, and some that didn't care which team won, they just wanted to see the game. It's different than another game. You know that it's a championship because the eyes of the whole country are on you. But, nevertheless, we kept our eye on the target, got ready, and were prepared.

Minor: Leading up to it I think there was still some tension, even though we were allowed to do it the way that we came in to do it. The uncertainty always causes some stress for everyone. I knew it's going to be fine but I just felt the tension, in terms of everyone concerned. Those people who were concerned had their reasons and I respect that.

It was hard to not spot an American flag during Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
It was hard to not spot an American flag during Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Tears, unity after Whitney brought down the house

Ling: I went up to the podium where she sang. I shook her hand and said, “Miss Houston, it is such a great pleasure that we can do this together.”

She replied, “It is my honor to sing with you, Maestro.”

Anderson: We didn’t know Whitney was performing until she showed up, which was a surprise to all of us. We were all lined up as people were just whispering down the whole sideline, “That’s Whitney, that’s Whitney, that’s Whitney.” Whitney sang with so much passion. It was a feeling of unity.

Levy: It was something very special. You walk out there and you're in the Super Bowl game. Am I really here? It’s something you could have dreamed wildly of maybe when you were a young kid entering the coaching ranks. We’re in the midst of that Gulf War, and I do remember Whitney Houston’s rendition was the most fantastic presentation of the national anthem that I have ever heard. I remember the flyover from the Air Force. I had been a member of the Army Air Corps during World War II. It brought back those memories.

Thimmel: Her voice is magical. Anybody that's been around in that era knows she was a hit for so long. Her voice would take you away. The place just went nuts when she sang. They went crazy with a standing ovation that was just really heart-wrenching. She did such an amazing job.

Webb: Whitney Houston was probably the best national anthem that I've ever seen. So much emotion in her rendition of it. But there was the emotion of people, crying in the stands after she finished. There was this high energy patriotism for America. Right after she finished, the fighter jets went over, there were four of them in formation. There was an older gentleman next to me who had tears in his eyes. It was really emotional.

Murdoch: When she started singing, there was something different. I remember my dad was crying and he held my hand. We were surrounded by Bills fans. A dad and his little boy, both Bills fans, were standing. When she sang, the crowd came together as one. It was a weird feeling; it was like we were all one big family when she started singing.

Clayton: Her version of the national anthem was a relief valve for the nation. They were living their expression through her. I sat on the couch with my wife and as we were crying at the performance, hearing it all come together, it was such a relief.

Ling: Usually you get an ovation with some people shouting bravo. This was 80,000 people roaring to show their approval.

Minor: For Whitney, there was no stress about it. She was just happy to be a part of it and to watch her New York Giants.

Whitney’s legacy

Anderson: With the pandemic, lives are lost every day. Maybe the Super Bowl can be a source of human power for those individuals, some sort of healing for those who lost their loved ones during the pandemic. Whitney did that to us 30 years ago, a feeling of peace and unity.

Clayton: How do you find words to express something that gave you goosebumps? If each person could think of the most awesome concert they've been to or the track they play over and over again. If you take that experience, whatever it is, that gives you goosebumps, that makes you feel incredibly amazing and good, multiply that by 1,000, and you'll have an idea of the impact of Whitney Houston’s performance on the country.

Minor: She could sing the phonebook and probably have you in tears when it came close to your name. She had that impact, she sang it with such conviction and passion, and never had a misstep. It's like watching a great athlete have the game of his life. Watching Mark Spitz or LeBron James or Kobe Bryant scoring 60 points, not missing a thing. She was in the zone. There was nothing that could have stopped her from doing what she did because she was so present in the moment when she sang it.

Ling: Music, sports, football, these things unite people. Even though we are competing within the sport, we try to achieve our best. We unite people that come together to enjoy what God gave us, the opportunity to use our physical body, to use our artistic talents to present to the best of our abilities. I believe Whitney was very proud at that time to be chosen as someone that could stand out among the millions of people to be recognized for her talent. And she utilized that praise to sing for the love of the country.

Minor: We had many conversations about this since then. For both of us, it’s not only a source of pride, but it's something that we think was a very defining moment in our lives. In her case, she not only moved the nation but moved the world with that kind of performance. It was once in a lifetime.

Lukas Weese is a multiplatform sports journalist based in Toronto. Passionate about sports and storytelling, Lukas has bylines in ESPN's The Undefeated, The Hockey News, Sportsnet.ca and GOLF.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Weesesports.

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