Super Bowl 2019: Remembering Whitney Houston's faultless rendition of the US national anthem

Late singer delivered 'The Star Spangled Banner' at championship game as US headed into Gulf War with Iraq in 1991, judging the sensitivity of the moment to perfection

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 30 January 2019 16:34
Whitney Houston performs The Star-Spangled Banner at 1991 Super Bowl

Singing the national anthem before any sporting event is considered a great honour and a solemn duty to be undertaken with the utmost seriousness, but especially in America, where patriotism is seldom worn lightly.

At this year’s Super Bowl in Atlanta, Georgia, legendary soul singer Gladys Knight will deliver “The Star Spangled Banner” before kick-off, as safe a pair of hands as you could ask for.

But even so great a vocalist as she faces an uphill task in emulating the late Whitney Houston, whose soaring rendition in 1991, when she was at the very height of her powers and the US newly-embroiled in the Gulf War, remains the gold standard.

Houston’s union of gospel oomph and supreme control was rarely better showcased than at Tampa Stadium in Florida ahead of Super Bowl XXV, when the New York Giants went on to beat the Buffalo Bills 20-19.

Dressed like an athlete in a modest white tracksuit and headband, as though she herself were about to participate in the championship grudge match, Houston launched into the familiar words with majestic ease: “Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light/What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?”

Beautifully judged, neither mawkish nor self-indulgent, Houston’s performance was delivered from a field packed with uniformed servicemen, visibly moved as they saluted, to a crowd waving flags in a feverish rapture.

Her voice touched a nation anxious about President George HW Bush’s decision to send troops into Iraq and the crowd roared as she steered it home, the star leaping from the podium with a shy wave as a quartet of F16 fighter jets raced overhead in tight formation.

Houston’s version was so popular it would be released as a charity single, initially to raise funds for the families of soldiers fighting in the Middle East and again a decade later to support firefighters following the 9/11 terror attacks that had levelled the World Trade Centre in New York.

Others have distinguished themselves in realising the words of Francis Scott Key as a prelude to the Super Bowl but even the likes of Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey could not quite match Whitney for deftness of execution and reading of the sensitivities of the moment.

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Only Marvin Gaye's celebrated performance before the 1983 NBA All-Star Game comes close to achieving the same degree of perfection.

Fergie mocked for how she sings the national anthem at all-star basketball game

As for getting it wrong, Black Eyed Peas vocalist Fergie has few serious challengers.

Her stomach-churningly affected delivery ahead of the same event in February 2018 had the crowd and players, Steph Curry and LeBron James among them, struggling to restrain howls of appauled laughter.

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