The annual Utah Jazz national anthem auditions were set to begin Monday morning at EnergySolutions Arena. But first, Dan Roberts, the long-time Jazz arena announcer and anthem aficionado, had a few pointers for the singers.
"Remember," he said, "The Man is listening, and there is a certain way he wants it to be done."
At first I thought he meant The Big Man Upstairs, The Man we all turn to here in Utah when we need guidance and help. Roberts told me later that he was referring to Larry Miller.
So I was right.
Miller has a certain way he wants the national anthem to be sung, and it's better you know this going in. Miller hasn't said exactly what he doesn't like.
"We just know," says Roberts. "He grimaces."
Some 168 singers gathered Monday, hoping to earn an invitation to sing the anthem before Jazz games. Their numbers included the Melodic Medics from Hill Air Force Base; 9-year-old Imani Sweeney from Sandy; high school a cappella groups from Bountiful and Rupert, Idaho; 67-year-old former music teacher Marvin Mangum of Magna; a former opera singer named Richard Munn; and 7-year-old Oaklee Wilkinson from Lehi.
"My stomach's nervous," Oaklee complained to her mom.
Climbers have Everest. The Jazz have the Spurs. Singers have the anthem. It's a tough sing. It's got more highs and lows than Pamela Anderson, and lyrics that Hollywood types tend to forget.
Since World War II, it has been a tradition to sing the anthem before sporting events. There have been the Whitney Houston moments, but there also have been many star-mangled banners, from renditions performed by the key-challenged Carl Lewis and Roseanne Barr to the lyrically challenged Robert Goulet and Michael Bolton. The Lewis and Roseanne versions were so terrifyingly bad that rodents were seen jumping off tall buildings.
As Shakespeare once wrote after a bad singing performance, "If a dog had howled thus, they would have hanged it."
Probably he had just heard Roseanne sing the anthem.
What was Sir Francis Scott Off-Key thinking when he wrote this song? "It's the hardest song in the world to sing," says Roberts, who should know. For 35 years he has served as the P.A. man for Jazz and Utah Stars games. Multiply that by 50 games a season, and it means he's listened to about 1,750 renditions of the anthem, not to mention another 700 or so at tryouts. About four years ago, having had enough of the good, bad and ugly of the anthem, Roberts volunteered to serve as judge for the Jazz-game auditions.
Roberts, who likes to use his deep baritone to sing in the shower (I don't know this personally, but I'll take his word for it), decided to sing the anthem aloud while driving his car one day, imagining that he was singing for thousands "to put myself in their position." After hearing 2,000 versions of it, you figure there's no way this guy can botch this song, right? Wrong.
"About two minutes in it, I had forgotten the words and I was horribly off-key," he says. "That's why I say it's the hardest of all songs."
Where most people get into trouble with the anthem is that they turn it into an "American Idol" performance, one they hope will get them a recording contract. You know what I'm talking about the dramatic, long, drawn-out versions, the voice sliding up and down (and off) the scale, finally crashing into the treble cleft. Before the audition, the Jazz sent out a memo to participants: "The preferred style for the anthem is a cappella and in a traditional version with little personal musical interpretation."
Translation: Keep it simple. As Roberts explains it, "We're not looking for style; we're looking for a way to start the game and honor our country." As a former sports writer, I've heard thousands of anthems myself, and I've compiled my own handy list of suggestions for anthem singers: 1. Brevity; 2. Remember the words; 3. Brevity; 4. No frills, no trills; 5. Stay on key, or somewhere in the same area code, if possible; 6. Brevity.
The good news: When all was sung and done Monday, Shantay Davies, who organized the audition for the Jazz, was happy with the results. "There's a lot of talent in Utah," she said. "It's difficult to choose from all of them."
You can judge the results this winter. You and The Man.