Ten days after declaring war is a lousy time for a party, let alone a Super Bowl.
On Jan. 17, 1991, an armed coalition led by the United States commenced Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf, marking the first major military action of the post-terrorism age. Less than two weeks later, the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills prepared for their own conflict as Super Bowl XXV kicked off in Tampa, Florida. Fears that Saddam Hussein would target this, the most American of sporting events, led some NFL officials to consider rescheduling. The big game would proceed as planned, but the festive mood of Jan. 27 was damped by the grim realities of a world at war.
Goodyear’s iconic blimp was grounded, and in its place flew Black Hawk air patrol. Instead of tailgate barbecues, the Tampa Stadium parking lot was crammed with concrete barriers and chain-link fences. Machine-gun wielding SWAT teams patrolled the roof of the arena while ushers carried metal detector wands down below. The mood wasn’t much brighter in the locker rooms. “Players were discussing privately if there would be a draft,” former Giants tight end Howard Cross later told the New York Post. “And whether our younger brothers might be drafted.”
It was into this tense, foreboding atmosphere that Whitney Houston strode onto the 50-yard line in a casual white tracksuit with red and blue stripes and matching white sneakers. With her dark ringlets pulled back in a wide headband, the 27-year-old looked more like an Olympian than the bonafide pop star who had scored back-to-back No. 1s the previous year with “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and “All the Man That I Need.”
She was there to open the game by singing the national anthem, Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” The tradition seemed charmingly quaint given the dire circumstances. “It was an intense time for a country,” Houston remembered in 2000. “A lot of our daughters and sons were overseas fighting. I could see, in the stadium, I could see the fear, the hope, the intensity, the prayers going up. And I just felt, ‘This is the moment.’”
The moment became the most famous of her career. Armed with no more than a song, Houston galvanized an uncertain nation.
Shortly after her performance was announced on Nov. 6, 1990—Election Day—Houston conferred with her longtime musical director Ricky Minor about the best way to wring every drop of passion and emotion from the ubiquitous tune. She spoke highly of a version sung by Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, a soulful, stripped down rendition backed by an electric drum machine.
Minor tracked down a VHS tape of Gaye’s performance—not an easy task in the pre-YouTube-era—and studied it closely to find elements he could incorporate in his own arrangement. After careful analysis, he decided to take the unorthodox approach of changing the anthem’s time signature. “The original version is in 3/4 time, which is more like a waltz,” Minor explained to ABC News in 2012. “What we tried to do was to put it in 4/4 meter… We wanted to give her a chance to phrase it in such a way that she would be able to take her time and really express the meaning.” Slowing the tempo would give Houston a chance to eke out each subtle nuance of every lyric.
The demands of a live television broadcast coupled with the challenges of an outdoor performance proved too much of a liability for event organizers. To ensure a flawless rendition, producers had to get creative. “NFL policy is that when they have a performer singing the national anthem for live TV, they request the performer record what they call a protection copy, just in case the singer has laryngitis, the day of the Super Bowl,” Houston’s publicist, Regina Brown, explained to JET in 1991.
After recording the instrumental backing track with the Florida Orchestra in early January, Minor sent a copy to Houston to allow her to practice. As it happened, she never did. “I was busy doing a screen test for a film with Kevin Costner,” was her excuse when she met up with Minor in a Miami studio two weeks prior to the Super Bowl. But she was a quick study. After listening to the track only once, she walked into the vocal booth and belted the version that would mesmerize millions across the globe “Amazingly, it was done in one take,” NFL executive Jim Steeg confirmed to SportsBusinessDaily.com. “All was in place for what many of us thought would be one of the greatest versions of the national anthem ever performed.”
Not everyone was impressed. Some NFL officials were less than pleased by what they saw as a radical reimagining of a cherished piece of Americana “They thought the harmonies were too different, that it was sacrilegious,” Minor told USA Today. Just days before the broadcast, NFL brass placed a call to Houston’s father and manager, John, begging him to force the singer to record a new version. “The conversation was brief,” Steeg told ESPN.com. “There would be no rerecording.”
Houston was surprisingly grounded when Super Bowl Sunday finally arrived. “It wasn’t a lot of hype going in,” her brother, Gary, later told EW. “She was like a little girl going into a football game — not really understanding the magnitude of this game. But she was very excited, like, ‘Isn’t this great?’” Seventy-four thousand sports fans filled Tampa Stadium, adding to an estimated 115 million watching on television. For the first time the game was broadcast internationally, allowing troops stationed across the globe to tune in. The performance would be for them.
It’s been said that Houston lip-synced “The Star-Spangled Banner” on this day, but that’s not entirely fair. Even while the tape played she sang her heart out, pouring her inimitable voice into a dead microphone. The only ones could who could hear her magnificent artistry truly live that day were servicemen and women, representing all branches of the armed forces, bearing the colors of each of the 50 states, gathered before her on the field.
For the rest of us, the grand unveiling of Houston’s stunning interpretation was nothing short of a revelation. “Whitney was at the height of her vocal powers, and her performance of the song was electrifying,” Houston’s label head and industry icon Clive Davis wrote in his 2013 memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life. “It was soulful, passionate, supremely confident, and rousing.” As she hit the final climactic high note—an E-flat above middle C—on the word “free,” four F-16 fighter jets performed a ceremonial fly-by in the skies above. “It was a moment of unforgettable drama and pride,” writes Davis.
Only a genius could take a song that, by design, belongs to all citizens, and make it her own. Make no mistake; this was not a selfish act, but a selfless one. The African-American community has had a troubled relationship to “The Star-Spangled Banner” dating back to more than a century before Colin Kaepernick. “The machinery of state violence has too often been used against black people for a song about bombs and rockets to hold much appeal,” writes journalist and screenwriter Cinque Henderson in the New Yorker. The NAACP named James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the “Black National Anthem” in 1919, and even Martin Luther King preferred “My Country, Tis of Thee.”
On Jan. 27, 1991, Houston, a strong, confident, supremely talented black woman took back the national anthem and made it speak for all Americans.
The primary role of an artist is to reflect and articulate the mood and feeling of those unable or unwilling to express these complex emotions for themselves. When she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Houston succeeded like few have, before or since. “It was a time when Americans needed to believe in our country.” Houston reflected in an interview with PEOPLE shortly after the event. “I remember standing there and looking at all those people, and it was like I could see in their faces the hopes and prayers and fears of the entire country.”
To many, the song outshone the outcome of the game (the Giants beat the Bills 20 to 19). The response was so overwhelming that Arista Records took the unprecedented step of releasing the version as a single just a few weeks later. It became the fastest-selling song in the label’s history up to that point, climbing to No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. Houston donated her portion of the proceeds to charities supporting soldiers and families involved in the Persian Gulf War.
When the worst fears of Super Bowl XXV became reality a decade later on September 11th, Houston’s anthem once again served as a rallying cry. It was re-released to raise funds for firefighters and victims of the terrorist attacks. This time it peaked at No. 6, making Houston the only artist to take “The Star-Spangled Banner” into the Billboard Top 10. It would be her final trip to the top of the charts.