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Thirty years later, Whitney Houston’s performance of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl remains iconic, the standard by which all other renditions are measured – usually to their detriment.
And it almost didn’t happen.
“We’d gotten the tape of it, and there were people in the league who didn’t think it was appropriate,” said Jim Steeg, who, as the NFL’s longtime senior vice president of special events, was responsible for planning the Super Bowl.
That seems unfathomable now. But you have to remember the circumstances at the time, said Rickey Minor, Houston’s longtime musical director.
The first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, had begun just 10 days earlier, and tensions were high throughout the country. Some had even questioned the appropriateness of playing the Super Bowl with Americans in harm’s way, but President George H.W. Bush insisted the game between the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants go ahead.[embedded content]
The NFL also was leery of doing anything that might appear disrespectful of American troops or make it seem as if the league were not showing appropriate seriousness for this moment in history. Given Roseanne Barr’s debacle the previous summer, when she had screeched her way through The Star-Spangled Banner before a Major League Baseball game, the NFL was particularly concerned that there be nothing out of the ordinary about Houston’s performance of the national anthem.
There was, however.
When Houston and Minor first talked about the anthem, she mentioned how much she’d loved Marvin Gaye’s performance at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, a leisurely but luxurious version backed by a drum kit.
“She said, `I love how he took his time. It felt like the words just had another moment to linger, so you would feel this story,’” Minor recalled.
Minor added some jazz and Gospel chords, and gave the finale a “traditional Gospel cadence.” But it was his decision to add an extra beat to each bar, rather than do the anthem at its traditional waltz tempo – imagine counting 3, 2, 1 in your head as you sing – that set it apart.
“That gave her a little time to really pull those notes and hold them out to resonate,” Minor told USA TODAY Sports. “It wasn’t necessarily to change it. It was really to give her what she needed to give the best performance she could.
“My challenge was to make something that would enable her to soar.”
Minor said he could see there would be some resistance when he went to Tampa so The Florida Orchestra could record what he’d arranged.
Sure enough, the NFL, ABC, even Houston’s own father, John, who was her manager -– everyone wanted Houston to sing the anthem the way it had always been done.
“Sometimes, when you’re introduced to something new, you don’t like it or love it. It’s weird,” Minor said. “I think it was more of a shock. `This isn’t what we’re used to.’”
The orchestra was in the midst of recording when Minor said he was told he had a phone call. It was Houston’s father and, under pressure from NFL officials, he wanted Minor to scrap the musical arrangement.
But Minor politely told John Houston that he didn’t work for the orchestra, ABC, the NFL or even him. He worked for Whitney Houston, and this was the version he believed was best for her to do.
John Houston relented, Minor said, though the orchestra did record a traditional version of the anthem “just in case.”
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Minor sent Houston the orchestra’s recording, but she still hadn’t listened to it when she arrived to record the “master track,” common for live performances as insurance against weather or equipment glitches. (While Houston did sing live, her microphone was off, and what everyone heard was the recording.)
Theirs wasn’t the kind of relationship where he gave Houston many instructions or told her what to do, Minor said. Instead, he simply played the music for her.
“She listened and she said `OK, I got it,’” Minor said.
Houston was famous for not wanting to do multiple takes – “Let me tell you, it was so annoying!” Minor said with a laugh. But on this day, it truly was all she needed.
“That first take has everything in it,” Minor said. “I said, `Since you’re here, why don’t you do another one?’ I just wanted to hear it again. I just wanted it for me.”
Though Minor said he knew that day that Houston’s rendition of the anthem would be iconic, he said that wasn’t either’s intent. They simply wanted to honor the moment, in the best way Houston could.
In a way only Houston could.
“This kind of thing, all of the stars aligned for this to happen. That’s what happened,” Minor said. “Is it (possible) to make the stars align again and again and again with the same piece of music? I’m not sure. … There’s one version that sticks out. That’s what happens with Whitney. When she gets ahold of something, it stands out. Just because of the way she’s doing it.”
Speaking of stars aligning …
Steeg said Houston was originally supposed to do the national anthem three years earlier, at Super Bowl 22. But they were still in the process of finalizing the contract when her father took over as her manager, Steeg said, and John Houston felt no obligation to honor their previous agreement because he said he didn’t know anything about it.
Besides, John Houston told Steeg, the timing wouldn’t work. Houston was going to be overseas for her “Moment of Truth” world tour.
Herb Alpert would ultimately do the national anthem at Super Bowl 22. (The last instrumental performance of the anthem at the Super Bowl, by the way.)
But had Houston performed in 1988, or had Steeg been one to hold a grudge, she isn’t asked to sing in 1991.
And a seminal American moment would be lost.
“Whitney’s here with us. Not in the physical, but she’s all around everywhere,” Minor said. “And she’s affecting someone’s life. I do believe in your molecular structure being altered just by hearing her voice. I’m grateful to be a part of it and I’m honored to serve.
“I know that Whitney would be, if she were with us today physically, she would be really touched and flattered that this much love is going 30 years later.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.