The National Anthem
Ernie Harwell Remembers Jose Feliciano (04:43)
MANDI WRIGHT/DFP — Legendary Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell recalls choosing Jose Feliciano to sing The National Anthem at the 5th game of the World Series in 1968.
Jose shares his experience with you
The year was 1968. Martin Luther King had been assassinated earlier that spring. Robert Kennedy was murdered less than two months later. Our country was at war in Vietnam, as well as here, because of that conflict in Asia. Our nation was divided by race, by class, by gender and even by age. The older generation did not have faith in their children and the younger generation didn’t trust “anyone over 30″. Their attitudes reflected that in their dress, their politics and in their music.
Enter Jose Feliciano. The young, blind musician from Puerto Rico was having great success in Latin America with the Bolero and currently, a major hit on the American scene with “Light My Fire.” He had been invited to sing the National Anthem at the fifth game of the World Series, for the Tigers against the St. Louis Cardinals, in Detroit, by veteran play-by-play announcer, Ernie Harwell.
Jose was appearing in Las Vegas at the time with Frank Sinatra, at Caesar’s Palace. He had an interesting version of the National Anthem, Ernie had been told, and since it was Ernie’s assignment to plan the talent for the games’ Anthem performances, he thought he’d invite Jose. An early morning flight brought the singer to Detroit where the game was to take place later that day.
Before nearly 54,000 fans in the seats, and countless millions more tuned in to televisions and radios around the country, a nervous Jose walked out to left field with his guide dog, Trudy, and his guitar.
He wanted to sing an anthem of gratitude to a country that had given him a chance; who had allowed a blind kid with a dream reach far above his limitations, far beyond the expected to a place few at his young age, had achieved. He wanted to sing an anthem of praise to a country that had given a better life to him and his family.
Playing slowly and meaningfully on a sunny October afternoon, he felt the vastness of the stadium and the presence of so many listening to him as he began to sing, “Oh, say, can you see?…” . Before he had completed his performance, however, he could feel the discontent within the waves of cheers and applause that spurred on the first pitch. “Wonder what that was about?,” he thought, as he was escorted to the press box to enjoy a couple of innings before his flight back to Vegas for his shows later that evening.
“Do you know what you did?”, He was asked by someone in the box. “You’re causing a furor! The switchboard is lighting up with calls from people complaining about your singing The National Anthem!”
“My God”, He thought, as the great controversy exploded across the country. Veterans, reportedly, threw their shoes at the television as he sang. Others questioned his right to stay in the United States, suggesting he should be deported (to where, exactly, had never been mentioned as those from Puerto Rico are, of course, American citizens)! Still others just attributed it to the times and felt sad for the state of our country.
There were, obviously, many who understood the depth and breadth of his rendition. Those, young and old, who weren’t jaded by the negativity which surrounded anything new, anything a little different. It was unusual. It was beautifully done. It certainly was sincere.
The controversy was to shadow Feliciano and his music for many years. It inspired a sense of compassion about our Anthem which, until that time, had pretty much been taken for granted. It became the topic of conversation in circles that never discussed patriotism and, it brought about a sense of commitment to whatever side of the line one stood.
Today, it is common to hear our National Anthem performed in a stylized fashion. Some renditions are clearly better than others, still sparking some criticism. You will, however, notice that it is very acceptable, indeed admirable, to deliver an intensely personal interpretation of The National Anthem.
This was not the case before Jose Feliciano.