The War Of 1812 was in its final months when lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key (born 1 August 1779) boarded a British ship to negotiate the release of several American prisoners. While there, he became privy to strategic battle plans and was held captive for the night, where he helplessly witnessed the Battle Of Baltimore. Upon his release, during the early hours of 14 September 1814, Key was heartened to see that the American flag (also referred to as the “Star-Spangled Banner”) was still flying – marking a victorious fight by his country.
Inspired, he wrote a poem, entitled ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry’, which was soon published in a daily newspaper and, not long after, adapted into a song. With a melody borrowed from ‘To Anacreon In Heaven’, a popular tune at the time, the song was christened ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. It was recognised for use by the US Navy in 1889 and was established as the US national anthem in 1931, under President Herbert Hoover.
With its wide range of notes, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is considered to be one of the most challenging songs to sing. Performed regularly at sports games and ceremonial events, a handful of singers and musicians have the chance to perform the song live each year, as audiences listen with bated breath. Over the decades, many of the country’s biggest stars have tackled the song (some better than others), making their mark on the hallowed tune. Here’s a look back at 15 of the best ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ performances – from soulful balladry to all-out guitar shreds – proving that “traditional” doesn’t always need to be dull.
15: KISS (Alive III, 1993)
This epic, instrumental rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was captured during KISS’ 1992 Revenge Tour and closes out their Alive III album. Playing to thousands of die-hard fans in Cleveland during the band’s “unmasked” era, lead guitarist Bruce Kulick shows off his chops in this impressive encore. Naturally, the song climaxes with classic KISS pyrotechnics (which make every show look like the 4 July celebrations).
14: Duke Ellington (The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concerts: January 1943, 1943)
Charismatic composer, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington would occasionally open his live shows with ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. With its driving brass section and cheery percussion, his jazz orchestra’s uptempo version harkens back to the home-front patriotism of the 40s. Ellington, who was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to art and culture, was incredibly innovative, and his take on the national anthem – which feels classic, yet refreshing – doesn’t disappoint.
13: Luke Bryan (Super Bowl LI, 2017)
Country star Luke Bryan gave the national anthem a Nashville twist at the 2017 Super Bowl. As the Georgia native geared up to cheer on his home team – the Atlanta Falcons, who were up against the New England Patriots – the American Idol judge and acclaimed songwriter sounded as smooth as can be, singing a cappella and making the song his own with a bit of country twang. Even Tom Brady seemed impressed!
12: Demi Lovato (MLB Playoffs, 2015)
Singer-songwriter, actress and former Disney-star Demi Lovato captivated audiences at the 2015 MLB playoffs when she belted out the national anthem to cheering crowds at New York’s Citi Field. The 23-year old had just released her bestselling fifth album, Confident, which is a perfect description of her performance. Needing no accompaniment, Lovato’s powerful vocals are truly awe-inspiring.
11: Slash (NHL Playoffs, 2014)
In this 2014 clip from the NHL playoffs, legendary Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash plays the national anthem with swagger and style. The British-born musician, who holds dual citizenship with the US and the UK, performs an unorthodox, yet tasteful rendition of the tune on his signature gold-top Les Paul. With a purposeful use of distortion and artfully bent notes, Slash offers a tip of the hat to America and to one of the founding fathers of rock’n’roll, Jimi Hendrix.
10: Cher (Super Bowl XXXIII, 1999)
Cher showed off her inimitable, contralto vocals in this 1999 Super Bowl performance. Fresh off the success of her multiplatinum-selling dance-pop album Believe, Cher was enjoying a triumphant return to the spotlight when she was tapped to kick off the game at the Pro Player Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. One of the most enduring artists of the last 50 years, Cher proved her prowess in this dramatic rendition of the national anthem that remains one of the best star-spangled banner performances of recent memory.
9: Renée Fleming (Super Bowl XLVIII, 2014)
Typically, football and classical music don’t go hand in hand. But that changed in 2014, when soprano Renée Fleming took to the field at MetLife Stadium at Meadowlands Sports Complex and became the first opera singer to perform ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the Super Bowl. Though she is one of the most famous stars of modern opera, Fleming reached her biggest audience yet with this appearance, eliciting a standing ovation and some of the highest TV ratings at the time.
8: Lady Antebellum (NHL Playoffs, 2018)
The Grammy-winning country trio has performed ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ numerous times since they formed in 2006. Their beautiful a cappella approach to the song showcases the vocal talents of Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley as they skilfully harmonise together. Despite a minor lyric flub at the 2018 NHL playoffs (the band quickly recovered, finishing the song like pros), there’s no doubt that Lady Antebellum will continue to be invited to sing the national anthem at many more events to come.
7: Carrie Underwood (Super Bowl XLIV, 2010)
In 2010, when Carrie Underwood was selected to kick off Super Bowl XLIV, it had only been five years since her American Idol win, but she was already one of the hottest names in music, and enjoying the success of her third album, Play On. Audiences were blown away, and the players moved, by the singer’s powerful execution of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Underwood, who has seven Grammy awards under her belt, particularly wowed the crowd with the final line of the song, when she extended the hardest note – “free” in “land of the free” – for over six seconds.
6: Diana Ross (Super Bowl XVI, 1982)
Ever the trailblazer, Kennedy Center honouree and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Diana Ross became the first big pop star to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, in 1982. Before then, the NFL typically enlisted marching bands (and the occasional singer) for ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ performances. Donning a sparkly tracksuit, Ross stepped up to the microphone at Michigan’s Pontiac Silverdome with no accompaniment, save for the crowd’s cheers, and performed the difficult number effortlessly. Following Ross’ performance, a Super Bowl tradition was born and a Who’s Who of stars have been enlisted to open nearly every game since then.
5: Beyoncé (Super Bowl XXXVIII, 2004)
In 2004, Queen Bey fulfilled her childhood dream of performing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, in her hometown of Houston, Texas. The Destiny’s Child singer was on the precipice of superstardom, having just released her solo debut, Dangerously In Love, a few months prior. Just one week later, she would score five Grammys for the bestselling album. With a live symphonic accompaniment, Beyoncé makes the challenging song look easy, flawlessly hitting the notes – and then some. Knowles reprised her performance at President Obama’s second inaugural ceremony, in 2013, and played the Super Bowl halftime show two weeks later.
4: Lady Gaga (Super Bowl 50, 2015)
Lady Gaga’s theatrical interpretation of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Super Bowl 50 is considered by many to be one of the best since Whitney Houston’s rendition in 1991. Sporting a sparkly red Gucci suit, Gaga adopted a slower pace, showcasing her vocal abilities, and making Little Monsters everywhere proud. Of course, the appearance wasn’t without controversy: the singer tacked on a second “the brave” at the end of the song, which caused discord amongst those who had placed bets on the length of her performance.
3: Marvin Gaye (NBA All-Star Game, 1983)
Marvin Gaye was always a rule-breaker, and when he had the opportunity to sing the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, the “Prince Of Motown” did it his way. The artist was enjoying renewed success in the early 80s, having just released Midnight Love, which would become his best-selling album thanks to its hit single, ‘Sexual Healing’. Accompanied by a simple, pre-recorded drum and keyboard track, the singer was the epitome of cool, transforming the traditional tune into a languid soul song. Gaye raised some eyebrows, but he also raised the bar for all future ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ performances. The crowd loved it and praised the performance with a standing ovation.
2: Whitney Houston: Super Bowl XXV (1991)
In January 1991, Whitney Houston was one of the biggest pop stars in the world. She had just released her third studio album, I’m Your Baby Tonight, and her single ‘All The Man That I Need’ was weeks away from becoming No.1. The first Gulf War was also just ten days old. The country needed a little hope, and Whitney was the answer.
To prepare for her performance at Super Bowl XXV, Houston took a cue from Marvin Gaye’s iconic version and had the song arranged at a slower pace. Dramatically drawing out the final climax and taking the highest notes to new heights, the 27-year-old singer nailed it – though criticism arose when it was revealed that Houston had pre-recorded her vocals. This wasn’t the first time a singer did this for ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ performances, and certainly wouldn’t be the last, but America ultimately embraced her performance – so much so, that the song was released as a single, with proceeds benefitting Desert Storm soldiers and their families. A decade later, following the 9/11 attacks, the single was reissued to raise money for the victims and first responders.
1: Jimi Hendrix (Woodstock, 1969)
When Jimi Hendrix and his new, post-Experience band, Gypsy Sun And Rainbows, took the stage as the final act at Woodstock, they were about to make history. Three quarters into the set, Hendrix played a provocative, psychedelic version of the national anthem, setting off a wave of controversy (keep in mind, it was 1969 and any deviations from the traditional arrangement were unheard of).
It wasn’t the artist’s first time playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at a show, but it was his most famous performance. Anything but straightforward, Hendrix’s four-minute rendition was wailing, distorted and full of improvisation – the feedback from his Stratocaster emulating the bombs that were exploding in Vietnam. Hendrix, a veteran of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, denied that the performance was a protest; though he may have been anti-war, he wasn’t anti-American. Whatever his motives were, the guitarist made an indelible imprint with his interpretation of the song, and, in doing so, influenced generations of musicians to come.
Looking for more? Listen to more patriotic songs to celebrate Independence Day.