The last time the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cards met in the World Series, back in 1968, the stars were Mickey Lolich, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. On the field, that is. The true hero was singer Jose Feliciano, who performed the National Anthem before Game 5 at Tiger Stadium, dressed in a maroon suit, his guide-dog Trudy by his side.
Today, it’s become routine – even mandatory -- for entertainers to sing idiosyncratic versions of the Anthem at sporting events. We celebrate the successful ones: Whitney Houston soaring Anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl comes to mind, as does Marvin Gaye’s sultry “Banner” at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. And, we remember the, um, ill-conceived ones: crotch-grabbing Roseanne Barr at a San Diego Padres game.
Few remember that Feliciano was the first to publicly improvise on the song’s melody. Months before Jimi Hendrix tore up the Anthem at Woodstock, Feliciano gave the world the first "alternative" version of the Anthem. His "Banner," a stirring lament that represented a radical departure from the past, still resonates with soul nearly 40 years later.
At the time, however, it was met with disdain. The next day's headline in the Detroit Free Press read, “Storm Rages over Series Anthem.” In a letter to the editor, one fan screamed: “What screwball gave permission to have the National Anthem desecrated by singing it in the jazzy, hippy manner that it was sung? It was disgraceful and I sincerely hope such a travesty will never be permitted again.”
Tigers' Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell, himself a songwriter, had selected the Anthem singers. He immediately defended Feliciano, claiming that many people misinterpreted the singer’s intent. “My feeling was, Jose sang it from the heart,” Harwell told me a few years ago. “He treated the flag and the Anthem with respect. He just put his own stamp on it – and he was the first to do it.”
When I interviewed Feliciano, he told me, “I did the Anthem with feeling and with soul, and people at that time hadn’t experienced anything like that. I wasn’t being disrespectful to the flag – I’m proud to be a Puerto Rican American. I’m grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had in my life.”
With nearly 40 years of perspective, he described the Series experience as “bittersweet.” He’s proud that he was, as he put it, “the first one to have the courage to change the Anthem,” and he believes that his version “beats all of the others.”
But he's convinced that the flap hurt his career. Feliciano thought that he was on his way to becoming the first Hispanic artist since Ritchie (“La Bamba”) Valens to cross-over to super-stardom. The controversy, he says, halted that momentum.
“Some people wanted me deported -– as if you can be deported to Puerto Rico,” he told me. “All I know is, from 1968 until the 1970s [when he recorded the theme song to the TV show “Chico and the Man”], the radio stations stopped playing my records. It wasn’t the fans – the fans were with me. But the program directors didn’t play my songs. I don’t think I deserved that.”
Actually, he did score one minor hit: the ’68 Anthem. After the Series, RCA Records took the live feed from Tiger Stadium and released the song as a single. It peaked at No. 50. Many years before Whitney Houston's version at the Super Bowl, it was the first “Banner” to ever hit the charts.
You can listen to Jose Feliciano’s Anthem from the ’68 Series at his web-site: www.josefeliciano.com.