Generally, a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” creates a commotion when it is a difficult listen. For every Whitney Houston, whose stirring performance at Super Bowl XXV captivated our country during the early stages of “Operation Desert Storm,” there is a hall of shame occupied by Roseanne Barr, Carl Lewis and Michael Bolton, just to name a few butchers.
At the United Center, Blackhawks fans have been spoiled by Jim Cornelison, whose version of the national anthem energizes perpetual sellout crowds even before a puck is dropped. Last Sunday, he completed a rare daily double—hockey at 11:30, football at 2:15—and Cornelison’s charisma did not go unnoticed by Joe Buck, Fox network’s lead play-by-play broadcaster assigned to the National Football Conference championship between the Bears and Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
Bob Verdi Archive
Got feedback? Email The Verdict
Before calling the much-awaited game featuring these storied franchises, Buck alerted TV viewers to the man holding the microphone on the 50-yard-line. They do it differently here in Chicago, Buck intoned. This is special. And it was, despite the fact that Cornelison wasn’t 100 percent.
“I’ve been fighting a winter cold, congestion that won’t go away,” Cornelison said Monday, after clearing his throat. “I didn’t feel quite right at the United Center for the Blackhawks and Flyers, partly because of the hour. For the Bears, I was better. But I still made adjustments. I usually sing the anthem in D flat with three high notes in A flat—‘rockets red glare, land of the free, home of the brave.’ On Sunday, I went with C and three high notes that were Gs. Does that mean anything to you?”
I suspect Big Jim knew the answer before he posed the question. The Verdi to whom he was speaking cannot even whistle and is not related in any musical way to Giuseppe.
“Anyway, everything went OK,” Cornelison continued. “A whirlwind day. The Blackhawks were great about it. They hired a stretch limo for me and my posse, which included my son, James, who plays the guitar and sings. Then, after we were dropped off at Soldier Field, the limo went to collect my mother, Kathryn, who’s 88 and daughter, Elizabeth, who’s 12, to bring them downtown. I’m just a country boy. I usually drive my own car. I’m not accustomed to those stretch limos. But, like I say, everything went well. Except I was 0 for 2. Both our teams lost.”
Cornelison is in his third full season with the Blackhawks, and he has become an integral part of the United Center experience. Fans stand and respectfully honor “O Canada” with relative quiet when teams from north of the border furnish the opposition. But “The Star-Spangled Banner” generates enthusiastic audience participation and has since 1985, when Stadium denizens decided their heroes might welcome additional sound effects during a playoff series against the mighty Edmonton Oilers.
When the Blackhawks moved to the modern United Center in 1995, it was theorized that these background noises would somehow get lost in a facility roughly three times as expansive as the Stadium. But when the product on the ice is worthy and the singer has pipes like Cornelison, decibel levels can go through the roof – or at least bounce off it to create serious vibrations. What he doesn’t see is the battery of cell phones taking pictures of his solo and the thousands of attendees who extend a left hand in concert with his when he reaches “that our flag was still there’’ and points to the stars and stripes. It’s almost like “the wave” only a lot better.
The Bears borrowed Cornelison to sign before their opening playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, and the response was staggering. Lee DeWyze of “American Idol” fame had been designated to handle the anthem for the NFC Championship, but Cornelison got the gig by popular demand. If you think it’s easy to alter plans carefully choreographed by the NFL and Fox, you haven’t been paying attention.
“I heard that (Bears President and CEO) Ted Phillips wrote a letter requesting me to come back for the Packers,” Cornelison said. “If that’s true, I appreciate it. Just as I appreciate the great working relationship I have with the Blackhawks. I went to Florida to sing at a corporate convention after the Seattle game, and when I got back to Chicago, it was insane. I had 17 interviews last week. The Seattle anthem tape went on YouTube and got something like 365,000 hits in one night. Very flattering.”
Cornelison, a Virginia native, earned a masters degree from Indiana University and joined the Chicago Lyric Opera’s apprenticeship program in 1995. He’s traveled extensively—to France, Seattle for ten weeks, London for seven, San Francisco for a month. Also, he recently went to a pancake house in Chicago and was instantly recognized by the boss, the help and the patrons.
“My face has been out there a whole bunch lately,” he said. “Occasionally, I might be in a sports bar, and people will come up to introduce themselves, maybe ask for a picture. Once in a while, they ask me to sing something. I don’t know where this is headed. I’ve been fortunate to get some opportunities, and one thing I would like to do is work with the Blackhawks and the USO to get the message out. The USO is apolitical, and I am patriotic. I am an American and proud of it. What the Blackhawks do, bringing out servicemen and women when I sing before a game, that’s a wonderful touch.”
Cornelison dabbles in real estate, but given the state of that industry, he’ll gladly keep his night job. That means refraining from dairy products and alcohol the day before hockey assignments, a meal including hot soup and a Diet Coke an hour or so before showtime at the UC and intense focus when he stands on the red carpet. He heard a bit of an echo at Soldier Field but says neither feedback nor Frank Pellico’s organ accompaniment at Blackhawk games is an issue because it’s so intensely loud.
“Some nights I’m better than others,” Cornelison said. “I’ve never forgotten the words, thank goodness, but I’ve missed a few notes. I get nervous, and I tend to obsess. I want to be perfect, whether I’m singing Christmas carols on another engagement or anthems at the UC. I relax by listening to music at home. Do I sing in the shower? Once in a while, yes. Maybe Frank Sinatra. But not ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”