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The All-Star Anthem

Thirty years later, Marvin Gaye's rendition of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' stands alone

It was early afternoon in Inglewood, California, about 10 minutes before the 12:30 p.m. televised start of the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and Amanda Mayo was in a broom closet.

Twenty minutes earlier, a panicked Lon Rosen, the Lakers’ director of promotions, had asked the 24-year-old team employee to get ready. The planned pregame act was nearly two hours late and, despite the very Hollywood crowd gathered at the Forum, Rosen couldn’t find any singers to fill in. So the usher with perfect pitch, the actress’s daughter who had talked her way into the team’s rotation of national anthem singers,1 would have to perform.

The small space under the Forum’s stairs was the preferred warm-up spot for Mayo, whose mother, Janet Blair, was the star of a string of musicals and comedies in the 1940s. She didn’t mind these last-second requests. There was no time to obsess or worry, though she did contact her brother and let him know what might be coming. “Call everybody,” she told him.

Surrounded by concrete walls and with an audience of a mop and broom, Mayo thought about the magnitude of the scene, and the excitement surrounding the musical legend she was about to replace. One thought, however, lingered above the spectacle.

“I really wanted him to show up in the end,” she remembers.

He did.

Rosen listened to Marvin Gaye’s take on “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the scorer’s table at center court. He loved what he heard, but still had concerns. Gaye’s rendition was a break in tradition, and judging by the frenzied response of 17,505 attendees, Rosen knew plenty of people might find it disrespectful. One thing, however, was immediately clear: NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien sure did.

During the first quarter, O’Brien let Rosen have it. The conversation was short and “very colorful,” says Rosen, who declined to go into specifics.

Marvin Gaye had been one of Rosen’s musical heroes. Now Rosen was sure Gaye was going to get him fired. At halftime, Rosen had to check in with Lakers owner Jerry Buss. The walk to the private box was excruciatingly long; it felt like he was heading to the principal’s office.

“What’s the matter?” Buss asked.

Rosen told him.

“That was the greatest anthem of all time,” Buss replied. “Are you kidding?”2

It’s been 30 years since Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking national anthem, and at this point, it’s hard to question its impact on pop culture. Gaye came before Whitney Houston’s triumph in Tampa … and for Roseanne Barr’s crotch-grabbing embarrassment in San Diego. And his rendition influenced the NBA, whose “history was being invented as we spoke,” says Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts, who worked in the league office from 1982 to 1999 and created All-Star Weekend. Venerable basketball writer Jack McCallum says Gaye’s performance signified the league planting its flag as “a cultural leader.”

At the time, however, “you didn’t hear passionate versions of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ which is why it’s a mistake to have it at 10,000 baseball games,” says music writer Dave Marsh. “It dilutes the meaning the song has. It’s something that comes along like the five o’clock train.” Gaye’s biographer and friend David Ritz says the performance offered a social commentary and revealed the singer’s soul. It was a challenge to the American jingoism embraced by President Reagan — and an inside joke: Here’s a funky, distinctively black version that’s representative of what’s on the court.

The players who participated in the 1983 NBA All-Star Game were focused elsewhere that afternoon. First-timers Jim Paxson and Kiki Vandeweghe were jittery; Paxson bolted onto the court before his introduction was finished. Marques Johnson wanted to play well for a fan he’d flown in from Milwaukee: 11-year-old Maltese Williams, who was badly burned in a December house fire that killed Williams’s sister. Isiah Thomas just wanted to prove he was the best in the league.

The squads lined up along the free throw lines, while a few of the basketball writers donned mirrored sunglasses provided in gift bags from the NBA. Gaye, all Motown cool in his dark suit and manhole-size sunglasses — looking “resplendent,” according to Rosen — walked to center court. “I asked God that when I sang it,” Gaye later told an interviewer, “would He let it move men’s souls.”

The beat started — and instantly, panic reigned.

Ah, shit, man, thought Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers’ public address announcer. They’ve got the wrong tape. This is “Sexual Healing.” “I don’t think anyone had a clue what was about to come,” says Josh Rosenfeld, then the Lakers’ director of public relations.

The simple two-beat pattern came courtesy of Gaye and his guitarist and musical director, Gordon Banks, who created it in Banks’s studio — a 4-by-4 closet. This is kind of groovy, kind of funky, Marques Johnson thought, as the performance started. OK, I like that. Then Gaye opened his mouth.

The players looked at each other, Johnson recalls, and their expressions said the same thing: Oh, shit, here we go.

“If you are listening, and if you have any ear for music at all, you hear something that should have taken precedent at that moment,” Reggie Theus says. “It was that new, that different, that unique, and that good. If you didn’t take a moment to reflect, shame on you.”

Western Conference coach Pat Riley did. “When he took off,” Riley says, “I morphed into an American.”

As Gaye neared the climax of the performance, the song started to seem personal; he was working through what Ritz calls his “emotional shit.” By “wave,” the crowd was his. They were clapping to the beat. After an elongated “brave,” Gaye exhaled a breathy “Oh, Lord. Woo!” There was a slight pause. Not even a second, Robert Parish says, “like nobody could believe what they just heard.” And then, from the stands — an eruption, according to Parish.3 On the court, players high-fived each other.

“I just never heard anything so good,” Vandeweghe says. “It was just a moment in time that I don’t think anybody is ever going to forget. Being so close to him when he was singing it you could hear the voice unamplified. Wow, it was something. You get those moments in your life that you’re never going to forget. I don’t remember half the stuff that went on in the game, but I’ll tell you what: I remember that.”

Said Tanter: “When you introduce someone to do the national anthem, you expect something predicated on historical precedent. We’re talking about a whole set of emotions that erupted spontaneously, that no one could anticipate.”

José Feliciano knows exactly what that’s like.

My intention was to show my patriotism,” Feliciano says. Not everyone got it.

Feliciano, best known for “Feliz Navidad” and his rendition of “Light My Fire,” performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals. He used an acoustic guitar to put together a sweet, soaring performance, nearly identical to what Feliciano unveiled at Game 1 of the 2012 National League Championship Series.

When Feliciano finished, he remembers a “few yays and quite a few boos.”4

The Tigers’ switchboard lit up with objections. Telegrams piled up. Feliciano was told that veterans hurled their shoes at the television. No one expected this.5 “I picked him because he’s one of the outstanding singers in America today,” Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who invited Feliciano to perform, later told the Detroit Free Press. “I had heard from people in music whose opinion I respect that he had an interesting version of the national anthem. I feel a fellow has a right to sing any way he can sing it.”

Feliciano, then 23, didn’t audition for the slot, and he didn’t receive instructions before he performed. The same can’t be said of Game 4’s pregame singer: Marvin Gaye.6

“I would have thought, that he, being a soul singer, would have taken the leap and he didn’t,” says Feliciano. But, he adds, “[Gaye’s Game 4 approach] opened the door to me &#8212 I did it my way and I made history.” Until 15 years later. In a way, Marvin is trying to copy something I did, Feliciano first thought when he heard the All-Star Game anthem. Good for him. But he wasn’t exactly enamored of Gaye’s interpretation. “I thought it was OK,” he says. “I thought singing to the track was a little bit different.”

Some embraced Feliciano’s version — which reached no. 50 on The Billboard Hot 100 — but most did not. His career in America stalled for five years. Radio stations stopped playing his songs. Gaye, on the other hand, started a U.S. tour in April 1983.7 “I made history and nothing can besmirch that,” Feliciano says. “Nothing can erase that. Anytime anybody talks about [making the anthem stylistic] they have to deal with the fact that I was the first one to innovate.”

Marvin Gaye wasn’t Lon Rosen’s first choice. He wanted Lionel Richie, who seemed to epitomize the entertainment Jerry Buss hoped to pair with high-quality hoops. The problem? According to Rosen, the commissioner’s office didn’t know who Lionel Richie was. Looking for options, Rosen then called CBS Records. Gaye, basking in the success of “Sexual Healing,” was recommended. Perfect. “He was cool,” says Lakers executive Jeanie Buss, then attending USC and working for the team over the summer. “He was of the moment.”8

Once Gaye was booked, there wasn’t a lot of time to prepare. Rosenfeld said the act was locked on the Tuesday before Sunday’s game. Gaye and Banks worked on the song the day before the All-Star Game, with the singer rehearsing on Saturday between the squads’ practices.9

“Everything stopped because it was so unusual and so great,” says Ted Shaker, who was executive producer for The NBA on CBS. Shaker watched Gaye rehearse with a group of colleagues, including announcer Dick Stockton and the game’s director, Sandy Grossman. “We all kind of went, ‘Wow,'” he says.

“It was well beyond the normal,” Shaker says. “It was so different, yet so cool. And everybody knew it. When he finished singing, everybody in the place was standing and applauding him. All the sound was bouncing off the walls. We all knew this was going to be fantastic. I remember that night and the following day in every conversation it was, ‘Make sure you hear the national anthem.'”

Gaye didn’t stick around for the game.10 The Lakers sent a thank-you note and a jersey, but they never heard back. About a year later, on April 1, 1984, Gaye’s father, Marvin Gay Sr., shot his son in the chest and then again at point-blank range. He died that afternoon, a day before his 45th birthday.

While Gaye did handstands on the anthem’s proper stylistic plank, Commissioner O’Brien locked his eyes on Brian McIntyre, then the NBA’s director of public relations. “You’re going to handle all the negative letters on this,” McIntyre recalls being told.11

That would have to wait. First, McIntyre attended a postgame party hosted by CBS Sports. Gaye’s performance from hours ago provided part of the soundtrack for a lively scene.

McIntyre noticed one person who loved what he was hearing: an attorney, a basketball zealot who grew up rooting for the Knicks. Give him a minute, and he would offer you a thousand ideas on how to revitalize the league. The guy had a mind like a vacuum, Shaker recalls.

A year later, David Stern was named the NBA’s commissioner.

Pete Croatto (@PeteCroatto) has written for Deadspin, the Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia, and MAD.

Art by P.J. McQuade.

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