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Marvin Gaye’s 1983 Version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” Still Resonates

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On January 20, 2009, America celebrates the inauguration of our country's first African-American president. It has been a hopeful time, but also a moment of pride at our diversity and ability to come together despite our differences. This spirit made me think about a song we've been hearing many times these past couple of weeks: "The Star-Spangled Banner." Of course, our anthem has been performed at countless sports events, both beautifully and horribly (I'm talking to you, Roseanne Barr).  But one performance stands out as one of the most moving, soul-inspiring renditions ever.

The scene: The Forum, Inglewood, California, February 13, 1983.  The NBA All-Star Game was about to begin as the Eastern and Western Conference team members stood, awaiting the game's start. The public address announcer began his introduction of National Anthem as usual, but when the vocalist's name was uttered, cheers erupted from the stands. The lights dimmed and in strode a tall man dressed a dapper suit, sunglasses shielding his eyes from the bright lights of the arena. As he stepped up to the microphone, a drum machine kicked in.

No one knew then that this performer would change people's perceptions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" forever.

The singer was Marvin Gaye, the legendary Motown artist who had evolved from successful soul singer to activist to sex symbol. In the early '80s, unfortunately, he was struggling with drugs and bankruptcy, having moved back in with his parents to regroup.

In 1982, though, Gaye released his comeback album, Midnight Love, and the massive success of its first single, "Sexual Healing," proved that his voice had retained its passion and beauty. The album also underscored that he was still an artistic force to be reckoned with. Therefore, when Gaye emerged to sing the National Anthem, the NBA All-Star audience welcomed him enthusiastically.

The drum machine backing track immediately cued that this would be no ordinary rendition of the song. As soon as Gaye crooned its first line, the crowd cheered; after practically every verse, the people applauded. Astoundingly, they soon began clapping along with the rhythm. Seemingly energized by this reception, Gaye grinned and let loose his powerful voice and impressive range. Instead of singing in a restrained way, he let his soul and funk roots take center stage, his voice altering between raspy and smoothly melodic tones, his phrasing in the league of Frank Sinatra. Lingering over every lyric, he seemed to carefully consider each word, putting his unique stamp on the familiar verses.

By the time Gaye reached the final crescendo, flawlessly hitting the right notes on the "O'er the land of the free" verse, the crowd and players looked transfixed. The scene almost resembled a lively church service, with people clapping, cheering, and shouting encouragement all through the song. By the final note, everyone rose to their feet in furious applause. Gaye simply smiled and took in the adulation before walking away from the microphone. While the basketball game was interesting — Julius Irving was named MVP, leading the Eastern Conference to victory — many remember the event for Gaye's unique performance.

Marvin GayeAmazingly, the game's organizers worried that the moment would not happen at all. According to NPR's 2003 story on the event, Lon Rosen, director of promotions for the Los Angeles Lakers, stated that Gaye's pre-game rehearsal was rocky at best. And as had become usual (perhaps partially due to his continuing drug problem), Gaye ran late on game day, almost missing the performance altogether. Once he arrived, of course, history was made. Sadly, Gaye's magnificent voice was silenced a year later when his father fatally shot him during an argument.

For years, finding recordings of this unique rendition proved a challenge. Presently, the song can be found on a few compilations, including the 1995 box set, The Master: 1961-1984 and Playlist: The Very Best of Marvin Gaye. The track remains missing from iTunes, however.

Today, Marvin Gaye's version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" retains its relevance as it exemplifies America's diversity and various interpretations of the American spirit. Every time I listen to this track, shivers run up my spine, as Gaye's emotion and joy resound in his voice. As we celebrate Barack Obama's presidency, Marvin Gaye's rendition of the National Anthem resonates in its tribute to our diverse culture and unity in our appreciation of beautiful music. 

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Jordan Richardson

    Awesome. I hadn’t seen this, so thanks for sharing it!

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Awesome, thanks for this.

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Thanks for the comments–I’m glad you both enjoyed the article!

  • http://midnightman84.wordpress.com Tim Pernell

    That man produced the best version of that song IMHO. Marvin was a grade-A soul man first of all so the fact that he was able to sing the way he did, first refined and then bringing out the church in the important lines of the song, it proved that even in the craziness of his tragic life, he was still able to convey magic and beauty in that near-immaculate voice of his. Hearing his version now makes me proud to be who I am and where I come from. We miss you, Marvin!

  • http://www.star-spangled-banner.info/ Star Spangled Banner

    That is cool! He is awesome! Have you guys seen Whitney Houston’s? It is awesome to!

  • http://joeystansbury.blogspot.com Joey

    Not sure I would call Marvin an activist. I don’t think he viewed himself that way.

    Nice article.

  • Demi

    Pure Genious. He didnt take a single word for granted. I love him to death and look up to this man in many many ways. Peace soul and love to ya!