CHICAGO — Backed by some 20,000 harmonists in Blackhawks sweaters, most of them presumably red-blooded Americans, Jim Cornelison tore through “The Star-Spangled Banner” one more time Saturday night at the United Center before the Bruins and Blackhawks met in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Cornelison is more than a voice. He is a presence. He is the Statue of Liberty come to life, a gift not from France, but from Vienna, Va., his birthplace, a town fittingly within a rocket’s red glare of our nation’s capital. Lady Liberty’s torch ain’t got nothin’ on Big Jim’s pipes.
If you’ve never witnessed the Cornelison version of the national anthem, or if you’re simply in need of a patriotic pick-me-up, take a minute or two and watch it on YouTube. It will give you the sense of it, although, much like hockey itself, there is nothing like seeing it in person, in the moment, with the thunderous stampede of words storming out of Cornelison, and his group harmonists in the stands cheering and saluting and otherwise carrying on as if the song itself just liberated this great city from German occupation.
Spoiler alert: I am about to tell you the best part of Cornelison’s delivery, so skip on down a paragraph or two if you must. The piece de resistance is when Cornelison, a professional opera singer, reaches the words, “gave proof through the night.’’ It’s at that moment, with microphone clutched in his right hand, he raises high his left arm in the direction of the US flag in the rafters and booms, “That our flag was still there.’’
What an ode to Old Glory. The fans, already crazy from the first note, go totally bonkers. If that’s what opera is about, get me a front-row seat (aisle, of course) at “La Boheme.”
All in all, it’s a spine-tingling, goosebump-making, chocolate-thunder-flying, Seabrook-crying performance that can’t be beat. True hockey fans know it’s a disgrace not be seated for the opening faceoff. Here at the United Center, when the Blackhawks are ready to play, it borders on crimes against the state not to be standing at your assigned seat in time for the anthem.
Now look, I love me some Rene Rancourt, who has belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Causeway Street longer than Tom Menino has roamed around City Hall. Who doesn’t love ol’ Rene’s version, punctuated with his cartoon-like facial expressions and Randy Burridge-like fist pumps? There is something distinctly and lovingly Boston about the Causeway Crooner.
But there’s nothing bigger than Chicago, the city of Big Shoulders, when Cornelison commands the mike. Armed Service recruiting offices should set up TVs in their storefront windows across the land, pop in a CD of Cornelison bringing down the Madhouse on Madison, and then wait for able-bodied young women and men to storm the door. Army. Navy. Air Force. Marines. Uncle Jim wants you.
If Herb Brooks were still here he would tell us that Cornelison was born in 1964, and on that day he was meant to be here, now, delivering the anthem in one gold-medal performance after another.
Brooks: “Who do you sing for, Jimbo?’’
Cornelison: “I sing for the US-of-A!’’
Francis Scott Key wrote the words. Jim Cornelison has shaped them into an American rallying cry.
Cornelison’s family moved from Virginia to the state of Washington when he was a child. His trajectory toward anthematic fame began at Yakima Valley Community College, then Seattle Pacific University, where he earned undergraduate degrees in music and psychology. In 1992, he earned a master’s in opera performance at Indiana University, and then three years later came here to join the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists. Now managed by Columbia Artists, he began singing the anthem here in 1996, before being assigned the gig full time some six years ago, when Rocky Wirtz took full charge of the Blackhawks.
No anthem singer in the country is treated to the kind of accompaniment the crowd offers Cornelison. All the hollering likely strikes some as disrespectful, if one’s idea of paying homage to the country is to stand stoically with hand over heart during the anthem.
The difference here is that Chicagoans, dating back years before Cornelison set the tune, have taken respect and transformed it into celebration. So, it’s OK. It is somewhat akin to being at a ceremony for a lost loved one, where somber and sullen take a backseat to the joy of remembering a life well-lived.
Chicagoans have proven that respecting the red, white, and blue comes in many hues. They really aren’t into reserved patriotism. If you’re going to strike up the band for Old Glory, then they’re singing along, even if all they’re really doing is yelling “USA!’’ or punctuating key phrases or single words with exaggerated gusto as Cornelison turns the anthem into a spirited 90 seconds of deep-dish Americana.
You got a problem with that? Good luck. You’re not going to find a single sympathetic ear at the United Center. In part because most everyone is deaf, and hoarse, by the time the puck is dropped.
If Cornelison is back here again this season, it means the Blackhawks and Bruins will play a Game 7 for the Stanley Cup. If so, here’s hoping NBC does the right thing and gives the flag, the singer, and the crowd their moment. This is way more than “Sweet Caroline” in Boston. Way more than Kate Smith in Philadelphia. Way more than how beloved Harry Caray belted out “Take Me Out to the Ball Game’’ at Wrigley.
It is a reminder, a boisterous one, that the anthem is so much more than the games we watch and play.