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Whitney Houston, The Florida Orchestra and the 1991 Super Bowl

Bill DeYoung

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It was the song heard ‘round the world.

Whitney Houston was 27 years old when she sang the national anthem at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa Stadium. The year was 1991, the Buffalo Bills were playing the New York Giants, and the Gulf War – Operation Desert Storm – was barely a week old.

So tensions were running high, and Americans badly needed a shot of the ol’ red, white and blue. And the most successful pop singer in recent history, still in her prime and a good many years away from the sad, drug-fueled descent that would ultimately kill her, was ready to deliver.

Standing on a tiny stage, with the Florida Orchestra and conductor Jahja Ling behind her, Houston belted out a slow, bluesy “Star-Spangled Banner” that brought the crowd of 73,000 to their feet, the passion and patriotism of the performance carrying away, for those two minutes and 15 seconds at least, the fears and uncertainties brought on by the conflict in Iraq.

Houston was “miming” to a recording she’d made days earlier in a Los Angeles studio, over a backing track the symphony players had recorded in Tampa.

This was not an uncommon practice at large sporting events. With that many people, and the possibility of weather-related or mechanical mishaps, it was deemed prudent to pre-record. Houston, however, was actually singing live on Jan. 27, 1991 into a microphone that was switched off – so even if the sounds everyone heard weren’t actually coming from her golden throat, at that moment, she was physically throwing herself into the “delivery.”

“Her version of the national anthem was a relief valve for the nation,” arranger John Clayton later said. “They were living their expression through her. I sat on the couch with my wife and as we were crying at the performance, hearing it all come together, it was such a relief.”

According to a story this week in USA Today, it almost didn’t happen.

A new “old” version

Under conductor Michael Francis, TFO this week has produced a video showing the current group of musicians performing John Clayton’s 1991 arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the very arrangement that the late, great Whitney Houston used, and made history with.

With the players masked and spaced suitably apart on the Mahaffey Theater stage, vocalist Diane Andrieux sings from a nearby balcony.

“We hope this will help inspire you to what will be a stunning victory for Tampa Bay and, of course, the Buccaneers,” the very British Francis says at the start of the video, ending his speech with a very British, and not entirely convincing, “Go Bucs!”

TFO in the courts

There’s more to the story, however. Houston’s rendition of the national anthem was so powerful that her label, Arista Records, issued the studio recording as a single, with Houston’s profits earmarked for charity.

All well and good, except for the fact that The Florida Orchestra, which appeared on the record, was not consulted – nor was the group initially compensated.

At another time, this might not have been an issue. But the orchestra was in dire financial straits in 1991. Frank Jakes, an attorney with the Tampa firm Johnson Pope, specialized in copyright law, and he negotiated a six-figure settlement with Arista. The label was forced to concede that The Florida Orchestra was, in fact, a co-performer on the recording.

“Their first reaction was ‘Look, you’re background musicians, and background musicians get a modest stipend in these situations,’” Jakes recalls. “And they said ‘How dare you intervene with the good work that Whitney is doing? Because she’s contributing her profits to military families’ organizations.’

“But Arista was going to be pocketing a good deal of money before anything made its way to the charity.”

The label, he adds, “didn’t know their rear end from a hole in the ground on this issue. Under copyright law, if they had done an agreement on the front end with the orchestra, regarding the subsequent use of the recording, the orchestra probably would have been strong-armed into taking some nominal stipend. But they didn’t do that.”

Ten years later, Houston’s “Star-Spangled Banner” was re-issued as a charity single, in the wake of 9-11, and through a combination of downloads and physical purchases, sold a million copies. It was credited to Whitney Houston – and The Florida Orchestra. “Part of the deal was that they had to give us attribution on further releases of the recording,” says Jakes.

Financially, it was a different story. “It was mid-boggling how they could just completely forget about the contract, and ignore it.

“And when I sued them, they pulled it out and kind of sheepishly said ‘Yeah, we screwed up. Let’s just do the math and get the money to you.’”

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