The Star Spangled Banner

I have had the honor of playing the national anthem three times in Chicago, twice for the White Sox once for the Bulls. Each time, something surrealistic happened, and I’ll share two of them with you.

My first experience was playing at the old Chicago Stadium for the Bulls in the late ’80′s. Michael Jordan was in his prime (I think he scored 53 points that night) and I was very excited to be there. A woman from the organization walked me onto the floor past the players and over to the broadcast table where I met Johnny “Red” Kerr, the Bulls chief broadcaster and a legend in Chicago. He shook my hand and I was on my way to the mic in the center of the floor when he called me back and asked ” Howard, do you pronounce your last name LEE-VY or LEH-VY?” I told him the right way to say my name, he said “Okay”, and I nervously stepped to the mic.

Then I heard his voice boom out over the P.A. “And now, Howard Levy will sing our national anthem”. Nobody had told him that I played harmonica. My fingers are so long that he never saw it in my left hand, and he assumed that I was a singer.

I paused, thought about singing, thought the better of it, steadied my nerves, and played, to the surprise of the crowd. After they realized that I was playing a harmonica, they enjoyed it, but at first, I could feel the confusion in the place over the fact that there weren’t any lyrics. Red Kerr apologized to me afterwards, but it was a real thrill for me to play, even if 19,000 people thought they were going to hear a singer.

The other strange anthem experience came the second time I played it for the White Sox in 1993. The first time I played there, standing at home plate hearing my sound fly around the huge ballpark gave me goosebumps. I eagerly looked forward to doing it again.

This time, I had just flown in from LA from playing the Tonight Show with Kenny Loggins. I went straight from the airport to Orchestra Hall where I was playing in a benefit concert for the Pediatric Aids Foundation, featuring the music of Steven Sondheim. Don Sebesky was music director, the orchestra was made up mostly of members of the Chicago Symphony, Charles Durning was there- quite a scene. After the rehearsal I took a cab to Comiskey. I got to the office, and was greeted by a man from management who hemmed and hawed- a group of girls from Mt. Prospect High School were signing the anthem for the hearing impaired, and thought they were doing it with a singer (sound familiar?). They wanted to rehearse with me. The Sox management guy asked, “Howard, do you think you could play it really straight this time?”

I told him that it was an honor to play the anthem and that it was no problem. So they took me down to the umpires’ room, a small room behind home plate where 8 nervous teenage girls and their teacher ran through their moves as I played. It was pretty funny, and I can only imagine how puzzled the fans must have been when we gave our performance on the field. Once again, though, it was a thrill to stand at home plate and play it.

As soon as I finished, I hurried back to Orchestra Hall, put on my tuxedo, and played the benefit concert. And after that, I went up to The No Exit Café, a place I used to play years before, to play a set that was filmed for a doumentary. I played harmonica and piano, and, I confess, I finally sang a tune.

There is a strange coda to this story. I was at Cal Arts near LA rehearsing for The Old Country cd before flying to Japan to record it. A student was moving some drums for us. He found out that I was from Chicago. We started talking about his one visit to Chicago several years before, and how he went to his one and only major league baseball game on that trip. “As a matter of fact”, he said, “there was a guy who looked kind of like you who played the national anthem on harmonica with a bunch of girls signing it for the deaf. I thought it was cool.”

Comments are closed.