It was on this day in 1968 when Jose Feliciano performed a controversial version of The Star Spangled Banner before the fifth game of the World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals. As a result of his slow, Bluesy delivery, many radio stations refused to play his songs, and his career suffered dramatically!
In 1968, a rising Puerto Rican pop star, José Feliciano, was asked to sing the anthem before Game 5 of the World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals were playing the Detroit Tigers in Tiger Stadium.
At that time, Feliciano had a hit single with his cover of The Doors’ Light My Fire. The world seemed to be changing very quickly; there was a lot of focus on what the media was calling the Youth Movement.
Back then, the anthem was generally performed by popular musicians of stage and screen, or talented first-responders and members of the military, always in a very straightforward way.
Feliciano’s gentle, Latin jazz-infused version puzzled some people. And it outraged others.
After I sang it, it was really strange to hear me being booed, as well as yay’d, and I didn’t know what happened,” he recalled during one of his final interviews before his death in 2014…
A Tigers official told him the club’s phones were lighting up with angry calls from around the country: “Some veterans were taking off their shoes and throwing them at their television screens,” he was told.
While some fans enjoyed this different version, many older ones and veterans thought it was disrespectful. At a time when the U.S. was torn apart over the country’s involvement in Vietnam. Perception counted, and some people perceived Feliciano’s anthem as a protest.
He insists it was the exact opposite: “I did it to show my appreciation to America for what they had done for me. I love this country.”
Commercial radio blackballed him. “I was a little depressed, to tell you the truth,” Feliciano admits. His career had just taken off — “And then they stopped playing me. Like I had the plague, or something.”
But he still played concerts on college campuses, and gigged in jazz clubs and music festivals around the country. He continued to cut records (notably his holiday classic, Feliz Navidad.)
And while he was doing that, something else happened: José Feliciano’s improvisation on the anthem opened the door to a bunch of other people with their own versions: Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969. Marvin Gaye at the NBA All Star Game in 1983. Garth Brooks. Billy Joel. Beyonce. Lady Gaga. And Whitney Houston’s now-iconic performance in 1991 at the height of the first Gulf War, complete with a flyover of four F-16 fighter jets. (Cher even paid homage to it eight years later.)
Feliciano is philosophical about the evolution. “The only thing I can say about all these versions is they wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t done it — and I’m glad that I did.”