As part of the pre-game ceremonies honoring Ernie Harwell before tonight’s Tigers-Yankees contest, the man who nearly cost the beloved announcer’s job will sing once again his version of the Star Spangled Banner that caused so much controversy 42 years ago.
Before the ’68 World Series began, Tiger management asked Harwell, a songwriter himself, to pick the singers to do the anthem before games two, four, and five. Harwell picked Margaret Whiting and Marvin Gaye for the first two games, and then chose Jose Feliciano, a Latin guitarist/singer who that year scored a #3 hit with his version of the Door’s “Light My Fire.”
Standing in deep centerfield in front of the Merle Alvey Band, (who would not even play during the anthem) Feliciano for the very first time performed his highly stylized version of the Star Spangled Banner. When he was done, there was polite applause accentuated by loud booing. Meanwhile the switchboard at NBC lit up like a Christmas tree as people called in and complained that they were offended by Feliciano’s version.
For my Detroit Free Press article that appears today, Feliciano told me:
“It did surprise me but I didn’t give it any thought until Tony Kubek (NBC announcer) asked me if I had known what I had just done. He said a lot of complaints had been coming in from war veterans and the like and people wanted to deport me. But how do you do that, I am a citizen of the United States? I certainly didn’t mean any harm. It was an innocent thing for me I didn’t do it for the desire of making noise, I was just interpreting the anthem for the ballgame.”
Although Feliciano would later release the actual recording of his Tiger Stadium effort, (hit #50 in Billboard) radio stations stopped playing his music, at least until 1970 when his Christmas hit “Feliz Navidad” was released.
Perhaps the singer’s greatest legacy was that by personalizing his interpretation of the National Anthem, it opened the doors for other artists to do the same. Listen to Feliciano’s beautiful version and you will scratch your head wondering why people could have been so upset.
Feliciano says he is honored, excited, and a bit nervous about singing the National Anthem once again in the Motor City. But he is also saddened by the fact that his great friend Ernie Harwell will not be there to enjoy it.
So as we remember Ernie Harwell during the tribute tonight, if you are lucky enough to be at the game, it would be a wonderful gesture to give Mr. Feliciano arousing standing ovation.