January 1991: Whitney Houston Heals the Nation with "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV, 1991
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Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Sports fans might remember Super Bowl XXV as the night that the New York Giants clinched a one-point lead over the Buffalo Bills, earning their second NFL championship title. But for many, that night was the night Whitney Houston brought America together with a dramatic, pre-game rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the country's national anthem.

The tune, customarily performed before kickoff, packed incredible weight that night. Operation Desert Storm, the second phase of the Gulf War, had begun 10 days before, with America and England leading an international alliance of forces against the army of Iraq, who'd invaded the country of Kuwait the summer before. It had been more than a decade since American forces were deployed abroad like this, and the rise of 24-hour cable news meant constant updates from battlefronts in a way few had seen on television. (ABC in fact aired the night's halftime show, a performance by New Kids on the Block, after the game, offering a special news bulletin about the conflict in its place.)

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Houston, who'd just released her R&B-laden I'm Your Baby Tonight in November 1990, was picked to lead the performance. Working with longtime musical director Rickey Minor, she decided to perform the tune in 4/4 time instead of its usual waltzing 3/4 tempo, allowing for a more dramatic interpretation. Controversially, she chose to pre-record the song, backed by the Florida Orchestra at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. "There's no way to rehearse the sound of the crowd...coming at you," Minor later explained. "You don't know where the first note begins." While NFL executives were worried the rendition would be heard as too slow, requests to re-record the track were not honored. Their concern was misplaced: Whitney's rendition galvanized audiences in a way not seen since Marvin Gaye's 1983 performance of the anthem at the NBA finals.

"I went back up in the sky booth and watched the game," Houston told People shortly thereafter. "It wasn't until a day or two later that I realized the whole country was in an uproar." By incredible demand, she released the performance as a single the following month, days before the war came to an end; it raised more than $500,000 for the Red Cross and rose to No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. A decade later, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the song was released again to raise money for charities; this time, it climbed to No. 6 - the only time in American history the nation's own anthem became a pop hit.

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