KRAVITZ: Blackhawks anthem singer brings magical voice to Indianapolis

Jim Cornelison sings the national anthem before a baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Chicago Cubs in Chicago, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Published: .
Updated: .
Bob Kravitz

If you're planning on going to the Indy Fuel game Saturday night – it's Blackhawks Night at the Coliseum – do yourself a favor: Get there early. Get your popcorn and your beer and be settled in your seat several moments before the puck drops. Because you will get a chance to witness one of the great traditions in hockey, and really all of American sports, when IU grad Jim Cornelison will belt out the national anthem in the soaring baritone that Hawks fans have come to love and appreciate.

Do this, too: Scream your lungs out during the anthem. Now, if you feel that's disrespectful, that's fine; remain quiet. That's your prerogative. But if you want to make the Coliseum feel the way the United Center feels every time the Blackhawks take the ice, scream, yell, applaud, make noise, and do it from the opening note to the last. If the building isn't shaking, at least just a little bit, you're not doing it right.

I understand, Indy is not a huge hockey town, and two years ago, a fan nearly got tossed for throwing a hat on the ice after a Fuel player scored a hat trick. The security guard had no idea about hat-trick etiquette, but was ultimately intercepted by team ownership, which stepped in and explained how things work. Peace was restored.

For the minute and 36 to 38 seconds it takes for Cornelison to do what he does best, Indy can sound like a true hockey town that gets it.

Put it this way: If Cornelison can hear his own voice over the din, you're doing it wrong.

"Sound is a vibration in the air, and I've had people tell me they've gotten goose bumps or have been moved to tears," he said. "Noise has a real physical presence. I feel it, others feel it, the veterans next to me feel it, and it's always exhilarating, always exciting, always uplifting. Just feeling this swell of emotion, it wells up in your chest and then your whole body, and you feel that."

The Chicago anthem tradition was born in 1985, after the American national anthem was purportedly disrespected by Edmontonians during a playoff series between the Oilers and the Hawks. When the teams returned to Chicago after two lopsided losses to the Oilers in Edmonton, fans were angry and amped, and pushed the decibel meter to unmatched heights. Since then, it's been an every-game thing.

Cornelison didn't start singing the anthem at the United Center until he began doing it part time in 1996, and has been doing it full time since 2007. That first time he did it at the United Center, that's something that will stay with him always.

"I felt like I was prepared, but I go out and the crowd starts cheering, and then it kind of moves in waves, like moments when it really crescendos and then goes back down and then really swells again," he said. "I felt all this emotion come up inside me. I got choked up and I started to feel that in my throat and I was like, 'Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa, let's get this under control right now.'

"…I still let it get to me once in a while. It'll still catch me off guard."

At this point, you're saying, "Bob, it's the national anthem. Cool your jets. And by the way, what's up with the Colts?" Ask any sports journalist: We are unwitting connoisseurs of national anthems the way we are connoisseurs of free buffets. We cover games for a living, so we hear anthems, over and over and over again. (I cannot confirm nor deny that money is occasionally exchanged while wagering the over-under on the time that's taken to sing the anthem).

I was in Tampa to hear perhaps the best-ever rendition, that by the late Whitney Houston, who moved everybody to tears in the midst of the Gulf War. I've seen unholy disasters, seen singers forget the words or croak when they hit that upper register of "rocket's red glare." I've heard it sung quickly, like a minute and a half, and I've seen it last forever; in fact, Aretha Franklin is still singing even as we speak.

My personal preference is for people to sing it straight, but unique interpretations of the song work well too, at times. Different strokes…

"I'm more of a traditionalist," Cornelison said. "I've personally heard (nontraditional) anthems that I thought were wonderful…But whenever somebody does that, they're saying 'This is my version of the anthem; you don't get to sing along.' And the essential quality of an anthem is that it's unifying. It's supposed to be a song of the people. I liked Marvin Gaye's rendition, the Dixie Chicks, Jimi Hendrix, but those aren't easily replicable. If you're going to do it as often as I do it, it's got to be kind of a standard. The job is to move the audience and not just yourself."

Cornelison, a member of the Chicago Lyric Opera who got his master's and did doctoral work at IU in the early 1990s, is one of the very best – and when you add the United Center crowd, the result is magical.

I wondered, though, how he felt about people, athletes in particular, who choose to sit or kneel during the anthem.

"I'll be totally candid," he said. "I can't answer the question."

Oh.

"But I'll be candid with you in another way," he quickly added. "What I do, I've become very committed to being more involved with veterans' organizations. I receive emails from people, one of them I quote often is 'Dear Jim: My son is in the Navy. I want to thank you for what you do every time I come to the United Center. I feel like 20,000 people are cheering for him.' I'll have people come up and hug me and tell me about their son and they're crying, telling me his story, and all you can do is hug them back and tell them you're sorry.

"What we do is unify and it's really meaningful to people when you think about people who lose a son, what do those 20,000 people mean to the family? I think we're helping people get back in touch with the meaning or value of their sacrifice or their loss, and that's huge in what it does for their spirit."

Want more Kravitz? Subscribe to the Bob Kravitz Podcast on iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher.