National anthem can be a perilous fight for singers

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Jeffrey Osborne

Recording artist Jeffrey Osborne sings the national anthem before a game between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park in December. Osborne has been a national anthem singer at Lakers home games for more than three decades. (Paul Spinelli / Associated Press / December 8, 2013)

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light…

That light painfully dawns on a screeching rock star attempting to recapture lost glory, a scruffy folk singer torturously immortalizing his mandolin, a hip quartet desperately trying to create a rocket's red boogie.

"You know, the song is not really not supposed to be about you," said Jeffrey Osborne with a chuckle. "It's supposed to be about your country."

What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming…

Some actually try to stretch the song out until that twilight's last gleaming. Others try to croon just enough to be proudly hailed. Few of them actually wear a watch.

"I hear people dragging out every note, every word, every syllable, like it's their moment, their time to shine," Osborne said. "That's not what it's about."

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight…

It is a perilous fight indeed, one occurring every day prior to athletic events in this country, a battle between singers and their voices to honor their nation while not embarrassing themselves, a solitary duel whose gallant victories are often overshadowed by its spectacular defeats.

This Fourth of July weekend is perhaps the perfect time to honor this most imperfect ritual, the occasionally ugly, sometimes glorious, always dramatic fight that is the pregame singing of our national anthem.

It's the best worst job in sports, so much that even here in Hollywood, most regular-season anthems are performed by regular folks who win the spot with audition audiotapes. The truly big stars around town won't do the anthem for regular-season sports events, when the song is not nationally televised, because the risk is just not worth the reward.

"The song is really hard, and the melody is not that great, but this is bigger than all that," Osborne said. "It's a song about respect."

Besides, when else do Americans have a chance to sing it?

O'er the ramparts we watch'd were so gallantly streaming? …

Few have gallantly streamed this song in Los Angeles like Osborne, the city's version of Old Glory. The longtime R&B musician, singer and songwriter has sung the national anthem before the Lakers' home opener for more than 30 years while also singing before countless Lakers playoff games.

He is considered such a part of the organization, he has six championship rings. A couple of years ago, he was even brought in by Magic Johnson to sing the anthem before the first Dodgers home game of the Guggenheim era. And, of course, during his long anthem career, he has steadfastly refused invitations to sing for the Boston Celtics or the Clippers.

"For decades now, Jeffrey has been synonymous with opening night, and is loved by both our fans and our organization," said Lakers spokesman John Black. "He's part of the Lakers family, and we feel very lucky to have him be so."

Osborne is beloved because his anthems are soulful yet respectful, a two-minute midcourt burst of sincere emotion that still bring chills. He walks to midcourt, begins pouring out the words with no accompanying music, and by the time he is halfway through the song, listeners find themselves ignoring him and looking for the flag.

"It's a prideful moment, and you want to make the fans feel it," Osborne said. "You're not singing it to them, you're singing it for them."

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air…

There have been many brilliant rockets glaring during these anthems, from the Super Bowls of Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson to the Stanley Cups of crooner Pia Toscano, the former "American Idol" star who in the last three years has sung before every big Kings hockey game at Staples Center, including both Cup-clinching wins.

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