Way back when I was in second at St. Ann’s School, my teacher, Mrs. Fasciano, made the class sing the national anthem every morning. Two things stand out in my memory from that year: 1) Even after repeated attempts, your average second grade class can really mangle “The Star Spangled Banner.” 2) Whenever we got to the word “free,” I had to resist the urge to raise the pitch up two and a half steps the way Rocco Scotti did. Because for years and years, the voice of the national anthem at Cleveland Indians baseball games was the legendary Rocco Scotti. That was a fact of life in Cleveland.
These days, if you end up at, say, a Tuesday night game in August, the person singing the national anthem is just as likely to be the niece of the marketing director’s neighbor who happens to have a good voice as her or she is to be a professional. I propose we go back to having a singular voice of the national anthem at ballgames in Cleveland. And I propose that voice be bass baritone William Clarence Marshall, who is doing the anthem honors on Opening Day 2016. Here’s why:
1. He has an amazing resume.
Marshall has performed at Carnegie Hall, on Broadway, at Lincoln Center, and with orchestras and opera companies all over the world. Hell, he sang on the Phil Donahue Show. But I had to ask—on a resume like that, where does Opening Day rank? “Believe it or not, it ranks very high,” he replied. “I enjoy the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day.” Marshall first sang the national anthem for the Indians in 2002. At the time, he was a New York-based singer who happened to be performing at the Carousel Dinner Theater in Akron. The Indians invited him to sing the anthem before a game. “I’ve sung it intermittently at other Indians games, including last year,” he says. “I was official national anthem singer for the Browns last year, and am hoping to do it again this year. But I’ve never sung for the Cavaliers.” [Ed. Note: This should be rectified.]
In addition to the Indians, Marshall has sung the national anthem for the Dodgers, Cardinals, A’s, Giants, and Blue Jays. “Interestingly enough,” he adds, “in all those years in New York, I never sang for the Yankees or the Mets.” He will also be singing the national anthem on both July 9 and 10, when the Yankees are in town (although we both agreed that’s not quite the same).
2. Just as Rocco Scotti was an accurate reflection of Cleveland for his time, Marshall is a good reflection of the city now.
Rocco Scotti’s family moved from small-town Pennsylvania to Cleveland when he was three. A working class Italian kid with a magnificent tenor voice nicely reflects the white European face of Cleveland in the mid-to-late 20th century. But we’re a different city now. Very few of us are “one thing.” We’ve become a delightful mishmosh of cultures and heritages, of native Clevelanders, boomerangers, and transplants. Marshall reflects that. He took a circuitous route to Cleveland, choosing to live here as an adult, lured by friends he made while touring as a singer, our incredibly affordable housing, and the city itself. The grandson of a genuine Buffalo Soldier, Marshall was born in the Philippines. His father was in the U.S. Navy and moved the family to San Francisco when he was six. They lived “above Candlestick Park. I once watched Willie McCovey hit a ball 525 feet. It was like he was playing tennis—he would whack it and it was gone.” The first time Marshall performed the anthem at a major league game was in San Francisco, and he admits to rooting for the Giants when he was growing up. “But my uncle and aunt lived across the Bay. When I was with them, I had to root for the A’s. Now I root for the Indians.”
Marshall spent a number of years in New York City, where he performed on Broadway, at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and has toured the world performing both opera and musicals. (Last count, he’s traveled to 76 countries.) He’s officially lived in Cleveland for 13 years, but said he first visited in 1992 on Broadway tours. Then, he spent three months here in 1997 in the national tour of Showboat, which gave him a chance to get to know people here and to get to know the city well. Eventually, he decided to move to Cleveland.
3. His rendition of the national anthem is pure and gorgeous.
As the child of a music teacher, it was drilled into me from an early age that, when you sing, you hit the damn note. So I admit to a certain bias against the post-American Idol tendency to slide the pitch up, down, and sideways in an effort to demonstrate soulfulness. I asked Marshall what he thought of the popular tendency towards a melismatic rendition of the national anthem. “No,” he replied. “It’s not about you. It’s an anthem. It becomes something else [when you do that]. I do the traditional 93 seconds.” I asked him what he meant by 93 seconds and learned that, in 1942, a code was established for the singing of the national anthem. I knew Congress had decreed “The Star Spangled Banner” as America’s national anthem in 1931, but had no idea there were actually standards for singing it.
Marshall seems to know the code by heart. “If only a single stanza of the song will be sung, then you only sing the first verse. It is to be sung in either A flat or B flat. It is to be sung without any extra musical affect,” he quoted. “I don’t care if it’s longer than 93 seconds—sing it slower if you want. Just sing the melody and get out.”
He is cognizant that his voice and performance of the national anthem might surprise some people. “I’m aware that you don’t have a lot of black males singing the anthem.” And they probably suspect a melismatic rendition of the anthem, not the voice of a world-class opera bass. “I’ve had people photobomb me afterwards,” he says. “They all want to be my friend. They want to high five you. They just want to congratulate you. They say ‘I like the way you sing it—it’s straightforward.’ When I go back to my seat, it makes me feel good. I love it. I believe that the crowd wants a firm, straight ahead version of the anthem.” He adds that “The Browns are strict—they want it in 90 seconds. The Indians don’t insist on 90 seconds, but I usually do it around 93 or 94. It’s my own at bat. I take my mic, look at the flag, and I start. There is a performance to it. My performance is to sing it well and sing it respectfully. Not me, but for what it stands for. A simple, straightforward sound, nothing embellished.” When he’s done, he says, “There’s a little roar and then it’s ‘Play ball.’”
4. He has a true fan’s heart.
For a man who has literally sung all over the world, Marshall still finds singing the anthem before a baseball game to be something special: “When you sing the national anthem at a baseball stadium, it’s quiet. I see people paying attention, people with their hand over their heart. It’s almost like being in church—it’s our church. They’re ready for the game to start, but for that moment, we’re all together.”
If you can’t make Opening Day, here’s Marshall singing the anthem before the game on September 11, 2014.