It’s been ten years since Whitney Houston’s tragic passing and just over 30 years since she effortlessly transformed the national anthem into her own work of art. In light of these juxtaposing moments in history, ESPN’s E60 is detailing the backstory behind her legendary Superbowl performance.
In Whitney’s Anthem, a special program airing tonight (Feb. 11), fans will get to hear first-hand accounts and in-depth commentary about Nippy’s iconic performance from key figures including Rickey Minor (Houston’s musical director), Danyel Smith (host of Black Girl Songbook and former VIBE Editor-in-Chief), and the NFL executive who almost rejected Houston’s rendition of the national anthem. During a time when America sat on edge amidst the Gulf War and needed a unifying force, Whitney Houston was asked to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in an effort to ease worries and provide hope.
Houston was first approached in 1987 to perform at Super Bowl XXI, but her then-manager was fired days before she was set to take the stage. Yet, when it was time to circle back in ’91, the New Jersey songbird was an even bigger superstar. When preparing her rendition with Minor, she referenced Marvin Gaye’s 1983 version from the NBA All-Star Game. “He took his time and he did it really soulful. That resonated for her,” Minor reflected.
He considered the arrangement to be like a waltz and added a beat to her version which granted Houston more time to have fun with the notes. Although Houston sang it live, it’s no secret her version was pre-recorded due to the uncertainty of the outside elements like crowd noise. However, it was unveiled in the E60 episode that Houston’s version was initially rejected by the NFL executives. “It was too different,” Minor recalled. Though they asked for it to be rerecorded, Minor stated, ‘Well, with all due respect, I work for Whitney. No one else but her and this is what she and I talked about. This is what she wants and I need you to trust me.”
John Houston—Whitney’s father and then-manager—didn’t accept their rejection and told them the recording they’d sent over would be the version she was to perform. Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” became so popular that her label, Artista, released it as a charity single. It also is regarded as one of Houston’s greatest performances of all time. “She was able, on that night, in a very complex and scary situation to do what she did so often which was make people feel like everything was going to be okay,” Danyel Smith expressed.
Houston’s cover was re-released following the events of 9/11. It was then the song became certified platinum and Houston made history as the first artist to have the national anthem break the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. This also became her last top ten single during her lifetime.
Watch the powerful rendition below and catch Whitney’s Anthem tonight (Feb. 11) at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+.