Jim Cornelison has been the official national anthem singer of the Chicago Blackhawks since the 2008-09 NHL season. Since then, the Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cup Championships, and what started in 1996 as something he did for fun has turned into a way of life. Now he is the person most associated with performing the Star Spangled Banner in America.
NPR’s Morning Edition has recognized him as the “Gold Standard” for the anthem. The Colbert Report featured him on their show in 2014 for the 200th birthday of our anthem. Ryan Seacrest has him as number 7 on his ‘Top Ten Best Anthems of All-Time’ list. After a 2016 performance on Monday Night Football, Harry Connick, Jr tweeted “that may have been my favorite national anthem ever.” And the Washington Post after noting what a wonderful job opera super star Renee Fleming did with her anthem performance at the Super Bowl, said that the NFL should consider using opera singers more often “After all, Jim Cornelison can’t be everywhere.”
Alan Gray: Jim, you have become more than just the anthem singer for the Chicago Blackhawks. You have arguably become “America’s National Anthem Singer.” How does this happen?
Jim Cornelison: Good fortune. Being a part of a great NHL team. Hard work. A clear idea of what I can bring to the anthem that speaks to people. It makes for a direct approach to our anthem that is unique. A few years ago Eric Nystrum of the Minnesota Wild described it as “It’s a manly version … It definitely raises the hair on your neck.”
By the way, my favorite anthem performance is Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl performance. It’s very different than mine. I don’t claim to be better than others but I guess I am identified with the anthem because that is pretty much the only song that brings me into the national limelight.
AG: Tell me more about your unique style.
JC: It’s extroverted. Unapologetic. Masculine. The Wall Street Journal said I delivered it with “military strength and stunning clarity.” For me it is a song of the people and it is my job to bring it to them and make it a communal experience for the crowd. It isn’t about what I feel. It’s about stirring feelings in people that it is ok to feel good about being American. Our anthem should unify us. That’s the biggest reason why an anthem even exists.
AG: What has been your favorite anthem performance?
JC: I’m asked this a lot and there are two that really stand out.
One is the Game 7 performance when the Hawks played the Detroit Red Wings in the conference finals in 2013. We came back from a 1-3 deficit and the crowd at the United Center was so loud. You just can’t duplicate the atmosphere at a Hawks’ game for the anthem. It was blood boiling. Deafening. Exciting. We won that game, too!
The other is the 9-11-11 performance at the Chicago Bears home opener. This was about so much more than sports. It was ten years since the 9-11-01 terrorist attacks. Very, very emotional. The Bears unfolded a football field sized flag during the pre-game ceremony. My anthem performance was the finale of the ceremony. I was honored to be a part of it. FOX carried that pre-game ceremony all across the country, even showing it before the start of other NFL games that day.
Here’s another! I performed the anthem with the Smashing Pumpkins two years ago. What a blast!
AG: You sang opera professionally for years. Do you miss it?
JC: I miss singing some of the greatest works written in human history. I miss singing with an orchestra. But I have a home in Chicago that is very special. Unlike anything I have ever had before. I also get a tremendous amount of satisfaction in knowing I bring something special to people. And I see what it means to those who have sacrificed the most for our country.
AG: You mean the military personnel that are always seen on the Blackhawks’ home ice with you?
JC: Yes. I have been honored to become a part of that community. I see the suffering and the love of our country in this community. I have seen war veterans cry, shake, smile, laugh … all in response to their experience with the anthem when they have been on the ice with me at Hawks’ games. I have learned that the anthem provides affirmation, comfort and a sense of purpose to people who have lost loved ones or are suffering from PTSD. It is of utmost importance that a person who wakes up every day without their legs, for example, and has lost them in service to America, remembers that their sacrifice matters and that they are appreciated by their countrymen.
AG: You told me earlier how kids respond to the anthem:
JC: Yes! I get videos from fans showing their very young children, like 3 years old, singing along with me. How cool is that? And pictures like this one. It is so touching.
AG: Kevin DuPont of the Boston Globe wrote in 2013, “Cornelison is more than a voice. He is a presence. He is the Statue of Liberty come to life, a gift not from France, but from Vienna, Va., his birthplace, a town fittingly within a rocket’s red glare of our nation’s capital. Lady Liberty’s torch ain’t got nothin’ on Big Jim’s pipes.”
How does that make you feel?
JC: Honored. Like what I do matters and that I need to give back to this country.
AG: So what’s next for you?
JC: I hope to sing at the Super Bowl someday, and the White House. I really enjoy doing NASCAR races as well. I feel like a kid with my Hot Wheels whenever I go to those races!
Day to day, I will continue my work with veterans’ organizations. I am most active with the Illinois Patriot Education Fund but have worked with Wounded Warrior, Easter Seals, Folds of Honor, Honor Flights and others. And I will continue to sing for the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s the best venue for an anthem singer in the country!