Posted: 3:27 p.m. May 9, 2010
42 years later, Jose Feliciano to sing anthem
BY GENE MYERS
FREE PRESS SPORTS EDITOR
Before Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston and even Roseanne Barr, there were Ernie Harwell and Jose Feliciano.
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And how during the 1968 World Series a 50-year-old sweet-voiced southern broadcaster and a 23-year-old blind Puerto Rican musician changed American sports forever will be one of the storylines when the Tigers honor Harwell on Monday night at Comerica Park.
As a tribute to their legendary broadcaster, who died last Tuesday at 92, the Tigers have an elaborate pregame ceremony planned at 6:45 p.m. before playing the Yankees.
They will raise a white flag in centerfield with Harwell's initials. Former radio partners will handle the ceremonial first pitch -- Ray Lane delivering the ball, Paul Carey throwing it. And Feliciano will sign the national anthem, something he hasn't done in Detroit in 42 years.
On Oct. 7, 1968, before Game 5 against the Cardinals at Tiger Stadium, using only his voice and an acoustic guitar, Feliciano delivered a soulful rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. No one had strayed from a straight-laced anthem interpretation, let alone on national television.
An uproar ensued across the country. Harwell, who had selected Feliciano for the assignment, had to defend his singer and his patriotism. He feared for his job. As a result, Harwell and Feliciano became lifelong friends.
A few years later, Harwell introduced Feliciano to Susan Omillian, a Detroiter, who, as a 14-year-old at the time, was angered by Feliciano's treatment. They later married and had three children.
In a 2003 interview with the Free Press, Harwell said: “People called me all sorts of names, saying I was a Communist.” And Feliciano said: “Some people wanted me deported -- as if you can be deported to Puerto Rico.”
Last fall, after Harwell revealed he had terminal cancer, he talked about the events before and after the anthem that changed all anthems in a lengthy interview with the Free Press, to be his last extensive session with local media. The highlights:
“I got into a little controversy because (general manager) Jim Campbell knew I was a tyro songwriter and he appointed me to select the singers for the national anthem for the three games in Detroit.
“The first game I picked Margaret Whiting, whose uncle and dad were great songwriters and they were from Michigan and she had kinfolks in Birmingham. She was a great nightclub singer and recording artist. She did a fine job.
“And then the second person I picked was Marvin Gaye of Motown. And strangely enough, the Tigers asked me to talk to Marvin and say, 'Marvin, we'd appreciate it if you would sing it as straight as you can and not have too much Motown influence in your rendition.' So he sang it straight.
“And then the third fellow that I picked was Jose Feliciano, a young Puerto Rican who had been coming up. He'd had one hit on the charts; he'd covered Morrison's 'Light My Fire.' It was a very popular song and I had a friend in the record business in Hollywood that said, 'I saw this guy at the Greek Theater in Hollywood and he did a sensational national anthem. He should be the guy you pick.'
“Well, we tried a couple of guys -- Eddie Arnold and a few people like that. They couldn't make it. Jose accepted and he was doing a show every night in Las Vegas. He took the red eye, came into Detroit, sang the national anthem.
“He did a sort of soulful rendition; it would be very mild if you heard it now. But at that point people thought it was a sacrilege to the flag and to the country and everything else. The American Legion rose up in arms and passed all kinds of resolutions and everybody got mad. The front page of the New York Times had a picture of him, which was very unusual at that point. There were all kinds of protests.
“A lot of people, including me, thought I might lose my job because of that. There was so much anger about it.
“Sure enough, everything worked out, and Jose and I are still big buddies and I introduced him to his new wife, Miss Omillian. They're still married and they've got kids and they're very happy.”
Harwell then added a postscript:
“When I got sick, I got a beautiful bouquet from Susan and Jose and the kids. I really appreciated that, too. We keep up with them. They send us a Christmas card every year. We're good friends.”
And they will be linked again Monday night, at twilight's last gleaming.
Contact GENE MYERS: 313-222-6736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.