On Jan. 27, 1991, the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills were gearing up to hit the gridiron at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, Florida. But as the nation plopped onto their couches to catch the biggest sporting event of the year, no one probably knew they were about to witness history for another reason: Whitney Houston’s performance of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” that Sunday night.
Twenty-five years later, the performance remains one of the most stunning and exquisite public renditions of the National Anthem ever. But according to those closest to the late pop star, Houston probably didn’t know what was in store for her when she strode onto the field, wearing nothing but a low-key white track suit, headband, and her infectious smile.
“It wasn’t a lot of hype going in,” Houston’s brother, Gary, tells EW of that night. “She was like a little girl going into a football game — not really understanding the magnitude of this game. But she was very excited, like, ‘Isn’t this great?'”
Houston’s performance also happened at a critical point for the country: just days before, the U.S. had entered the Gulf War. To prepare for her televised performance, Houston worked with her musical director Ricky Minor, conductor John Clayton, and the Florida Orchestra and crafted a somewhat unorthodox rendition, which added an extra beat per measure. NFL officials weren’t pleased initially with the final result. As Minor told USA Today, “They thought the harmonies were too different, that it was sacrilegious.”
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But Gary Houston recalls his sister being at the top of her game when she created her rendition of the song. “She did everything she could do to prepare for her voice, to have it at top notch. She swam, she worked out, she played tennis. And she always rehearsed. Even when she wasn’t on stage, she was always singing. And it was a surprise when she performed the song. A lot of people knew she was going to perform — but they didn’t expect her to bring that.”
While controversy ensued following the performance — reports surfaced that she had lip-synched; Minor admitted in 2012 that Houston sang to a taped track, though the vocals were recorded by her — the reaction from the nation was undeniable. Houston’s label released the performance as a single and it became a Top 10 hit. After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it re-entered the Billboard charts, peaking at No. 20.
Even later in her life, Gary Houston recalls that Houston, who died in 2012, would speak about that night as a career highlight. “There were always times when she’d be like, ‘Do you remember going into the Super Bowl?’ and just being excited about it. She’d say, ‘It had that impact? It affected people that way? That was me?’ She never believed things were happening to her at that magnitude. And she was just really excited and elated. And just kind of shocked that people reacted the way they did.”