LOWELL, Mass.—Alan St. Louis’s mind has gone blank. That would be trivial at 11 a.m. on any other Saturday, but this Saturday morning the 54-year-old is one line into the national anthem and unsure of the words he’s singing. As two-dozen lacrosse-playing kids and their parents look on, a YouTube moment seems imminent. St. Louis has sung the Star-Spangled Banner more than 1,200 times, but he has never performed under circumstances like these.
It's June 4, and St. Louis had been singing every hour on the hour since 7 p.m. the previous night, in hopes of setting a new world record for most performances in 24 hours. His pursuit has become the main attraction during Shootout for Soldiers, a 24-hour lacrosse exhibition benefiting military veterans. He had performed at the twilight’s last gleaming and before every game all through the night. At 5:04 a.m., he was back on Cushing Field at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, hailing the flag by the dawn’s early light.
But by the midway mark of his quest two hours later, St. Louis had to hold his hand against his chest to keep his pitch through the song’s final lines. A couple outings later, his throat entered full revolt, probably the result of his having to compensate for losing the aid of a microphone during the wee-hours, which was done to prevent noise complaints from neighbors. And now his mind was going too.
St. Louis’ journey to this moment started more than a decade ago, back when he served beer at the independent league Nashua (N.H.) Pride’s ballpark while harboring a dream of singing at Fenway Park. Starting in 2004, he auditioned for the Red Sox eight straight years and was rejected each time. In 2011, he finally asked what he could do to get to Yawkey Way. The team's response: Get your name out there.
So he did. St. Louis performed anywhere he could, and after singing in Nashua eight times in nine days that summer, a fan said he should go for the world record. So he did that too, notching 217 performances in a year. He sang in front of sparse groups of elementary school students and for over 100,000 people at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He performed for the Revolution (MLS) and the Cannons (Major League Lacrosse), the Militia (Eastern Football League) and the Liberty (Legends Football League). And on May 26th, 2013, he achieved his goal, opening for the Red Sox before a game at Fenway Park against the Indians. Then Al kept singing, breaking his record every July—he’s shooting for 500 this year—and setting new ones along the way. Why did he stay dedicated to his newfound passion, letting a pursuit turn into an obsession? For the type of person that watched him that Saturday, and because of one specific man that last heard St. Louis 30 years ago.
Al can’t think about any of that now, though—he can’t think about anything, except that he has to find a way to finish this anthem. Fortunately one benefit of performing the Star-Spangled Banner for what amounts to a combined 30 hours is that St. Louis’ body has developed a reliable autopilot. So even with his sleep-deprived cortex struggling, his voice hardly wobbles. Viral disaster is avoided. After reaching the final note, he clicks off his microphone, waits out the crowd’s applause and marches back to the RV he has rented for the day. He will pop in a lemon-flavored lozenge, take a sip of water and keep an eye on the clock.
In 52 minutes, he’ll be on again.
During Boston’s first Shootout for Soldiers last year, St. Louis only performed during the opening ceremony. But when organizers asked him if he’d be interested in trying to sing before each of the 24 games featuring local youth and recreational teams this time around, he agreed–and then upped the stakes. What about 25?
See, 24 had already been done, by a California woman named Janine Stange last summer. Yes, the world of competitive anthem singing has a population larger than one.
The national anthem became the theme song of this country’s pastime before it was even the National Anthem. Following the World War I-truncated 1918 major league baseball season, the song was performed during the World Series and only grew in popularity thereafter. Thirteen years later, President Herbert Hoover followed MLB’s lead, signing H.R. 14 and giving the Star-Spangled Banner official distinction.
But by that point, Francis Scott Key’s song was already drawing fire. Five million had signed a petition urging for the law, but newspapermen complained that the tune came from an old drinking song, and performers knew the melody was particularly difficult to sing. Debate has not ceased since, though it has shifted. Now, opponents criticize the anthem as an unnecessary display of militarism in an age of globalism.
Watch enough anthem performances, though, and you get the sense that the association has actually worked in the other direction. It’s not that play is delayed to lend free airtime to the Home of the Brave’s brand, but often that a nation’s sacred song is used to legitimize sport. On the biggest of stages, the national anthem becomes part of the show rather than a moment of reflection before it. How else would you explain memorable renditions making the Billboard charts while deplorable ones rack up millions of views as “National Anthem Performance Fails,” the ability to bet on the song’s length before each Super Bowl, or the way every fanbase hears the lyrics slightly differently—how whose becomes HOOS! in Virginia, Oh becomes O! at Camden Yards and for a short time, Carolina Hurricanes heard JUSSI (as in Jokinen) instead of you see?
The trickle-down effect of the anthem’s assimilation can be seen on the faces of the young boys watching St. Louis sing. They whisper in excitement while lining up, figure out how to sway like LeBron does during the performance and wait for the unwritten final line, “Play ball!” The players can see the reverence with which many adults treat the song, but they also see that it means this game matters. As Shootout for Soldiers director Tyler Steinhardt said, “It makes the experience as a player more complete.”
So, with the anthem becoming increasingly intertwined with the competition that follows, it’s only sensible that singers would eventually get competitive about it. Stange has earned the moniker "National Anthem Girl" after performing in all 50 states, while St. Louis now answers to "Star Spangled Al." But while each has embraced the song’s modern showiness with stage names and stunts (St. Louis planned to sing from a hot air balloon), they also remain more connected to the song’s deeper meaning than any stage-seeking drop-in. They see the impact the song can have. They feel it.
“As a country, when we sing [the anthem] for 90 seconds, no matter who we voted for or what team we want to win, we are united,” Stange said last year. “We are one. That’s what we need now more than ever.”
The duality is represented on the very shirt St. Louis wears to his performances. ‘AL’ is stitched onto the sleeve and ‘NATIONAL ANTHEM WORLD RECORD’ sewn into the right breast. But the left breast and back are adorned with bold American flags, embroidered with a golden border. St. Louis is a performer and a patriot. And out of all of the paraphernalia on his shirt, he most cherishes the pins in the middle, fastened between the buttons, gifts from veterans moved by his performances. He never served in the military, though he wishes he had. Now, this is the best way he has found to support those who did. In short, he spends up to 80 straight nights away from home for people like Mike Sullivan, who really needed the boost last month.
Sullivan, an event organizer, stood at attention for each of St. Louis' performances, but in between, the Army Lieutenant Colonel kept checking his phone, worried about what he might see. Just as he started to play in his 7 p.m. game against other veterans, including two from the Vietnam War, news broke halfway across the country. Four bodies had been found at Fort Hood in Texas. Nine soldiers had gone missing after floods swept through the area earlier in the week, and after five had been confirmed dead Thursday night, the Army confirmed the others had perished as well right when Shootout for Soldiers began. Throughout the night, in between Sullivan playing again with his over-40 team and coaching his children's teams, the names of the killed were slowly released. Among them were 19-year-old Army Service Ribbon recipient Isaac Lee Deleon and two 21-year-olds, including a West Point cadet who had been spending his summer gaining leadership skills.
On Thursday, Sullivan had invited the Shootout staff to his home on Hanscom Air Force Base, 20 minutes northwest of Boston, where the anthem is played at 5 p.m. everyday. Watching the college-age volunteers stop at that moment was a special experience, Sullivan said. But on this night, every anthem was particularly emotional.
"I’m getting these news updates and thinking about these soldiers and families and it just reinforces the sacrifice that anybody who has raised their right hand to serve their country makes," he said. "Every time I heard that national anthem, it got me right in the gut."
Before Sullivan left the event, he embraced St. Louis and thanked him for his dedication to the song. Al sings it according to the script, with his biggest flourish being a slight punch with his off hand, which Sullivan took as a sign of proper reverence.
Comments like that keep Al going. So does a lesson instilled in him by the man who taught him to sing.
Cyril St. Louis was always singing. He played the gutbucket while performing at Shakey’s Pizza in Nashua, worked as a wedding singer on the weekends and was a committed member of a local barbershop quartet. He was even on the radio the day Alan was born. So Cyril was honored to watch his son take up the singing tradition and develop into a quartet’s lead performer. When Al hoped for a breakout performance as a lead singer during a district contest in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1986, his father came to watch. But after the opening night of performances, tragedy struck. While Cyril stood on the sidewalk outside of the theater, he collapsed with what Al called “a massive heart attack,” dying instantly.
Al disappeared for the rest of the night as the rest of his quartet assumed their weekend was over. But just days later, Al returned to the group and said he wanted to sing. His mother had told him that Cyril would have wanted that, reminding her son of the advice her late husband often gave: "If you start something, you finish it." So Al went on, performing in the final slot of the night, singing "Last Night Was the End of the World." The auditorium gave him a rousing ovation when it was over.
"The quartet was crumbling around him, but he was a rock," baritone Steve Tramack said. "The song ends with a long, high held note. He posted the last note and it was the best note I ever heard I him sing.... It was really one of those moments that anyone who was there will carry forever."
Al certainly will never forget it. In 2011, he created a five-year plan to dedicate himself to anthem singing, and even when he got an invitation to Fenway he did not even consider stopping before his planned end date this July. “What my dad always said goes to what I do with the anthem,” St. Louis said. “I set the five-year date and I haven’t quit.”
This spring, St. Louis even turned down the opportunity to open for the Red Sox on New Hampshire Day, June 3, because he had a prior commitment: the shootout in Lowell. Still, he admitted there were times that night—and the next day—when he was not sure if he'd make it to the finish. After drawing a blank at 11 a.m., St. Louis almost forgot to grab the microphone at 2 p.m., and at 3 p.m. he had to remind himself to "just shut up and sing the anthem." Holding the note on free became increasingly challenging, and his pronunciation of perilous slowly shifted from pair-uhl-ous to pair-eel-ous. St. Louis allowed himself two short naps, once after performing at 5 a.m. and again two hours later, but only after he found the perfect spot from where he could view the scoreboard.
As the day wore on, organizers shortened some of the halves to ensure St. Louis got No. 25 in before the 24-hour mark and several of his family members returned to help motivate him. After performance No. 24, St. Louis muttered to himself, One more to go.
With just minutes to spare, Steinhardt invited the singer to midfield for the final time. "I was in total disbelief, I'm not going to lie," Steinhardt said. "The way your brain thinks when you are so tired, the way you talk, you start misusing words, you are exhausted, you can’t think and here is a man who is singing the national anthem perfect each time in key. He actually got better!"
This anthem would be different than the two dozen that preceded it. There were no more games to be played. Only a select few hung around, including the St. Louis clan, sleep-deprived volunteers and representatives for organizations due to receive the $56,586 Shootout for Soldiers had raised. They all stood rigid, hand over heart, for what Al said was his most emotional rendition of them all, though he did not let it show. When Steinhardt finished his introduction, St. Louis simply lifted his microphone as he had done 24 times in the past 24 hours and 1,230 times since setting out on this journey. Then he gave a performance to remember.