Detroit — One stanza. Eight lines. Eighty words.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” isn’t easy to perform, whether for a professional singer, a choir or a quartet. Not even one time.
Since 2012, LaShell Renee Griffin has sung it dozens of times each year, as the Pistons’ resident national anthem singer, beginning at The Palace of Auburn Hills and now at Little Caesars Arena.
Although most college and pro sports teams use different anthem singers for each game, the Pistons, under team owner Tom Gores, wanted to revamp their entertainment offering and establish a distinctive sound.
Enter LaShell Renee Griffin, a Detroit mother of five.
The Pistons are the main attraction, but Griffin’s rendition of the anthem is a worthy opening appetizer. In the moments before game time, players and coaches focus, meditate and mentally make their final preparations.
Even in that solemn moment, they take note of Griffin’s rendition of the anthem.
“I get more comments about her from other coaches and players. We’re very proud of the job she does,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “I’ve been in the league 30 years now and it’s the best I’ve heard in terms of tone and the passion she puts in it — just a beautiful voice. It makes you proud to be an American when she sings that song.”
Griffin gained fame after appearing on the Pop-Star Challenge on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2004, being selected from 15,000 entrants from around the country and outdueling seven other semifinalists to win the contest.
Griffin parlayed that into instant fame and her album, “Free,” which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard gospel chart. After she won the contest, the Pistons wanted to feature the local talent by having Griffin sing the anthem at a game.
“We used her a few times. It wasn’t every night, but when she won the contest, we invited her out,” said Diane Ferranti, Pistons vice president of production and programming. “It was a few years after that when we called her back to see if she would do every night. We had used her a couple of times a year when she was available.
“We only used her for big games — like the Lakers or Spurs. Whenever we had those big nights, she was at the top of our list.”
In the local pantheon of anthem singers, Karen Newman is best known as the voice of the Red Wings, as their legendary voice for more than 30 years. The Pistons emulated that, looking to establish a similar consistency with Griffin.
The Pistons’ entertainment executives asked Griffin to do an impromptu a capella audition in a hallway — and they were blown away by her soulful sound and knew they had the right person.
“We didn’t think we would get her. We felt like she was too big for us, with her notoriety and her celebrity,” Ferranti said. “When she agreed to do every night, it was great.”
Changing it up
In many cases, teams will bring in a high school choir or an up-and-coming singer for the anthem, which makes for a wide range of performances. The pacing can be too fast or too slow. The singer’s vocal range might be limited.
For the performers, it’s the chance of a lifetime; for the fans, it can become a part of the pregame that’s easily forgotten.
Griffin’s pregame routine starts on the Lodge Freeway, as she drives from her full-time job in customer service for an information technology company to Little Caesars Arena.
She visualizes how the performance will go but doesn’t sweat all the details. Griffin makes subtle changes each night to make her version subtly unique, whether it’s accentuating different words each time or hitting a specific note more succinctly.
“As an artist, it’s hard to be put in a box, where you’re told you have to do it this way,” Griffin said. “I’m going to follow the script, but at some point, I have to go over that script. Otherwise, it’s just me being a robot — and you don’t get joy from being a robot.”
Griffin doesn’t keep track of which changes she makes on certain days or even remembers the versions that she does. In that way, each performance is distinct.
There’s a fine balance between putting a unique fingerprint on the anthem and overdoing it.
Staying under the time limit of two minutes, 30 seconds is paramount, but the pacing and rhythm are key to staying on track too.
“I look at it as ministry. When my voice is used, it’s a vessel and I feel that the anointing comes through that. That’s how I do it differently and not overdo it, because I know they don’t want it over the top,” Griffin said. “It’s how I feel. I feed off the crowd as well. If I don’t feed off the crowd, I lean on the Lord to give me that different sound that I need.
“That’s how it comes about, with every anthem being slightly different.”
There’s a level of focus in remembering the words, too, as a novice can be tripped up easily in just eight lines and eighty words. There are plenty of forgettable anthems, most notably Roseanne Barr and Carl Lewis.
Where some performers have been noticeably bad, Griffin hasn’t fallen into the trap of doing too much.
“She changes it every game and keeps it interesting. It’s hard to not like when she sings; she’s dope,” center Andre Drummond said.
“She gives you a different sound every time, which isn’t common, for people to have that different range in their voice.”
Griffin started singing in church, where she first got the idea to enter Oprah’s contest. Music has become a cornerstone of her family, as each of her children — LeVoties, Rafiel, LaShae, Nathan and Briana — have been singers.
LeVoties has been a backup singer for legendary R&B performer Charlie Wilson and is involved with his own musical groups. Rafiel is heavily involved in praise-and-worship at church. LaShell has on special occasions sung with her children during the Channel 4 Fireworks broadcast or the Thanksgiving Day parade.
She says the biggest blessing was singing the national anthem during President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 in Detroit, with a special introduction by Pistons guard Chauncey Billups.
Griffin makes a memorable impression on fans wherever she goes and has become ingrained in the pregame program the same way that some of the entertainment icons around the league have.
“In the same way that Mason’s notoriety with the call makes you know it’s a Detroit Pistons home game, she brings that same vibe and feel. When you hear her sing, you know the game is about to start — everything is about to start,” Ferranti said. “She’s that kickoff to it. Our intros are the crown jewel of the night. It’s the biggest two minutes of the night and she’s the kickoff to that, especially on opening night.
“Mason is the best PA announcer in the league and we wanted to have the best anthem performer in the league. If she’s not the best, she’s certainly near the top.”
One performer. One song. Eight seasons.