Interview with Anthem performer Jim Cornelison

Jim Cornelison performs the Star Spangled Banner at the United Center before each Chicago Blackhawks game. He took some time out to answer a few questions giving us some insight as to what it’s like to perform in front of Blackhawks fans and keeping the tradition alive. Be sure to check out the video below as well so he can tell you first-hand.

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Jim Cornelison has sung in opera houses around the world. He’s a professional, not just your “local neighborhood guy with a good voice.” If you see him, don’t ask him to sing at your wedding.

When he’s not working in real estate for Rubloff Residential Properties, Cornelison is the man passionately bringing you every eardrum-shattering rendition of the Star Spangled Banner before Chicago Blackhawks games at the United Center, attempting to sing over your loud cheers and constantly clapping hands.

The tradition of fans cheering and clapping during the National Anthem began at the old Chicago Stadium back in the 1985 Campbell Conference Finals. After the Blackhawks dropped Game 1 and 2 against the Edmonton Oilers on the road, the fans welcomed back their team with rousing cheers that lasted throughout the Anthem and Game 3. The tradition stuck.

“The atmosphere was electric and there will never be another one like it in pro sports in my opinion,” said former Blackhawk Stu Grimson of the Anthem at Chicago Stadium.

Cornelison lets his emotions loose during his performance and makes sure the United Center feels the power of the on-going tradition. It’s something Blackhawks fans have a privilage to be a part of, making Chicago such a unique place to see an NHL game.

Jeff Bartl: How did it come about that you began singing the National Anthem for the Blackhawks?

Jim Cornelison: I moved to Chicago in ’95 and a friend of mine from grad school, David Honore, was singing anthems for the Hawks. He asked me if I wanted to come down and audition for them so I could be a part of the rotation of singers used for the anthem. I think there were five of us.

JB: The tradition and electric atmosphere during the Anthem is something special. Can you describe the feeling from a first-hand perspective when 20,000 fans are cheering as loud as they can?

JC: I can’t describe it. All I can do is ask a Blackhawks’ fan to think of how hard it is to describe to someone what it is like to experience the anthem before a Hawks’ game. If people haven’t experienced the power of the moment you can’t explain it so they can feel what you do. I will tell you that it is always a rush and often the emotions get in the way of delivering a perfectly sung anthem. I’m an emotional guy and I have a lot of trouble keeping my feelings in check when the 22,000+ fans start the roar and I’m standing right in the middle of them. I love being a part of that celebration of being American and a Blackhawks fan!

JB: I am sure each time you sing the Anthem, it is a special experience. But is there one certain game, one certain performance that sticks out above the rest?

JC: There are two. The first was the Winter Classic. Wow! That is as close to being a rock star as I’ll ever get. 40,000+ people yelling their heads off, fireworks, smoke, the jets doing the fly by, cameras everywhere, national TV, and the crowd was sooo into it. I’ve never been so nervous about one song in my life!  The second was the first game of the playoffs this year. I’ve never heard the UC like that! It was dramatically louder than any previous anthem that I had experienced to that point. It was incredible that the intensity continued through out the playoffs and was probably even louder some nights. But it was never as dramatically different as that first playoff game was to anything I’d heard before.

JB: Do you have a routine to prepare for each performance?

JC: I have to run home from work and change. I’ll sing for a few minutes at home and then head for the UC so I’m there half an hour before hand. I’ll grab a bite in the press lounge and then go see Frank, the organist, to make sure we are on the same page. Then I head down so that I’m in the penalty box with 6-8 minutes to go. I vocalize some then until I step out on the carpet to sing. I often have to sing into the glass just to hear myself. The UC is a pretty noisy place.  That’s about it. I stay away from milk products or peanut butter, anything that can gum you up. I’m not a superstitious guy. I just try to keep the whole process up to the actual singing as calm as possible.

JB: Your singing has taken you all over the world to perform, but what makes Chicago and the United Center a great venue?

JC: The UC is a great venue because of the tremendous amount of raw energy the crowd generates. There is no comparison to it. I’ve sung and had audiences on their feet cheering but not during the song. It hopefully comes after when performing in concert. The UC requires that you exercise more emotional control of yourself.

JB: You mentioned the Blackhawks are including a bio for you in the program this season. How long do you plan on being the voice for the Anthem?

JC: Well I’ve talked about it with them. I’m out there in front of the crowd and I’d like people to have some idea of what I’ve done as a singer. I trained at Indiana University, The Santa Fe Opera, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago and after that I sang in opera houses around the world until it became too much strain on my family. I have two kids and I was simply gone too much. I started working in real estate nearly five years ago with Rubloff Residential Properties. That’s kept me in Chicago and made it possible for me to be the branded anthem singer for the Hawks. I’m  loving it! I plan on continuing for as long as possible and am looking forward to the playoffs again this season!

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