Cornelison honors past while becoming a tradition on his own

Jim Cornelison recognizes he must walk a fine line between honoring tradition and mimicking his longtime predecessor, and it’s a place he realizes puts him front and center at one of the Indianapolis 500’s greatest traditions. 

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Cornelison is a native of the Pacific Northwest but came to the midwest to pursue his masters degree in music at Indiana University in 1988.  Five years later, Cornelison began singing in opera companies around the world, spending time in some of the world’s greatest opera houses.  But it was an apprenticeship with the Chicago Lyric Opera that would forever change the course of Jim’s life.

While part of the CLO, Cornelison was approached by the Chicago Blackhawks to be part of a five-person rotation of singers to perform the National Anthem on ice at the United Center.  He would only perform the anthem five or six times per year.  At that time, the Blackhawks were not a good hockey team (to put it gently) and the games were only occasionally broadcast on TV. 

That all changed in 2008 when the Blackhawks asked Jim to be the single singer of the anthem for all their home games.  As luck would have it, Jim’s second season as the Blackhawk’s primary anthem singer would be highlighted by their first Stanley Cup since 1961.  The championship brought significant media attention to the Blackhawks, who were now seen on regional sports channels or nationwide for every game, and to Cornelison, whose rousing rendition of the National Anthem became a staple of every Blackhawks home game.

As the Blackhawks magical season turned into a dynasty and two more Stanley Cups followed within five years, Cornelison’s reputation grew beyond the Blackhawks to the Bulls, NASCAR, and other major events in the Chicago area and beyond.  One of the great honors that Cornelison recalls is when the Chicago Bulls contacted him to perform the National Anthem because they wanted to create a “special environment” on the night following the United States capture and killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Now Cornelison is perhaps the most recognizable singer of the National Anthem in the United States.  Organizers everywhere seek him out when they want to show their event is big-time and has pizzaz.  Such was a charity hockey game on the University of Illinois campus that brought Cornelison to Champaign when we sat down together for a wide-ranging interview.

While Cornelison believes that each artist performing the National Anthem should have some liberty to perform the song in their own way, he also believes it is important to be cognizant of local traditions and to sing in such a way that the audience can participate with him.  His own unique rendition of the National Anthem was inspired significantly by Wayne Messmer, the longtime public address announcer and anthem singer for the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field. 

Nonetheless, his favorite renditions of the song are those done by Whitney Houston, Renee Fleming, and (perhaps surprisingly) Marvin Gaye. 

Jim estimates he performs approximately 180 to 200 times a year with the National Anthem comprising 98% of those performances.  If for no other reason, Jim says that is one reason he enjoys the opportunity to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” for this and the past two years at the Indianapolis 500.

When it comes to singing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” Cornelison realizes the special place of esteem to which Indianapolis 500 fans hold it.  That adds more pressure on Cornelison, who admits that he has to block out much of the emotion and build up of the opening ceremonies to allow him to perform as his best. 

While many of the fans experience the buildup of tension that climaxes during “Taps” and then see “Back Home Again” as the moment of release and jubilation, Cornelison, who calls himself an emotional person, says the drama and excitement of the moment are his “enemy.”  He recognizes that his moment in the ceremonies is an emotionally-charged time, and he is particularly susceptible to getting caught up in the moment. Likening it to having to make two free throws at the end of the NBA Finals, Cornelison says he needs less emotion, not more.

It is critical to Cornelison that he be able to focus on the job at hand, that of singing a song so important to millions of people, as he realizes his 75-second performance will be remembered and analyzed under a microscope for years and decades to come. To do otherwise would lead to what Jim likes to call “monkey brain,” self doubt, and a less-than-perfect performance.  For that reason, Cornelison admits that he will be there in person and stand respectfully during the moments leading up to “Back Home Again in Indiana,” but he will emotionally dissociate himself from the moment to focus on the job before him.

Additionally, the special place in fans’ heart for “Back Again in Indiana” has greatly influenced the arrangement Jim has chosen to use for the past two years.  He believes it is important to “respect the tradition” that Jim Nabors established as legions of fans carry such powerful memories of that rendition.  However, Cornelison emphatically says, “I am not a Jim Nabors impersonator.” 

Before his 2017 performance, Cornelison wanted to make some changes to Nabor’s version to make it his own unique arrangement even though Nabor’s himself had made subtle changes to his version over the many years of performing and didn’t have a single version that he simply repeated year after year.  He sees “Back Home in Indiana” as an anthem that unites people and his version should allow them to all sing along with him.  To make major changes and to make the arrangement unrecognizable to longtime fans would have been “insulting” and “unenjoyable” to those fans. Thus the changes he has made, while noticeable, have not greatly the altered the overall feeling of the song.

One tradition that Cornelison wanted to continue was the use of the Purdue University All-American Band.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway gave Jim the option of using the band or foregoing their presence, but he felt having them accompany him during the song was a good way to link his performance to those of the past and is nod to those who have performed before him.

Though Cornelison is close to becoming a tradition at the Indianapolis 500 on his own now, he doesn’t just show up at Indianapolis once a year without any knowledge of the NTT IndyCar Series.  Over the past three years, Jim has become a real fan of IndyCar racing and enjoys following the Series throughout the year.  This year at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Jim had the honor of singing the National Anthem before the race, the first time he had done so for an IndyCar event.  He greatly enjoyed his first IndyCar experience on a street course and would particularly enjoy the opportunity to perform at the IndyCar Grand Prix of Portland as much of his family is still in Washington State and within a several-hour drive.

Jim says that he was even a fan of the Indianapolis 500 when he was growing up in Seattle when he and his brother would watch the telecast of the race most years and play with their Hot Wheels car.  Now Jim is passing that love onto his daughter, whom he now enjoys playing Hot Wheels with and who now recognizes Indy cars as fast cars.

As one of the most recognizable singers of the National Anthem in the United States, it speaks highly of the Indianapolis 500 to have someone of Jim Cornelison’s caliber involved on an annual basis, especially in the role of singing the most cherished song in auto racing.  If it was up to Jim, he would continue to return to the Memorial Day Classic for many years to come.  I don’t know of anyone who would be disappointed by that new tradition.

One of my favorite quotes from history was that of Thomas Jefferson when he was appointed as the United States Minister to France after Benjamin Franklin’s departure.  When asked if he was Franklin’s “replacement,” Jefferson responded, “I am his successor.  No man can replace him.” 

So it is with the man who has hopefully been tapped to follow the great tradition of Jim Nabors.  To many people, Jim Nabors was, and is, irreplaceable.  But Jim Cornelison is a very worthy successor who respects and honors the tradition of Jim Nabors and “Back Home Again in Indiana.”  We, as fans of the Indianapolis 500, will be greatly served by his presence as long and Jim Cornelison and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway agree to continue their great relationship.

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