As broker John Townsend stood at home plate and sang the first bar of the national anthem at AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds, the audience was likely wishing that Shania Twain or the Dixie Chicks were there instead.
But when Townsend completed his stirring operatic version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the crowd of 5,500 people far more familiar with country singers roared its approval with a standing ovation.
Townsend's rendition was so moving that one of the Redbirds' coaches ran over to him and said, "That was tremendous! It made the hair on the back of my head stand up!"
"I knocked 'em dead," says Townsend, an A.G. Edwards broker in Memphis. He first performed for the Redbirds, the St. Louis Cardinals' top minor league baseball team, in May 1999. He has sung the anthem for the Redbirds two other times, including this past August.
"Obviously, opera is not the typical genre in Memphis, which is considered the home of blues and rock 'n' roll," says Dakota Crow, director of promotions for the Redbirds. "But John was just great. It was a refreshing change."
For the 19-year veteran broker, singing the national anthem at a baseball stadium is a dream come true. "I pitched a no-hitter when I was in Little League and felt I was destined for the major leagues," he says. "It didn't quite turn out that way."
Townsend still hasn't sung the anthem at a major league park, but he is hoping to fulfill that fantasy soon, perhaps at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, which just happens to be where A.G. Edwards is headquartered.
Townsend, who's been with A.G. Edwards for nine years, played trumpet in high school. He captured two state solo awards and toured Europe with the all-state band. He then added vocals to his repertoire at the University of Mississippi. Later, he took voice lessons with Ethel Taylor Maxwell, a prominent voice teacher.
In 1990, Townsend was accepted into The Lauritz Melchior Foundation International Heroic Tenors Competition at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. It's a competition commonly referred to as "The Tenor Olympic Games."
Being allowed to perform at the Met was the greatest honor he's received for his talent, Townsend says, but singing the national anthem is something he prizes as well. He considers the anthem a sacred, serious song, yet today's sports environment doesn't offer it much respect. Townsend says the anthem "has been slaughtered."
"Most national anthem singers nowadays are pop singers or country singers, and they just mangle the song," Townsend says. "Someone always seems to have to put a twist on it or jazz it up. It's inappropriate."
Townsend's smooth operatic rendition is soothing to an audience. "I sound as good as anyone," he says. "Heck, I've studied music for 25 years.
I ought to sound good."