With or Without a Stanley Cup, the Blues Will Lose Their Voice
ST. LOUIS — The bad days used to come once a month for Charles Glenn, but now they bedevil him every two weeks or so. When they do, he can’t feel his legs or his hands, or get dressed. His memory meanders and leaves him grasping for names and dates and thoughts.
So when he has a good day, when he can walk without losing his balance, he savors it. Monday started out as a good day, and by evening, as he warmed up his voice in an ice-level corridor at Enterprise Center, it had gotten better.
“I’ve got energy,” Glenn said.
He has been singing the national anthem at St. Louis Blues games since 2000, ever since he sneaked into an audition. The microphone battery died just five words in, after he belted, “Oh, say can you see,” but he kept going, and two days later the Blues asked if he had any plans for opening night.
Unlike other sports’ championship rounds, in which celebrities tend to rotate in for one-off renditions, the Stanley Cup finals often showcase the same powerful voices, game after game. Hockey engenders a connection between anthem singers and fans, who grow familiar with a voice, its cadence and its crannies, and anticipate it game after game, as soothing as a lozenge. Players change teams, but Lauren Hart hasn’t left Philadelphia, Jim Cornelison hasn’t fled Chicago and Glenn sure as sunrise hasn’t bolted St. Louis.
But after 19 years, Glenn is retiring because his multiple sclerosis, the insidious disease that saps his strength but not his spirit, demands his full attention. He will sing the anthem one last time on Sunday night, the Blues assuring that the Stanley Cup finals will return to St. Louis by smothering the Boston Bruins, 4-2, to even the series at two games apiece.
“I’m just glad we gave him this run,” said Blues winger Patrick Maroon, who grew up in Oakville, Mo., about 15 minutes south of St. Louis. “It’s his last opportunity to actually be part of something special.”
Glenn’s disease was diagnosed about seven years ago, and the fatigue overwhelms him at unpredictable times. It forces him to nap at noon or to rest and regroup. About seven hours before face-off Monday, as he sat at a table inside the arena, a steady flow of workers greeted him by name, wishing him luck and good health.
He notified the Blues of his retirement on Jan. 6, his 64th birthday, when the team, with 36 points, ranked last in the Western Conference. When told, Jason Pippi, the organization’s director of entertainment, accepted it under one condition: that when — not if, he emphasized — the Blues made the playoffs, Glenn, health permitting, would sing.
“I said, ‘Charles, you’re not going to leave without your ring,’” Pippi said.
That same night, before the Blues played at the Flyers, a few players visited a private social club in Philadelphia, where, during commercial breaks of an N.F.L. playoff game, the D.J. played the 1982 song “Gloria,” a catchy tune that has become the singalong soundtrack to the team’s resurgence.
The next night, the rookie goalie Jordan Binnington shut out the Flyers in his first N.H.L. start, and from then on, no team amassed more points than the Blues, who advanced to their first Cup finals since 1970.
“You see how everything works?” Glenn said. “It’s meant to be.”
[Read about how the Blues went from last place to the Stanley Cup finals.]
Glenn, a tenor, also sang at St. Louis Rams games, but he prefers the intimacy of hockey arenas, where the fans are so close to him that he can look into their eyes, if only for a second, and wink. He has loved to perform ever since his mother, an opera singer, appeared in a summer stock production of “Finian’s Rainbow” and needed a fill-in when a child actor got sick.
She volunteered her son. When she practiced the songs, he sang along with her anyway, so why not?
He was 4.
His first time on stage, he peed his pants. Between scenes, they dried, and he went out again and again, finishing the week. He wasn’t scared. Just nervous. Reflecting on that moment, what he called one of his earliest and most enduring memories, Glenn said he knew then that he would be a musician.
With the Grammy-winning group the Fifth Dimension, he opened for the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Supremes. As a solo artist, he preceded Meat Loaf. He hung with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Huey Lewis and the News and the Four Tops.
Touring the country, Glenn, who is African-American, also confronted racism at its most nefarious. He ate alone in restaurant kitchens. Festivals canceled gigs, even though his band headlined them. When his white bandmates were asked to pair off in an Alabama hotel, he was forced to sleep alone.
Glenn moved to Florissant, Mo., from Oakland, Calif., when he was about 12, but attended high school in an adjacent town, Ferguson, which five years ago erupted into heated protests after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. During the turmoil, Glenn returned to talk to protesters, to give them water, to listen.
The experience changed him. It transformed how he approached the anthem. He made what he called a conscious decision to sing in a way that reflected St. Louis’s diversity. For the team’s fans from the Hill, the city’s Italian neighborhood, he added “a jazz Italian flavor.” For the fans from Bevo Mill, the German and Bosnian section, he focused on brawny resonance. For the fans from the Northside, a predominantly African-American area, he sings how they would sing, how he does sing.
“I will not disrespect the song in any way,” said Glenn, who was in the stands at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego on July 25, 1990, when Roseanne Barr shrieked the anthem. “But I want to make sure they know that I’m singing for them, not to them. I’m representing them. I may be in black skin, but I’m representing St. Louis.”
On some game days, percolating with gusto, he calls Pippi and tells him to wait, just wait, for later. On others, the brightness of his voice fades, and those are the nights when — unlike Monday, when he crooned, “When the Blues go marching in,” in front of Section 123 — he can’t sing anymore.
“It’s never an issue that he didn’t sing well,” Pippi said. “You just know that he’s not feeling up to his best.”
Glenn estimated that he has sung about 70 percent of the anthems over the years, and the times when he has not, a group in the 300 Level, when it hears the public-address announcer introduce his stand-in, screams, “That’s not Charles!”
With one game left in St. Louis, and one game only, Glenn will be at Enterprise Center for Game 6 on Sunday night, when the winner of Thursday’s Game 5 can win the Stanley Cup. (Game 5 is in Boston; if necessary, Game 7, next Wednesday, would also be in Boston.)
Every year, Glenn and his wife, Nikki, try to attend the Tony Awards in New York. The ceremony coincides with Game 6.
“Baby, there’s a chance that we’ll be playing,” Glenn told her recently.
“There’s only one Stanley Cup,” she responded.
Glenn has tried so hard not to think about the end. Eventually, in his backyard, with a glass of Chianti and, against doctors’ orders, a nice cigar, he will, he said. But now that he knows when it’s coming, he has a few days to steel himself.
He will make that final round-trip drive downtown from his home in suburban Maryland Heights, taking side roads to avoid potential traffic. He will sip some tea and say some prayers and loosen his vocal cords for the 90 seconds that he hopes will unify the crowd. It will be the best 90 seconds he can give.
If he can do that, whether the Blues win or not, it will be a good day.
Follow Ben Shpigel on Twitter: @benshpigel.
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