Surviving A Shot To The Throat, Iconic Chicago Anthem Singer Returns To World Series
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Does anybody sing the national anthem more than Wayne Messmer? He sung the anthem over the years at Chicago Cubs home games and for the Bulls, the Blackhawks, the Bears and the Chicago Wolves.
He sings it beautifully and believes there's a particular way to sing it. We're at Sluggers Lounge, which is right across from Wrigley Field, with Wayne Messmer and his wife Kathleen Messmer, who often joins him in the anthem. Thank you both very much for being with us.
KATHLEEN MESSMER: You're welcome.
WAYNE MESSMER: What a pleasure. What a pleasure. We're here at a World Series day.
SIMON: It's your first World Series, isn't it?
MESSMER: It's - I have bruises all over my body from pinching myself.
SIMON: Has anybody sung the national anthem more than you to your knowledge?
MESSMER: Not that I'm aware of. You know, I know I'm closing in on 5,000 times. So I think I've pretty much got it down.
SIMON: Now, as we speak, you're going to be singing "God Bless America." May I ask you, when they bring in a big rock star or Hollywood star to sing in the anthem, what do you think sometimes gets missed?
MESSMER: ...Pitch, phrasing, proper breathing and technique. Other than that, that's about it.
SIMON: Other than that, it sounds great, right? Yeah.
SIMON: Well, you're known for being particular about a phrase in the anthem that you think a lot of people who sing it get wrong, home of the brave.
MESSMER: Yeah. Well, I take it - where I end on the fifth. And some people, I think, should drink a fifth before they start trying to sing it 'cause it is an octave and a fifth. That's - it's quite a range. And most people don't have it. But for me, it fit into my baritone voice. And thank you, you know, for the gift.
SIMON: Among things to be thankful for, for someone in your line of work, you had, short of death, just about the worst possible injury 20-some years ago. What happened? You were - you'd sung at a Blackhawks game.
MESSMER: Correct. And actually - and stopped afterwards for a while at a local watering hole and then walked a block and a half back to my car. And as I got there, I saw a young fellow walking toward my car. And I didn't like the looks of it and got into my car, started it, backed up and started to pull out. And this is in real time.
Another young man who was 15 years old at the time bangs on the window twice and then pulls the trigger - 9mm - shot point-blank in the neck. And I drove a block and a half back to where I had come from, got out of the car...
SIMON: After you were shot in the neck?
MESSMER: After I was shot. I was wearing a tie at the time. It was kind of interesting. It was a Save-the-Children-Foundation tie - kind of a cute one.
SIMON: I remember those, yeah.
MESSMER: And the tie went into the bullet hole and stopped a lot of the bleeding. So there were a number of divine interventions, I think, that happened at the time. I sat, waited for the ambulance, police to arrive. And off we went to Cook County Hospital, the real ER.
MESSMER: And a 10-hour surgery overnight - and two and a half days later, I woke up. And I had this gorgeous woman who's sitting next to me with teary eyes and nothing but hope.
SIMON: Kathleen, do you mind me asking, what was that period like?
MESSMER: Well, when you get a phone call at 2 o'clock in the morning, I'm assuming that he's been in a car accident. And they said, we have your husband here. And he's been shot in the neck. And I said, oh, my gosh. He makes his living with his voice.
And his response was, how soon can you get here? I met them all at the hospital at about 3 o'clock in the morning. And it was forward drive from there.
SIMON: What does it mean for the Cubs to be in the World Series as someone - both of you - someone who...
MESSMER: Well, I'm going to give away my age right now. I was 1 month old when the Cubs won their last World Series game in 1945. So this is a thrill beyond belief.
MESSMER: I think the city has just been waiting for this. It's what we need. It's a sprinkling on a very beautiful cupcake. We want this. We want this. And who's more deserving? Indians haven't won since 1948. We haven't won since 1908. You tell me who's more deserving.
SIMON: (Laughter) Yeah. I was at a bar the other night with my wife to watch the first game. And I was impressed. When the national anthem came on, the place got silent.
SIMON: There was a moment of silence.
MESSMER: It's become - it has become a very much of a raw-nerve issue right now and good for a guy who's always done it old-schoool straight - as I take the best compliment I could ever get, you sing it the way it's supposed to be sung.
And you get those World War II guys who grab you with both hands and hold on. That, to me, is the ultimate compliment. So when people pay respect to the anthem - yay. That's what I've been doing all my life.
SIMON: I just have to ask you. Can we have a few notes?
MESSMER: (Singing) Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light? - et cetera.
SIMON: That's beautiful. Thank you very much.
MESSMER: Oh, what a pleasure.
SIMON: Wayne Messmer and Kathleen Messmer speaking at Sluggers on North Clark Street in Chicago right across from Wrigley Field. Thanks so much, each of you, for speaking with us.
MESSMER: One more thing.
MESSMER: Go, Cubs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.