“The singer for the national anthem didn’t show up!”
The administrator at the University of Southern California had a hint of panic in his voice. They were minutes from the start of the USC basketball game, and he didn’t have anyone to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Chris Sherman, the event operations manager at USC’s Galen Center, spoke up.
“Keith can do it,” Sherman said, volunteering one of his employees.
“[Sherman] had never heard me sing,” says Keith Williams Jr., who had previously only sung the national anthem one other time — 16 years earlier. “He was just taking the word of the people around us who had said, ‘Keith sings.’ After he said ‘Keith can do it,’ they asked him, ‘Have you heard him?’ And he just said, ‘He can do it.'”
Fast forward three years, and Williams is preparing for his 16th performance of the national anthem at Dodger Stadium on Saturday, this time as part of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ celebration of Don Newcombe and at the request of Newcombe’s widow, Karen.
“Newcombe’s wife asked them to have me sing this weekend,” Williams says with a hint of awe in his voice. “That’s really cool that she requested me.”
Williams was born on Christmas Day, 1973. Growing up black in Los Angeles in the 1980s, there was a lot of potential for trouble, but Williams was able to avoid it, at least partly thanks to music.
When he was seven years old, Williams began singing in the children’s choir at Sadoc Christian Church in Compton, California, under Elder Walter Millsap. At his grandmother’s urging, he began to practice the piano at her house after school.
“I started playing the piano, the organ, the drums, and I started directing the choir at the age of 15,” Williams says. “After that, I went to my grandmother’s church in Inglewood with Pastor Lois Moore-Williams, playing for her, and my grandfather’s church in Compton. So there were two churches I was playing for as a teenager.”
“My childhood was all in church,” he says. “Some of my friends were gangbangers, they used to come to my house to box. We used to box in the street. But I was never picked on by the gangs. When I went to Locke High School, I was always dressed up like a church boy, so they called me Church Boy. I was in the choir in high school. I never had that problem [with gangs].”
In 1999, Williams was attending a conference in Las Vegas and had the opportunity to sing the national anthem. Although he was an experienced singer, it was his first time singing the anthem. And, as it turns out, his only time for the next 16 years. But after his impromptu performance at USC in December 2015, he was hooked.
“After that day, I went to UCLA and Long Beach State,” Williams says. “Then I went to the Dodgers, the Boston Celtics three times, the Oakland Raiders two times, and some other places here and there.”
Williams’ first Dodger Stadium performance came on April 15, 2016 — Jackie Robinson Day. Two months later, on June 9, he was invited to sing the anthem on the occasion of Don Newcombe Bobblehead Night. He also led a birthday celebration for Newcombe — who would turn 90 years old five days later — by singing “Happy Birthday” to Newcombe as the Dodgers presented him with a cake.
After that performance, Newcombe and Williams had a chance to talk for a few minutes. “We were both sitting down and we took a picture together,” Williams says, “and as he was talking to me, he said, ‘Keith, I’ve heard a lot of national anthems, but you are the best I ever heard.’ I just said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Newcombe.'”
Williams was invited back for several postseason games that October, and he has been a regular recurring guest since then, singing before postseason games each of the last three seasons.
This season has been a year of repeat honors for him, as he once again performed on Jackie Robinson Day last week, and this Saturday will lend his voice to a celebration of the career and life of Newcombe, who passed away in February.
Asked if he feels any more pressure when performing on a day that has personal significance to him as a black man, Williams chuckles.
“I’m always nervous, man. Even at church, I’m nervous. You want to do your best at all times. But it’s an honor. I take it as an honor when I see people of all races coming together for the national anthem.”
Williams puts a unique spin on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” For the first half of the song, it is basically a traditional rendition done in gospel style, with passionate punctuations at the end of several lines. As the rockets start glaring, Williams’ passion ramps up. When our flag is still there, he makes his first change to the tune to shout it to the world. From that point on, the song is his own, culminating in a mid-word falsetto on “free” that steps up twice during “and the home of the” before dropping back to his natural register for “brave.”
When Williams first sang the anthem at USC in 2015, he did a pretty traditional rendition. Later, on the suggestion of a friend from church, he added his own flavor.
“This guy from church told me, ‘You need to do that high note like you do at church.’ So I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do it.'”
The first time he practiced “the high note,” it was into his phone as he walked to his car after work. Over time, he refined it until it was ready for prime time.
“So one day,” he says, “I did the high note, and everyone was like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ The Clippers called me after that and said, ‘Take a way the high note, and you can come and sing for us.’ And I said, ‘Nah, I can’t do that.’
“They called me back recently,” he continues, “before the playoffs, and they asked me to come and sing, and they said, ‘Sing the high note.’ They changed their mind!”
Before Game 3 of the 2018 National League Championship Series, Williams had to do three dress rehearsals in an empty stadium to coordinate cameras for Fox and, most importantly, to pin down the exact timing of the flyover by the C-17 Globemaster from nearby March Air Reserve Base.
Or, close to the exact timing, anyway.
“It was a bigger plane, not the usual four-jet flyover, so it moved a little slower,” Williams says. “I was like, ‘Uh oh, they’re not here,’ so I had to hold the note longer than I normally do at the end. And the flyover guys, after they came down and saw me downstairs, they said, ‘Thank you for holding that note until we got over you. We heard you.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I saw you at the last minute.'”
Williams has become a bit of a celebrity around Dodger Stadium — even among the real celebrities. Players, actors, musicians, and other celebrities have approached him to take a photo or just say hi, and he’s still getting used to it.
“It’s an honor, man,” he says. “I’m still the same, you know. When they come up to me, I’m always surprised that they want to take pictures with me. But I enjoy it, I like it.
“And I like to engage with the fans. The fans are the ones who give me that push to hit the high note. Everywhere I go, they give me that push — everybody is waiting on that high note.”
Williams’ business card has a simple description at the top, above his name: “God’s Musician.” As you might expect from someone who got his start singing in church choirs, he considers his voice both a blessing and an opportunity to bless the lives of others.
“When I first started singing the national anthem, I wanted people to see God in me so I could record an album of gospel music,” he says. “I have music that people need to hear. I have songs of deliverance. As a father of six kids, the songs of deliverance at church made me and kept me what I am today.”
His final words of the interview are a perfect punctuation to Williams as a performer and a person:
“It’s a blessing for me to see people being blessed by the voice that God gave me.”
You can follow Keith Williams Jr. on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/keithwilliamsjrsings/.