When the Rangers take the ice for their home opener on Saturday night, there will be plenty of new faces in uniform; eight of the twenty players who dressed for their final postseason game last year are now elsewhere. But one face on the Garden ice will be familiar: that of national-anthem singer John Amirante. The Bronx-born Amirante, known for encouraging the crowd to whoop it up while he sings, first performed the anthem on Garden ice in October of 1980, and has also sung for the Knicks and Yankees, among others. Today, at 74, Amirante still sings at approximately half of the Rangers’ home games. He spoke with the Sports Section about the ‘94 Cup finals, harmonizing with the Knicks, and singing at George Steinbrenner’s birthday party.
How did you get the job singing the anthem at the Garden?
Well, my very first time was, believe it or not, for the New York Mets, back in, I’d say, about 1979. And I got such a kick out of singing there that I decided to get in touch with the Garden. They asked if I had a tape, so I sent it in and asked if I could do a Rangers game, because I was a die-hard Rangers fan. To this day I still am. And they contacted me three days later and they gave me three Knickerbocker games and three Ranger games. I was ecstatic. And after that, it just took off.
Is it true the Devils tried to lure you across the Hudson?
Yes, they did. They made a nice offer, too, but I didn’t want to be stuck in the Meadowlands. I said, ‘I gotta stay where my faith is, and that’s with the Rangers.’ I wanted to be in the world’s most famous arena, MSG, with my favorite team, so I passed up that opportunity, although I was their very first singer when they started because I had worked for [late Devils owner] John McMullen.
You used to sing the anthem for the Yankees, too.
I used to share it with Robert Merrill, from about ‘81 or ‘82 to 1985. McMullen was limited partner of the Yankees, and he arranged for me to sing at George Steinbrenner’s birthday party in 1978. And I went up there with a band and I entertained, and we had a four-hour gig that lasted seven hours, and it was very exciting, because at that time the Yankees were fourteen games out of first place. And I had come up with a novelty song in which I predicted the Yankees were going to win the whole thing, which they did, in ‘78. Well, to make a long story short, when I was singing at the Garden, at a hockey game, George Steinbrenner happened to be there and I went over and said hello. He looked at me and he says, ‘I remember you, John, you sang at my birthday party.’ He says, ‘You know, you did a good job out there.’ I said, ‘Well you know, George, I could sing just as easy on the grass as I do on the ice.’ And he started to laugh. I couldn’t believe I got him to laugh.
Sam Rosen said at the time that he’d never heard the Garden so loud as when you sang the anthem prior to game seven of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals. What do you remember about that?
I couldn’t hear myself, the Garden was so loud. It was absolutely fantastic. I felt like I was ten feet off the ice. And I had chills going through my body, and the fans were just screaming and chanting. I loved every minute of it. And to this day, I can remember specifically how it was. It’s a memory I’ll never forget. And then the parade that followed, I was on a float, and the fans were singing the anthem to me as I went up Broadway. It was great.
You encourage the crowd to cheer while you’re singing.
Yeah, I wave my arm. That’s to get the fans really into it at the end. I love it. I really do. I want them to be a part of it. I want them to be in it. Because I’m singing for them as well as for the team.
At Wayne Gretzky’s last NHL game in 1999, you changed the lyric to “O’er the land of Wayne Gretzky, and the home of the brave.” Whose idea was that?
Well, the reason I had done it is because they had a Canadian singer [Bryan Adams] sing the Canadian anthem before me, and he [changed a lyric to mention Gretzky’s name]. So I said, he can’t be one up on me. I had to do something, and on the spur of the moment it just came to my brain. The place went bananas. I thought that was pretty cool on my part. Like I said, it wasn’t planned or anything. I’m sure the guy who sang the Canadian anthem had it planned.
I was reading one of the Rangers’ beat writers mention that he’s heard you warming up in the bathroom before the game. Is that your regular routine?
Yeah, I always go up and down some scales in the bathroom. That’s up in the press room and all the writers are up there, especially Larry Brooks. He’s there very early. I go in there, and I vocalize a little bit. When I sang for the Knicks, I would go into their locker room and go into their shower area and do it, and I used to get a charge out of some of the Knicks players. They’d come in there and start vocalizing with me. It was pretty funny. Great bunch of guys, these athletes there.
Which Knicks would do that?
Charles Oakley. He was the one who used to get the biggest kick out of me vocalizing in the bathroom.