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Jim Cornelison’s popularity off the charts after Bears performances

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Jim Cornelison focused on the flag, his voice booming above the din at a sold-out United Center and belting out an undoubtedly alpha rendition of ‘‘The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In his third season as the Blackhawks’ national anthem singer, Cornelison has performed the anthem at the UC 200-plus times and another 100 occasions elsewhere.

Only Tuesday was different.

The announced attendance was 21,247 — the team’s 131st consecutive capacity crowd — yet, in Cornelison’s mind, it was an audience of one.

Standing four feet to his right was his mother, Kathryn, tears welling up around her reddened eyes, as she saluted and gazed upon the flag that his eyes were locked in on.

“I was nervous because I kept wondering how my mom was reacting,” Jim said. “Once I got going, I just couldn’t look at her.”

When she headed up to a private suite about 15 minutes later, Kathryn was still quivering, overwhelmed during the two minutes when the fans cheered throughout her son’s performance and even ramped up the noise when she was pictured on the big screen above the rink, part of a salute for her military service.

“Anytime I hear the anthem, I feel emotional,” she said. “But when it’s my son singing it, I’m even more so.”

After Jim nailed his final note, which lasted about 12 seconds, Kathryn wanted to walk over to her son and give him a hug.

“But I didn’t want to embarrass him,” she said.

Jim, who is well-spoken, can’t explain what races through his mind when he sings the anthem and why people are so moved by his version. He isn’t a secret or surprise to anyone who has attended a Hawks game. His profile has risen during the last two postseasons, including the Stanley Cup championship. But the response has been even more overwhelming since he performed the anthem in the Bears’ two playoff games, both of which were nationally televised. The YouTube clip of his performance before the divisional playoff against the Seattle Seahawks exceeded 1 million hits.

“It’s humbling,” Jim said. “I go out and do my job, and they respond to it so strongly.”

“In Vancouver, the crowd sings for half the [Canadian anthem], then the guy will finish. In Philly, they sing ‘God Bless America.’ But I don’t think anything really compares to here, to be honest with you. It’s exciting, especially when the crowd really gets into it. If a player said it didn’t fire them up, they’d be lying.” — Hawks winger Patrick Kane

Jim’s parents were lovers of music, his father, Roy, quite gifted on the piano and accordion.

“When he would play,” Jim recalled, “it was huge in my mind.”

Sometimes, when Kathryn visited nursing homes, her four children would accompany her and sing hymns to the patients. On long rides in the car, she was also known for making up silly songs.

In high school, Jim played in a marching band, and he favored groups like Van Halen and AC/DC .  .  . until he discovered Beethoven.

“First time I heard Moonlight Sonata, I just went through the wall,” he said. “I was kind of head-banging, like I would ‘Eruption’ by Van Halen.

“It was a real discovery.”

Then he delved into Mozart and other classical icons, all of whom tapped his passion for music.

“Modern music is four instruments, and it’s a three-minute song, and most of it is pretty repetitive,” he said. “Those [classical] songs are developed, and there’s a frenetic energy and a depth that goes beyond the melody and a bass line.”

Jim played the piano while he worked toward degrees in music and psychology at Seattle Pacific University. But toward the end of his freshman year, the conductor of a local symphony questioned his musical future.

“ ‘How serious are you about music?’ ” Jim recalled him asking. “I said, ‘I think it’s what I want to do.’

“He said, ‘You’re not a very good pianist. But, if you want to do it, you need to study voice.’ ”

Then Jim earned scholarship after scholarship, eventually landing a coveted spot in the Lyric Opera’s Apprenticeship program. He performed nationally and internationally with luminaries like Placido Domingo and Zubin Mehta.

Then, after overcoming an issue with his voice, Jim reached a crossroads.

His children needed him, and he couldn’t justify leaving Chicago for months at a time, only to return — in some instances — for only a few days.

“You’ve got to make choices in life,” he said. “I love my kids very much, and they [didn’t] ask to be brought into the world.

“So, for me, holding the family together was what I was trying to do.”

“This brought tears to my eyes. God I love my country.” — Commenter on a YouTube video

Jim started selling real estate, scaling back on his performances until he stopped altogether around 2005. Although he and his wife, Beckie, divorced, Jim concentrated on his children, Elizabeth and James, coaching both in basketball and attending as many of their activities as he could.

But his son, who loves music and plays the guitar, repeatedly asked him why he didn’t sing the anthem anymore — which he’d done off and on from 1996 to 2001 — at Hawks games.

“You know,” Jim told James, “I’d like to do this again.”

So Jim reached out to the Hawks. He was back in the rotation in 2007 and hired full-time in 2008. It was among the many decisions made by new owner Rocky Wirtz and his leadership team to overhaul the franchise.

“It was purely based on Jim’s performance,” said Jay Blunk, the team’s executive vice president. “As we were sorting through what we had to work with, one of the things we recognized is how special [the anthem] was and how unique it was to the Blackhawks.

“Ever since then, Jim is counted on to ignite the rocket every night.”

The anthem is sacred to the Cornelisons. Kathryn, 88, was an Army nurse, and Roy was an anti-aircraft artillery gunner in World War II.

“It’s such a beautiful song, and it says so much,” Kathryn said. “When I was in the Army, everybody was patriotic, and everyone was pulling for you. But in the last few wars, it’s different.”

More than anything, Jim wants his anthem to unite people.

“I believe America is a great country,” he said. “There’s so much divisiveness, the anthem is perfect to show joy and pride in who we are.”

“It’s one of the trademarks of the building. It’s amazing how loud it gets during that, and it’s one of the things you look forward to when you come play here. It’s a manly version — loud and boisterous. It definitely raises the hair on your neck.” — Wild winger Eric Nystrom

Goalkeeper Marty Turco has played more than a decade in the NHL, and he has heard a lot of anthem singers. But months into his tenure with the Hawks, Turco still looks forward to the tradition before the puck drops at the United Center.

“There’s nothing that compares to when the organ strikes, and Jim belts out the anthem,” Turco said. “I don’t know. For being around [the league] this long, and having been here half a season, I haven’t taken it for granted yet.

“Every time he gets up there, and his chest puffs up, I get excited.”

And so do the fans.

They get into a frenzy, some singing, some screaming, others just quietly standing with a hand over their heart.

Jim remembered the lean days when the Hawks didn’t sell out, and he believes his rendition responds to the crowd.

“I feel it’s certainly evolved, over time,” he said. ‘‘The amount of energy and the fan reaction, it makes the anthem a much more exciting event. The fans are what makes it unique.”

Many of them would disagree — and they’re not shy about telling him.

He has several Facebook fan pages, and he conducted 17 interviews last week.

At a lunch appointment on Monday, Jim was recognized twice, and he has been told he’s a gift from God and a national treasure.

“A national treasure? I get up and sing the anthem,” he said. “It makes you take seriously what you’re doing.”

He’s not sure what his future holds, but he’s also not anxious. For now, he’s excited about his job with the Hawks and a budding relationship with the USO, a nonprofit that aims to lift “the spirits of America’s troops and their families.”

The Hawks have a partnership with the USO, which, among other things, selects the two servicemen — one active and one retired — to be honored during the national anthem. Jim, though, doesn’t want to limit himself to just one song. He did, after all, perform in countless productions throughout the world.

“I look at singing the anthem for the Blackhawks as a platform,” Jim said, “and I have to figure out what those opportunities are.

“Music has always been meaningful to me, but I want to do something else that’s meaningful to society with this platform I have.”

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