Originally written by Minnesota Wild beat writer Michael Russo for the Star Tribune on May 5, 2015:
“The Star-Spangled Banner” has extra meaning for James Bohn, which explains why the Wild’s anthem singer has belted his 1-minute, 15-second version with such gusto and passion for five seasons now.
Drafted into the Army in 1968, Bohn is a combat veteran who served with the First Infantry Division in Vietnam.
“I don’t think I’m particularly patriotic,” Bohn said. “I’m not God and country and all that stuff, but I do have one distinct memory. When you’re in the service training and on base, before almost anything, they play the national anthem.
“I actually remember going to a movie in basic training and the anthem came on. I started crying. And it was right out of the blue. I have no idea why, but I’ll never forget it.”
A native of River Falls, Wisconsin, Bohn, 66, served two years in the military, returned from overseas, and after getting his feet back on the ground, he started singing again. Bohn attended the University of Minnesota, then the Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.
After graduating, he began singing in St. Louis, San Francisco, Chicago, Milwaukee and the Minnesota opera. He did a year of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” and has sung all over the world, including Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, where he chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish.
“I don’t ever remember not singing and performing,” Bohn said. “But I didn’t like singing out-of-town. I was married at the time, and I didn’t love living in a hotel for a month or two at a time. And my wife wasn’t too crazy about it either.”
Bohn began designing and remodeling kitchens and bathrooms and finishing basements so he could pay his rent and keep singing. Today, he runs his own business, SingularDesign, and is the baritone soloist at Plymouth Congregational Church.
In the summer of 2010 — a day after the Lady Gaga concert, Bohn recalls — one of the Wild interns had been charged with putting together an audition of potential anthem singers. Somebody — he doesn’t know who — recommended Bohn to the Wild.
The team brought in about a half-dozen other baritones. All were about a third Bohn’s age, and the Wild had them in separate rooms off the Zamboni tunnel.
Bohn was the last to sing, and he heard them all.
“And these guys were good. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get the job,” Bohn said.
Bohn walked into the lower bowl. It was surreal. The Jumbotron was down on the concrete. The arena was completely dark with the exception of one spotlight illuminating a microphone on a stand.
Bohn heard a disembodied voice giving him instructions, like sing faster, slower, louder, quieter. He gave it his all, answered some questions, explained his life story and got the job.
While he only attended a few North Stars games, Bohn is now a Wild die-hard. He’s not as famous as his tuxedoed Blackhawks counterpart, Jim Cornelison, so popular in Chicago that he does endorsements, such as Lexus commercials.
In Chicago, fans cheer throughout the anthem, a tradition that began at the 1991 All-Star Game during the Gulf War.
“When I sang at my first Blackhawks vs. Wild game at Xcel, fans started cheering, and I thought, ‘Isn’t that nice?’ ” Bohn said, laughing. “As I sang, they kept getting louder and louder. I didn’t understand why. I do now.”
The goateed Bohn has developed his own niche, always wearing a suit and tie or a turtleneck, and has grown an appreciation of what the anthem means to so many people.
“When you walk out there and start singing, it’s like you’re on another planet,” Bohn said. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. You can’t really hear anything but yourself. But when you get to the point where you feel you’re singing with the crowd rather than the other way around, that’s the best.
“At my age, how often can you hold forth in front of 18,000 captivated, screaming people? I think about that every time I go out there: ‘This is really cool.’ ”