John Winfrey never had a chance. His six older siblings had found a way around the music lessons their mother so desired for them, but not John.
“She tried to teach every one of us, so when she got to me she was bound and determined,” said Winfrey. “I couldn’t go outside. It’s summertime and my friends are saying ‘John come out and play’ and I couldn’t until I had my piano lessons.”
Monday afternoon, five hours before the Reds and Angels began the baseball season with a 13-inning marathon that ended in a 3-1 Los Angeles victory, John Winfrey welcomed the Great American Ball Park crowd of 43,168 with his rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner”. For the past decade, fans in Cincinnati have grown accustomed to seeing Winfrey standing in front of them in his Cincinnati Fire Department uniform, delivering the national anthem or “God Bless America.”
There’s nothing fancy to his versions of the songs, which is one of the reasons why he is at the top of the list when people come looking for a singer.
John Winfrey used to talk to his mother about singing the national anthem on Opening Day. Bertha Dixon passed away last May at the age of 85. She didn’t get to see her son sing the special song on one of the most special days in Cincinnati for the first time but without her it would have never have happened.
“It was weird not to have her here,” said Winfrey, 48. “We would talk and she would listen. This year makes it even more special. It’s my first opportunity with something me and my mom used to talk about all of the time.”
Not just anyone gets to sing the national anthem at a Bengals or Reds game, let alone on the 137th Opening Day in Reds’ history. There is a lot of planning that goes into coordinating such an event; the Reds began right after the first of January. Monday also happened to be the 160th anniversary of the founding of the Cincinnati Fire Department, so having Winfrey was a no-brainer.
Winfrey stood at home plate, facing center field and in between managers Mike Scioscia of the Angels and Dusty Baker of the Reds, two guys who have heard their fair share of anthems. With a large American flag unfurled and stretching from left-center to right-center, Winfrey sang.
“That was inspirational,” said Scioscia. “It was quite an opening ceremony for Opening Day. It was well done, fun to be part of it and that firefighter, boy, he just sang his heart out. What a talent.”
Scioscia stopped Winfrey, who was exiting the field through the Angels’ dugout, to tell him how much he appreciated the performance.
Baker gave Winfrey a nod of approval at the song’s end.
“He doesn’t try to change the song,” said Baker. “He can sing and he’s very pleasant about how he presents it. To me, that’s something I could never do. I’d rather be in a room full of snakes than do that national anthem in front of that many people.”
Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo plays guitar and sings. Taking the ball for a first pitch is no problem. Singing that first pitch of the national anthem is another story.
“The anthem is hard to do because it has such a wide range of notes in it. I don’t think I want to do it and don’t think I ever will because it’s definitely a challenge,” said Arroyo. “It takes a really clean voice. There aren’t a lot of guys in rock-n-roll who are going to sound good singing the national anthem. Every time I hear a guy do it really well, it’s definitely impressive.”
Winfrey arrived at GABP 90 minutes before he was to perform. Every venue is different. The atmosphere and tenor of each event and performance is different. Winfrey said he learned some time ago not to take his performances for granted.
A Cincinnati native, Winfrey became a firefighter in 1990. He worked with Engine 17 in the city’s lower Price Hill neighborhood. He spent time with Engine 9 in Avondale and Engine 31 in Oakley. For the last 10 years or so he’s worked in the department’s fire prevention unit.
All that time he continued to hone his musical talents, the same talents his mother first nurtured. Winfrey’s father died when John was young. His mother got remarried when John was 16. It just so happened that her new husband was a minister and a musician.
“I would come home from football practice and, after I finished my homework, I had to come downstairs and sing,” said Winfrey. “When I started taking voice my mom would say ‘You can take voice lessons all you want but you’re still going to sing hymns.’ I’d come home and she’d be on the piano, he’d be on the organ and we’d be singing our hymns.”
He still plays piano and organ as well as sings at Corinthian Baptist Church in Avondale, where he and his wife of nearly 12 years Carla are members, as well as at Calvary Baptist Church in Walnut Hills.
John and Carla were introduced at church by friend of hers whose husband is a firefighter.
“Just hearing him sing at church, he just has a beautiful voice,” said Carla Winfrey. “The way you see him, this is John. He’s not fake at all. This is John.”
John Winfrey will critique himself, although he doesn’t like to listen to himself sing. He values the judgment and words he gets from Carla. He also values the thoughts from his daughter Amberly, a music major at Northern Kentucky University.
“I’ll listen,” said Winfrey. “Sometimes.”
Winfrey said he felt good about Monday’s performance. He’s had, on a rare occasion, that performance he knows stands out. He had one a couple of years ago with the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium when “It just seemed like I could sing for days,” he said.
The national anthem, for Winfrey, isn’t about doing too much.
“A lot of people come up to me and say ‘Thank you’ for singing it the way it is. I have voice teachers who say sing the anthem the way it is. It’s the anthem,” said Winfrey. “How anybody chooses to do it, I respect that. I could embellish the song but it’s the anthem. I didn’t write it. For me it’s either picking fast or slow, or holding a note longer. That’s it. Straight up.”