Thirty years ago today, the hardest ticket to come by was for, arguably, the greatest patriotic pep rally this military town — or any other, frankly — has ever seen.
The act of the evening? None other than pop and R&B superstar Whitney Houston.
Some 3,100 tickets were available for the “Welcome Home Heroes” concert but were only up for grabs by Navy, Army and Air Force members. The concert was Houston’s idea to honor troops returning from Desert Storm.
For those not lucky enough to snag one, the concert was broadcast in full by HBO — which was Houston’s first-ever televised concert — and made available to more than 53 million households for free.
Houston, who was just 27 at the time, dazzled the troops and their families for 96 minutes, opening her spirited set with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and wrapping up the encore with another patriotic classic, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Played between songs were clips of recent homecomings, well wishes from celebrities, and videos of Houston taking a jet over the ocean. One of the Navy’s ships played as members of the armed forces cheered and celebrated the war’s end.
Houston tore through some of her biggest hits, including “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”, “How Will I Know” and “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” but it’s clear from concert footage those lucky enough to find a seat underneath that hangar were riding high from Houston’s take on the national anthem.
Three decades later, you’d still be hard-pressed to find a more pride-instilling rendition than Houston’s tribute to the troops.
See the original Virginia Pilot article posted on that day:
Whitney whips up war vets
Originally published April 1, 1991 by Cynthia Hanson and Mal Vincent, Staff writers
It had all the trappings of a patriotic pep rally, complete with flags, banners and cheers of “We won the war!”
It had all the trappings of a major media event, complete with 15 Home Box Office cameras to broadcast the show to a cable audience of 53 million nationwide.
But mostly, the feeling at Norfolk Naval Air Station on Sunday was one of celebration.
In her first concert in three years, Whitney Houston, 27, came to Hampton Roads to perform for Norfolk-based Operation Desert Storm personnel and their families.
Lt. Peter C. Gribble, who is stationed on the guided-missile cruiser Biddle, recalled that only a few weeks ago, “we all wondered what the people back home were thinking.”
“I don’t wonder anymore,” he said, peering at the flags and HBO cameras in what usually is an airplane hangar.
A few minutes past 9 p.m., Houston strode to the microphone and unleashed her vocal acrobatics in “The Star-Spangled Banner,’’ a song that Susan Ackley of Virginia Beach couldn’t wait to hear.
“The way she sang it at the Super Bowl gave me chills,” Ackley said before the concert. Her husband, Robert, an intelligence officer aboard the amphibious assault ship Nassau, is still deployed to the Middle East. “I like her music from way back,” she said, “but this one is my favorite.”
As Houston belted out the national anthem, a hush spread over the audience of 3,200 that included many awestruck children and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
One of 9,000 military personnel who touched home soil just last week, Gribble clasped the hand of his wife, Gaby, and said: “I think it’s a great idea to celebrate this way, and I’m just proud that the telecast is from Norfolk, because Norfolk was as important as anywhere else in this war.”
John Villery, who had been in the Red Sea aboard the guided-missile cruiser Thomas S. Gates, echoed the sentiment.
“I hadn’t heard Whitney Houston’s version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ until tonight,” Villery said. “She brings something new to it. She’s very emotional.”
The music remained upbeat after the opening, although Houston was at her best crooning ballads that required her to stand in place rather than the high-energy songs that begged for rhythm. Houston is the rare pop singer who can make a simple pivot-turn appear as intricate as a triple pirouette.
For her beauty in a scarlet evening gown, the men in the audience were enthralled.
“She’s fantastic, and she wants me!” Gerald Jones, 19, yelled from the back of the makeshift arena, as Houston introduced a medley of love songs.
A technician on the Emory S. Land, a submarine tender, Jones got his ticket from a friend who couldn’t attend the concert.
“I’m such a big fan,” he said, as his companions chuckled. “I’m so glad I got to be here.”
Despite the overwhelming jubilation, many concertgoers remained in an expectant mood.
“Good luck, Capt. Perrotta, USS Normandy,” one sign read. It was waved by his daughter Ashley in the hope that the telecast would reach the Normandy, which is still in the Red Sea. “I just hope they don’t forget the ones who are still over there,” she said.
Karen Wellman, whose husband, Gordon, is stationed on the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, said the concert would “help us keep going until their homecoming.”
“We’re only halfway through the cruise, and we really needed this to pick up our spirits,” Wellman said.
One military wife was more succinct. “My husband will be back on the 17th,” she yelled. “And then, baby, we’ll make our own music.”
Before air time, Norfolk comedian Scott R. Brown solicited cheers from each branch of the service.
The Marines made a respectable showing, as did the Army and the Air Force. But the rafters shook when it was the Navy’s turn.
“I know many of you just got back home Thursday,” Brown said in his opening remarks. “How many went right to the beach?” Only a few quiet giggles.
“Perhaps we could change the words of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ a little and have it sung, ‘Hussein, did you see, how we kicked butt on thee?’ ” Brown suggested to the amused crowd.
The pre-concert show offered a bonanza of favorable publicity for the Navy and Hampton Roads.
Interspersed with video clips of several recent homecomings were features on the Navy, its history in Hampton Roads and the region.
And for the nitpickers of Southern history, HBO got its facts straight. Referring to the Battle of the Ironclads in the Civil War, the announcer identified the ships as the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, rather than the Merrimack as Yankees might prefer.
© 2021 The Virginian-Pilot
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