O Say, Can You Sing? Boy, 10, Wins National Anthem Contest

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

So last night's "Star-Spangled Sing-Off" wasn't "American Idol."

Sure, dozens of amateur singers belted out 30-second versions of their favorite songs in hopes of gaining the chance to perform in front of a stadium full of baseball fans. But there was no snooty judge with a British accent, no snide commentary about a talent void -- there wasn't even a William Hung wannabe offering off-key antics.

In fact, most of the 59 people who entered the Washington Nationals' third annual contest to sing the national anthem at a home game sang pretty well. Some had raw talent, and a few were just raw.

In the end, a 10-year-old Waldorf boy in a Gilbert Arenas jersey won over a crowd of more than 100 without showing any fear.

"As soon as I get up there, I'm not nervous. I love to sing, and I want to be a gospel singer," Christian Stewart said after the first round, in which he performed a 30-second rendition of the gospel song "Because of Who You Are." The sixth-grader will perform at a yet-to-be-determined game this season.

The contest, held at ESPN Zone in Northwest Washington, offered Nationals entertainment director Tom Davis a way to connect with local talent. As one of three judges last night, Davis declined to offer too many glimpses into what makes for a winning performance. But performers have to sing the anthem in a minute and a half. "That 90 seconds is really a killer for a lot of people," Davis said. "We want to make it a positive experience here. It takes guts to get up on that stage."

Stevie Wonder led the list of favored artists, and Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" was a crowd favorite. No one ribbed mediocre performances, and only occasionally did members of the wait staff hold an ear in discomfort. "We have some future stars in here," said judge Angela Calo, the Nationals' entertainment coordinator.

"The competition is really, really tight," said contestant Nicole Littlejohn, 27, a contractor for the FBI. After singing "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," the District native applauded the acts that followed her.

In the second round, the six finalists each sang the national anthem.

Marvin Stewart, Christian's father, said his son's voice is a gift from God. The boy, a three-year member of a youth choir, had never sung the national anthem in public, his father said. After the contest, Christian was mobbed by fellow singers wanting to take photos with him.

And thus was launched another American idol. Sort of.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company