A Behind-the-Scenes Job With Historic Resonance

On Inauguration Day, U.S. Navy musician Courtney Williams will give his sonorous bass voice a workout as announcer for the ceremony.
On Inauguration Day, U.S. Navy musician Courtney Williams will give his sonorous bass voice a workout as announcer for the ceremony. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009

Just before noon tomorrow, a magisterial voice -- rich and befitting the moment -- will utter to the multitude spread before the Capitol the words: "Ladies and gentlemen, the president-elect of the United States . . . Barack H. Obama."

There will be a careful pause between "states" and "Obama." The B's in the president-elect's name will be perfectly enunciated. The words will be spoken as if from a patriarch, heard from on high, and broadcast across the nation.

No one in the throng will be able to see the man standing at a microphone in an open Capitol doorway. The man himself, wearing a headset filled with background chatter, might be unable to hear the crowd's roar as his introduction echoes across the Mall.

But his words will become part of history.

The disembodied "voice of God" for Tuesday's swearing-in ceremony, one of the deepest voices in the vocal spectrum -- a second bass -- flavored with faintest hint of Tennessee, belongs to Navy Musician 1st Class Courtney Williams, 33, a postal carrier's son from Greenbrier, Tenn.

Gifted with a deep, "Ol' Man River"-type singing voice, he is normally the official concert narrator for the 99-piece U.S. Navy Band. It is a behind-the-scenes job in which he gives oral program notes at musical performances, wreath-laying ceremonies, change of command ceremonies, arrival ceremonies, balls and retirements.

He's a former high school band geek with a yen for country music, whose performance preparation usually includes a cup of coffee and a Marlboro Light.

Williams has never announced an inauguration. He said he believes he got the assignment because his work was known to military officials who helped plan the inaugural ceremonies. "I was thrilled," he said.

The job requires a tone of authority, but not command; formality, with a touch of drama. He must inject a spark of electricity into his "LAY-dees and GEN-tel-mun . . . " without sounding like a game show host.

"You want the emphasis in the right places," he said. "You want to build excitement."

And you dare not mess up. Mainly, he will be introducing people: members of Congress, dignitaries, present and former high-ranking government officials. All names must be pronounced correctly, and there are about 30 introductions.

He will start about 10 a.m., introducing the San Francisco Boys and Girls choruses, and will announce Obama about 90 minutes later. The president-elect will be sworn in moments afterward.

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