Arts & Culture

Super Southern Halftimes

Justin Timberlake’s got some stiff competition this weekend in the annals of Southern Super Bowl halftime shows

Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform during halftime of Super Bowl XLII, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008, in Glendale, Arizona.

It seems impossibly quaint now, but before Michael Jackson popped out onto a stage at the 1993 Super Bowl, halftimes were “themed” shows that featured marching bands, drill teams, and counter-countercultural relics Up With People. Or they were simply 15-minute bathroom breaks. Today, of course, the halftime show is a spectacle that generates as much chatter as the game itself. This year Tennessee-born-and-raised superstar Justin Timberlake returns for the first time since his infamous wardrobe malfunction incident with Janet Jackson in 2004, and who even remembers the quarterbacks of that game? (Joking! Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme.) Here are seven Southern moments from the history of Super Bowl halftime shows that are memorable for all the right reasons—well, mostly.

Ella Fitzgerald Serenades Super Bowl VI (1972)

The Queen of Jazz stands out as the first superstar, not to mention the first African-American woman, to headline a halftime. The Virginia-born legend performed a tribute to her buddy and long-time collaborator Louis Armstrong, who had died six months earlier. Backed by trumpeter and bandleader Al Hirt, Fitzgerald crooned “Mack the Knife,” a song Armstrong had introduced into the jazz lexicon. Fitzgerald had famously recorded the song in Berlin, improvising when she forgot the original lyrics, an impressive feat of originality that netted her three Grammys. (The next year, though, halftime swung back to marching bands.)

Chubby Checker is “Something Grand” in Super Bowl XXII (1988)

In a silver lamé shirt, South Carolina native Chubby Checker gamely pranced atop a stage created to look like a 45 single on a record-player (remember those?) while changing up the lyrics of his biggest hit to “The Super Bowl Twist” and leading fans in a call-and-response “Hey-hey-hey-hey.” Eighty-eight grand pianos were arranged on either end of the field; 44 Rockettes tap-danced on oversize piano keys; and hundreds of cheerleaders clad in football jerseys and hot pants bopped like manic Jazzercizers. Almost a parody of 1980s excess, “Something Grand” was corny fun.

Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, and the Judds Celebrate Country, Super Bowl  XXVIII (1994)

In the one halftime devoted entirely to country music—Grand Bowl Opry, as some wags called it—Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, and the Judds joined Travis Tritt, sporting a blue fringed leather jacket, in a jubilant celebration of hits that holds up well, even today. Wynonna Judd and her mother, Naomi, led an eclectic crew of special guests in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome for the grand finale “Love Can Build a Bridge,” a heartfelt rendition that included other Southern stars like sister Ashley (on crutches!), Charlie Daniels, and the Georgia Satellites, as well as Stevie Wonder, Joe Namath, and a very young future Frodo Elijah Wood. Wait, what? Watch for yourself.

James Brown and ZZ Top in the Blues Brothers Bash Super Bowl XXXI (1997)

Well, someone thought this was a good idea—maybe because the Super Bowl was in New Orleans? The Blues Brothers (with Jim Belushi replacing brother John, who died in 1982) opened the show surrounded by hundreds of lookalikes. James Brown, in a full-length, gold-trimmed red tuxedo, took the stage to bellow “I Feel Good!” while straining to execute a mid-song jump. The Texas blues rockers ZZ Top made little effort to coordinate their lip-syncing to the lyrics of “Tush” and “Legs,” while motorcycles circled the stage and leotard-and-leopard-print dancers kicked. Everyone does appear to enjoy performing the frenetic finale, “Gimme Some Lovin’” (maybe relieved it was over?), but this one routinely turns up on many worst halftime shows ever lists. Sorry, guys.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Rock the House at Super Bowl XLII (2008)

In the aftermath of the Timberlake/Jackson incident in 2004, halftime producers turned to the simple strategy of rock-solid superstars singing straight-ahead hits—and eventually invited Florida-born Tom Petty. Amid fireworks and a streaking lightshow, the understated and gravel-voiced Petty, recently reunited with the Heartbreakers, reliably delivered a Southern-inflected arena-rock show. Their assured renditions of indelible hits— “American Girl,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” —were so polished that the show was nominated for an Emmy.

Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child Light Up Super Bowl XLVII (2013)

In what has been called one of the best halftime performances ever, the fierce Texan R&B pop diva owned the show from its atmospheric fire-halo-lit entrance to the strobe-lit climax. Backed by a female band and dozens of dare-ya dancers, Beyoncé belted, crooned, sashayed in knee-high black stilettos, and swayed that hair as she ran through a medley of her hits, including “Run the World (Girls)” and “Halo.” Destiny’s Child mates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams joined in for “Bootylicious,” though their microphones were lower and their necklines higher than those of the group’s commanding frontwoman.

Missy Elliot’s Memorable Cameo and Left Shark! in Super Bowl XLIX (2015)

This show was supposed to be all about Katy Perry. But when the perennially perky pop star needed a special guest to take the stage while she got strapped into a harness for her flying grand finale, Perry chose one of her musical idols: Missy Elliott. Though the Virginia-born hip-hop queen hadn’t released an album in 10 years, she swaggered through a compilation of hits with ease and energy that thrilled her established fans and gained her some new ones. But the surprise hit of Perry’s Super Fest was the famously out-of-step dancer Left Shark, who was later revealed to be Houston native Bryan Gaw. To date, it’s the most-watched halftime show in NFL history. Can Justin Timberlake beat it?